The sign held by an 11-year-old Gerrit Cole during the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and D-backs declared him to be a "Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever." A photo of Cole holding the sign from the front row of what was then known as Bank One Ballpark was snapped by the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., and uploaded to the Internet for posterity.
Lord knows Cole didn't grow up a Pirates fan, but we can nonetheless mark him down among the rarest of the rare. For when the Yanks drafted him 28th overall three years ago, he didn't even listen to a single contract proposal, opting instead to continue his education at UCLA rather than suiting up for his beloved Bombers.
And now that Pittsburgh has landed Cole's rights with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft on Monday, we're likely to see something straight out of "Baseball Bizarro World" -- a player who couldn't be wooed by the Yanks but will instead sign the dotted line for the Pirates.
CWS, DET, NYY and PHI did not have first-round selections.
Of course, the Pirates are bound to pay quite a few more bucks for Cole than the Yankees would have in 2008, and the kid will certainly celebrate whatever signing bonus is coming his way. But for the now-20-year-old Cole, who hails from a well-to-do Southern California family, it's understood that that this was never about money but maturity. He didn't let the Yanks even attempt to entice him, because his heart was set on the college experience and all it entails.
"One of the greatest parts about UCLA and college athletics," he said, "is you show up on campus and have 35 guys who have your back and are your friends and are going to stick with you through thick and thin."
Because he once spurned a club with such clout, Cole has caused questions about his makeup to follow raves about his repertoire. But even Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' scouting director who took a chance on Cole only to be ignored, maintains respect for the right-hander.
"He and I exchange text messages at the least once a month," Oppenheimer said. "We stay in touch, we talk. He'll check with me after his appearances to gauge my thoughts. It's been a very cordial relationship."
For the Yanks, though, Cole is the one who got away. He was the first prep player taken in the first round to choose college over the pros since John Mayberry Jr. sided with Stanford University over the Mariners in 2002, and the fact that he had grown up as a fan of the team (Gerrit's father, Mark, grew up in New York) only made the situation more puzzling from the outside perspective.
One insider who wasn't surprised, however, was Cole's coach at Orange Lutheran High School, Mike Grahovac.
"I think, deep down," said Grahovac, now the head coach at Concordia University Irvine, "he knew he needed to go to college to get that maturity level and get to that next level."
You will no doubt hear much about Cole's raw stuff in the coming hours, days, months and years. You'll hear about the fastball that routinely hits the upper 90s on the radar gun and stays strong throughout his starts and about the hard slider and the improved changeup that help him rack up strikeouts.
It's the stuff that persuaded the Pirates to ignore some of Cole's shaky starts this season (including the three runs and 11 hits he allowed in 7 1/3 innings of a 3-0 loss to San Francisco in the NCAA Regional opener on Friday) and draft him based on long-term potential.
Cole, though, could have polished all those pitches as well, or better, in the Yankees' farm system than he did on the UCLA campus.
The area of his game that really needed to be refined was his mental approach.
"He's kind of a perfectionist," Grahovac said. "When things didn't go right, he wore his emotions on his sleeve. Sometimes that was his own worst enemy."
When Cole arrived to UCLA, head coach John Savage instantly installed him as the Bruins' Friday starter, and Cole went on to rank second in school history in strikeouts (376), third in starts (49) and fifth in innings pitched (322 1/3) in the midst of playing for the USA Baseball collegiate national team twice.
"It was the correct decision. I wanted to go to the College World Series and be a Bruin and win the PAC-10 and start a new winning tradition there. We really wanted to instill a new tradition, a new way. So I have no regrets."
-- Gerrit Cole, on not signing with the Yankees in 2008
But Savage saw firsthand the substance beyond the stats. Cole, he said, was team first, all the way.
"He's a very good teammate who cares about our program very much," Savage said. "He knows UCLA is in a better place because he was here. We got to the Regional beforehand, but we got to Omaha, Neb., [for last year's College World Series] with him. The bar has been raised, and a lot of it has to do with Gerrit."
And Cole has raised the bar for his own internal expectations. He wants to be a leader in the locker room and a composed, consistent presence on the hill.
"I wear my heart on my sleeve," he admitted. "I'm definitely an emotions-out guy. But there are times in the games where it calls for it and times where it doesn't. I've learned to keep it consistent, at an even pace. Just keeping my poker face and not giving the other team momentum."
Cole must have kept a pretty good poker face three years ago. Otherwise, the Yankees wouldn't have touched him with such a prominent pick.
But the Yanks' loss is the Pirates gain. And while the Buccos have blundered this sort of thing before (see Bullington, Bryan), there is growing suspicion that they might actually be on the right path. They invested more than $11 million last year on three power-armed pitchers with high upsides -- Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia -- and can add Cole to the list, assuming he signs before the Aug. 15 deadline.
"Pitching is a game of attrition," general manager Neal Huntington said. "You can never have too much of it. It's the most valuable commodity in the game. ... The game has shifted to where pitching helps you win like it used to."
Someday soon, the Bucs hope, Cole will be helping them win. Because while he very well might be a "Yankees fan forever," Cole is a Pirate now. And after hearing his name taken with the No. 1 pick, he sounded pleased with the outcome of the choice he made three years ago.
"It was the correct decision," he said. "I wanted to go to the College World Series and be a Bruin and win the Pac-10 and start a new winning tradition there. We really wanted to instill a new tradition, a new way. So I have no regrets."