By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. — Shane Tucker’s got a little chip on his shoulder about the perception of Union Grove baseball.
It was clearly heard Tuesday afternoon when Tucker waxed reminiscent about his four-year career at the school, recounting what he called the high-water mark of his time as a Wolverine.
It should be noted that the chief highlight of Tucker’s baseball career at Union Grove had everything to do with baseball, but absolutely nothing to do with him being on the mound.
It was an 8-5 win at Northgate back on March 6. On the schedule it looks like just another ho-hum, humdrum regular season region matchup.
But for Tucker and the Wolverines, it was anything but. It represented how far Union Grove’s baseball program has come — it finished 2014 with a 16-12 record. It was a statement that Wolverines baseball was officially on the map and able to contend with anyone.
And the memory of it was an opportunity for Tucker to articulate that “chip.”
“I didn’t pitch that game (at Northgate), but definitely beating Northgate at Northgate was it for me,” Tucker said. “It was our only game and first time beating them on their field in Union Grove history. So it was pretty cool that we would go out as the only team that was able to go and beat them.”
Then he paused, as if to collect his thoughts before continuing into what sounded like career highlight part two.
“And last year we beat Starr’s Mill 3-2,” he added. “I came off the mound that game when it was 3-1, and then Cameron Williams came in and finished it. Everybody was saying, ‘ Oh, Union Grove can’t beat the (Fayette County) schools,’ but we’ve proven that wrong three times this year.”
The fourth one, though, was the one Tucker and company really wanted. That one ended up being a 5-4 loss to the Panthers from Fayetteville in Game 3 of last week’s Region 4-AAAAA championship series.
That game is one that still sticks in the craw of Union Grove coach Allen Edwards.
As happy as the eighth-year head coach was to witness eight of his ballplayers sign college scholarships this past Tuesday — 10 total Union Grove baseball players signed, when taking into account two that inked football letters of intent — Edwards admitted that watching a region crown slip through his teams’ fingers by the narrowest of margins still “stings a bit.”
But as for Tucker, he said he’s ready to move on. Union Grove will host Ware County in the first round of the Class AAAAA tournament Friday at 6 p.m.
“You probably heard about that first game where I let slip,” said Tucker, referring to Starr’s Mill’s 8-1 Game One victory. “And I did. I wasn’t mentally prepared, and I knew that. But my Dad said to go out the next day and see what you did wrong, and better yourself. So now, I’m just focusing on Friday and Ware County. Starr’s Mill is in the past.”
You could tell by his deliberate tone, and the measured way in which he selected his words that it wasn’t just reporter jargon — the stuff that athletes and coaches often say simply because it just sounds like the right thing to say with a reporter’s voice recorder in your grill.
The maturity in Tucker’s self-analysis of his most recent loss, and readiness to get a move on to the next opportunity to redeem himself reflects a coach’s maturation. Edwards himself said “the big prize was still out there” for his team. Tucker also knows that, which is one reason why he’s taking the mental stance of a grizzled old baseball veteran.
The other reason is because he’s learned not to take himself, or baseball too seriously — especially since he almost lost the latter two years ago.
That was when Tucker, age 15 at the time, underwent Tommy John surgery. Then he was the 37th ranked high school pitcher in the nation before undergoing the procedure that repaired the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow by replacing it with a tendon from another part of his body.
Tommy John’s has taken out some of baseball’s brightest stars, which is all the more reason why Tucker’s signing to Georgia, still with an outside possibility of getting picked up in the 2015 MLB Draft, is a huge deal.
“I just can’t believe it,” Edwards said of his senior pitcher’s recovery. “I mean, to go through Tommy John’s as a sophomore, and come back from that the way he did, it’s just remarkable. We worked with him, first throwing in the field and not throwing off the mound, but then he worked his way back into pitching some innings, and you can just see how defined he is. Any time you can throw 90-plus mile per hour, which you can’t teach that, and do it after what he went through. A lot of major leaguers can’t do that.
“It’s a testament to him, his parents, and really the good Lord.”
Hence Tucker’s others-centered career highlight. Tucker said the injury and prospect of almost losing a shot at playing baseball gave him a different perspective on the game, not to mention himself as a person.
“It made me mature a lot in life and in baseball,” Tucker said. “I actually learned how to work harder because it’s a game that can be taken away from you. But it also made me mature in life, as far as baseball goes, because I realized that I had to see the game as not just something I had to do for my future, instead I just played the game because I love it. That’s all. It wasn’t about me.”
Edwards called Tucker a player that “has all the tools” to be an elite level pitcher before his playing days are done. He also said he hopes that the 6-foot, 185 pound righty will choose to go to Georgia to allow his arm a chance to continue developing.
As for Tucker, he knows such a decision is imminent for him. But it can wait while he’s still officially a Wolverine. He has a state title he wants to win.
“I’m still looking at it all,” he said. “It’s not like I haven’t thought about (being drafted). But right now, I’m just focusing on this high school ball. All the rest, it’ll come soon enough in the next few weeks. But for now, it’s just ‘play ball, Baby.'”