During his playing days, Michael Tucker was considered one of the more calm and collected players in Major League Baseball.
Even as a Kansas City Royals rookie in 1995 chasing his first major-league hit against Baltimore Orioles right-handed pitcher Mike Mussina, he wasn’t phased.
“I just swung at the first thing I saw. It didn’t matter where it was I was swinging,” Tucker said. “That was easy.”
Tucker likened stepping into the batter’s box during a 13-year career to being in the eye of a hurricane. Inside it’s calm whereas from the outside things look quite chaotic.
He never experienced the view from the outside — or the stands — until his daughter, Aspen Tucker, started competing at a high level of gymnastics. The father and daughter have developed a special bond as Aspen has chased her dream of becoming a Division-I athlete.
Aspen will sign a National Letter of Intent with the University of Missouri when the NCAA’s early signing period begins Wednesday.
For Michael, who retired from baseball in 2009, it doesn’t get any easier.
“I’m used to being in a situation where I know what’s going on and I can kind of control the outcome to some extent,” Michael said. “Being a parent, you’re just there watching what’s going on. It’s nerve racking.”
For Aspen, a student at Fort Myers High, gymnastics has been a lifestyle since she first stepped into the Coast Elite Gymnastics facility when she wasn’t quite 3 years old. She became a Level 9 gymnast by age 9 and has qualified for NIT/Nationals or Junior Olympic Nationals four straight years.
This is nothing new for Coast Elite, which has been open for 24 years in Fort Myers and produced more than 20 athletes who earned full Division-I scholarships. Aspen will be fifth D-I signee in five years with the others signing with the University of Alaska Anchorage, Florida, the University of Denver and Iowa. Another will ink with Alabama next year.
“It feels really great to know I’ve made it this far, and I finally got what I’ve always wanted since I was little,” Aspen said.
Dave Zwiefelhofer, who owns Coast Elite along with Cathi Curtis, said what makes Aspen special is how she can set herself apart from her competitors in the judges’ eyes.
“When she performs the judges like her look,” Zwiefelhofer said. “It’s real important. The lines, the straight shapes, the pointed feet, the nice extension. It’s that performance when one athlete is doing the same thing as another athlete, one stands out. She has that it factor.”
Her competitive drive fuels her addiction to making gains and improving each day.
Michael saw that from an early age. He can recall a period after he retired where the Tucker family engaged in some intense games of Wiffle ball and kickball in the backyard.
“Nobody wanted to lose, especially Aspen,” Michael said. “Now she’s in a sport where she is constantly being judged and going against the same girls over and over. It’s difficult.
“You talk to her and make her understand not everything is going to go her way, but keep progressing. Things will eventually work out. I think that hard work and determinations that’s she’s starting to put in is really starting to pay off.”
A few years ago, there were questions as to whether Aspen wanted to continue down this path. At times, she wasn’t putting in the work necessary to compete at a high level.
That is when her father held her accountable, reminding her that it was alright to fail as long as she had done all she could to prepare.
During her freshman year, what she called a “do-or-die” moment in her career, she worked to improve her approach speed in the vault and her dancing in the floor exercise.
“There’s been some stressful times, but at the end of the day this is what I’ve always wanted,” Aspen said. “I was going to keep pushing to where I am now.”
She will join a Missouri team that finished fourth in an NCAA Regional last season and was ranked 21st in the nation.
Although his daughter competing at the Division-I level will be even more difficult for him, Michael plans to be in the stands every step of the way.
On the outside looking in.
Unrest at Mizzou doesn’t deter Tucker
The recent events taking place on the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri, including the resignation of the school’s president and chancellor as a direct result of student protests, prompted a phone call from the Missouri gymnastics coaching staff to Michael Tucker, the father of Tigers recruit Aspen Tucker.
Tucker, who spent time in the Show Me State while playing with the Kansas City Royals, said the call eased the minimal concerns he had with his daughter signing a National Letter of Intent with the school on Wednesday.
Student protests in response to the handling of several instances of racism on campus, including that of 30 black football players boycotting team activities, called for the resignations of school president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and got exactly that Monday.
“The coaches told me they’ve had meetings the last few days to go over issues as they pertain to athletics,” Michael Tucker said. “It was explained to me that this was more of a student issue where it just so happened that that football team took up the cause. I was told that when it comes to (race issues) student-athletes are a little more ahead of the curve.”
Michael Tucker said he’s had conversations with his daughter on this topic.
“I feel comfortable with her going there,” he said. “I just let her know there’s places she can go if she encounters anything. There are regular meetings between the athletic department and the student-athletes.”