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After Spurning Yankees, Gerrit Cole Finding Himself at UCLA

May 7, 2010 – 9:00 AM
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Tom Krasovic

Tom Krasovic %BloggerTitle%

LOS ANGELES -- Went to UCLA to see Gerrit Cole, known to the greater baseball world as the pitcher who spurned the Yankees two summers ago.

Cole grew up in freeway-laden Orange County but he's what baseball men describe as "country strong." Reached 98 miles per hour on this April night. His thick legs supplying ample horsepower, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder held 95 mph through his 111th pitch at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

Later, when asked about his performance, Cole talked first about the UCLA team. Nice touch. The 19-year-old looks you in the eyes when he speaks. Upshot of his comments was, he loves the UCLA life. Also, both Cole and the Yankees are rooting for another, as you'll hear.

If you want to read a feel-good story about Cole, West Coast Bias can't give you only that here. It'd be an Alcindor-length stretch to say the Cole saga is all rainbows and roses. The Yankees didn't like getting stiffed, which is how they saw it. And the Bruins' sophomore, like a lot of collegians, is taking steps both sideways and forward in the hopscotch of life.

He's more chucker than pitcher at this stage, as his 35 walks in 69 1/3 innings attest. The right-hander, who admires Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, is still searching for a groove.

"I've got to keep working hard in the middle of the week between starts," he said. "I need to keep coming out with that aggressive mentality, pound first-pitch strikes a little better."

After chatting up Cole, I learned that some scouts have questioned his "makeup," saying he showed up a few foes and teammates as a freshman last year. Angels scouting director Eddie Bane, speaking two years ago to the Orange County Register, said "the poor kid has to hear all the time about how great he is, but he can eliminate the 'but' if he works at it."

The night I saw him, Cole labored often but kept his poise, which couldn't have been easy. After zipping through the first inning on only six pitches, he threw 105 pitches over the next four innings. Oregon dealt him season-highs in hits (eight) and runs (runs). He walked four, struck out five and threw a wild pitch. He threw three changeups. One was hit 390 feet for a home run.

"I felt really good and got quite different results, as compared to the last couple of weeks, when I felt I threw worse and got better results," he said afterward. "It's a weird game. It's a long game. A pitch here or there, a jam shot here or there ... they didn't really hit the ball hard."

If college hitters swung wood, Cole would accumulate a stack of firewood before his college career ends. Perhaps, though, he needs to move past the irksome reality of ping hits and throw more strikes. His walk rate of 4.5 per nine innings is up from 4.0 as a freshman. He stands unusually far to the first-base side of the rubber and throws across his body. Against Oregon, he seldom hit the third base side of the strike zone.

"I'm working on pounding the glove more," he acknowledged.

The ace on a team with championship aspirations, Cole (6-2 with a 2.86 ERA) has 95 strikeouts in those 69 1/3 innings for the No. 5 Bruins (31-10).

Far from the first player to choose college over the minor leagues, he nonetheless is the first high school player drafted in the first round to attend UCLA. He's the first top-round pick to enter college since John Mayberry Jr. went to Stanford after the Mariners selected him 28th in 2002.

Presumably, the Yankees drafted him 28th overall only after deciding they'd get a chance to offer him a large sum of money. They'd seen 99-mph fire from him as senior, when he posted a 121-18 strikeout-walk ratio for his high school in Orange County. However, according to the Yankees and a third party who was close to the scene, Cole and his father Mark denied the Yankees a chance to make an offer.

"We were led to believe by the family that he was not interested in signing with everybody, but he would be very interested in signing with us because we were his favorite team and a lot of things like that," Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer told FanHouse on Wednesday. "Over the course of the summer, they obviously had a change of heart.

"We were never even afforded the opportunity to come in and present the opportunity as to what the Yankees were about, and where he could be. It was a little bit strange.

"But I don't hold any ill will toward him," Oppenheimer added. "They made a decision based on a level where he needed to go -- three years of college, for whatever reason, whether it was a maturing factor. I just wish that we would have been told that going up to the draft. Then there wouldn't have been an issue on our side of drafting a player who didn't sign."

"This is how you define college. I'm just loving it."
- Gerrit Cole
Said Cole: "It was the plan going into the draft, to go to college. The word was out there, and everybody knew. So, I can't answer what happened there. We just stuck with our plan and became a Bruin. I still follow the Yankees. My dad grew up in New York. We're both kind of New York fans. Still follow the Yankees. Not on bad terms with Damon Oppenheimer -- great guy."

As compensation for not signing Cole, the Yankees received the 27th pick in 2009 and with it took a prep outfielder from Texas, Slade Heathcott. He signed for $2.2 million.

"We couldn't be happier with Slade Heathcott," Oppenheimer said. "He's in extended spring training, but that's our plan with high school players anyway. He's been great. It seems like it worked out for everybody, I guess." Oppenheimer added: "You sure would like to have Gerrit Cole in your system."

Cole went to UCLA knowing that he would not be draft eligible again until 2011. He moved onto campus with 30-plus teammates, and if you ask him now to give the U-C-L-A chant, he might oblige you.

"This is how you define college," he said. "I'm just loving it.

"The classroom is fun. It can be kind of a drag at times when you're on the road -- it comes with the territory."

He said later, "I just like being able to live with these guys. It's kind of like our own fraternity. We're all good friends. We all hang out. That's why I came here. That's what I signed up for."
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