Ep. 2: 'The best version of you'
The following is an excerpt from the script to Episode 2 of Season 2. Click on the embed above to listen to the full episode, or you can subscribe to Razed Sports on your favorite podcast app.
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Drafted as a 24-year-old, Cole Uvila knew he had to start his professional baseball career well to have a chance to stick around. Most pro players his age already had at least a couple of seasons under their belt and since the Texas Rangers had invested only a $1,000 signing bonus in him and his surgically repaired right arm, they probably weren’t going to have a ton of patience – Cole would get a chance, a legitimate chance. But he knew his leash wouldn’t be particularly long.
The scout who helped him, and who we heard from in Episode 1, Derrick Tucker, had been blunt with Cole. He made it clear that the odds were stacked against him. Here’s Derrick, again:
TUCKER: “It wasn't an easy guy to take. Obviously he was you know 24, 25 years old around the draft time, with one surgery already and he was at a small NAIA school. On paper that does not add up well at all. So it was like a lot of the intangibles that were like 'hey man if we're gonna send you out' -- and this is a conversation that we had with Cole -- 'you're gonna be fighting an uphill battle from Day 1. Like you're gonna be the last guy picked, you're gonna be the last guy on the totem pole and every time out it's gonna have to be basically like you're pitching for your life in baseball.'”
Then Derrick adds a postscript … as to why he urged the Rangers to take him.
TUCKER: “I did believe that he would do that and I have no problem at all like endorsing my name with him at all.”
Pitching for your life in baseball. That’s what Cole was facing from the start. It sounds daunting, but he was ready, and he was confident that he had the will and the talent to make the most of his chance. He would prove himself, despite being drafted in the 40th round.
COLE: “I think that just overall the Rangers kind of talk about, once we draft you, everyone is a first rounder. And everyone is viewed the same and with the bonus money and the signing bonus stuff there are some guys who get a little bit more time, but you know they deserve that. And one thing that the strength coach said to all of us in one of our first meetings when we all got to Arizona right after we got drafted is he said 'not everyone is going to get an equal chance, but everyone is going to get a fair chance.' And I believe that to be true, and that's really all that I wanted.”
Cole’s first taste of pro ball went well — drafted in June and sent to Spokane of the Short-season A Northwest League, he quite frankly dominated. Featuring a mid-90s fastball complemented with a slider and changeup, Cole struck out 48 batters in 31.2 innings, producing an ERA of 1.42. He passed his first test, but it was just the beginning.
So as Cole prepped for the 2019 season, he figured the Rangers would be aggressive in challenging him – that’s what he wished for, in fact. He guessed he would be sent to one of two places, both of them in North Carolina – the Hickory Crawdads or the Down East Wood Ducks. Hickory is a full-season Class A team in the South Atlantic League. Down East, located in Kinston, is about 260 miles East of Hickory and even further up the talent ladder – it’s an advanced-A team in the Carolina League and it’s players are a little bit more seasoned, a little bit more wise to the ins and outs of pro baseball.
But before Cole found out where he’d go, he had to go to Surprise, Arizona, to participate in the Rangers’ minor league spring training camp. He had mixed results there. But he came away viewing it as a great experience.
COLE UVILA: “It was cool you know. Spring training kind of, was up and down. I had some bad outings, some good outings, kind of you know there was some indication that I was probably headed to Hickory, which was the next level above Spokane, where I was out in 2018.”
Cole had already showed in Spokane that he had a top-notch fastball -- not only thrown hard, but with plenty of backspin, resisting gravity, almost appearing, to hitters, to rise. When the young batters of the Northwest League geared up to try to hit it, he’d leave them flailing at his offspeed pitches. But Rangers coaches told him that his other pitches were not good enough. Not consistent enough. He had a slider that he threw in the mid-80s, it comes in looking like a fastball, but then breaks away from right-handed hitters, in to lefties. He occasionally threw a curveball in the high 70s, a looping pitch that breaks from 12 to 6, if you’re looking at the face of a clock. And he had a changeup, a deceptive pitch that has the look of a fastball, only coming in about 10 miles per hour slower, messing with the hitter’s timing.
But he lacked sharpness and command of those pitches and the Rangers wanted to see him not only improve them, but to control them better before advancing him too far within their system. So because of all this, they decided to send him to Hickory, with the promise that if he showed them the results they wanted to see, they’d move him up.
COLE UVILA: “And you know I went there and the pitching coach kind of sat me down, was like ‘breaking ball development is what we're going to focus on and I think if you start laying in a consistent breaking ball you can get out of here pretty quick.’”
Cole liked the sound of “pretty quick,” so he joined the Hickory Crawdads with confidence. He’d accepted the challenge from Tucker and from the Rangers, and he was ready to show them as much. He’d fine-tune his breaking pitches and prepare to hold them to their word. That was the plan. He was confident and ready to take on Hickory. Privately, Cole decided his goal was to be promoted to Down East by the All-Star break … in mid-June. Just entering his first full season as a pro, he could feel the clock ticking, and wanted to press the issue.
COLE: “It was laid out to me really well by my area scout when I got drafted. He said 'listen. you're a 24-year-old, 40th-round pick that signed for $1,000. You have to be the best version of you every time you pitch. They're not going to give you time and years and years of time to develop. It's just the business side of the game. You have to come in and you have to treat every moment like it's your last. And that's just something that mentally I kind of pride myself on. I just try not to ever shut it off. I always want to be ready to go and excited to go and kind of pitching with a chip on my shoulder.”
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Written and produced by Bob Harkins.
(All music edited for time purposes)
Port Angeles’ Cole Uvila is now a Hickory Crawdad (Peninsula Daily News) Read