Tough call: Watch Free State High play baseball Friday in its own ballpark, not ideally suited for spectators, or watch the Firebirds play on a sunnier Saturday in a comfortable seat at Hoglund Ballpark.
The verdict: Saturday. Upon picking up the paper and reading all about Friday’s game, it seemed as if the wrong decision had been made. Cody Kukuk pitched a complete-game shutout and struck out 10 batters. Plus, the wind was blowing in at the college ballpark Saturday, no time or place to watch a high school power hitter flex his muscles. Wrong.
The only conclusion to reach is that there never is a bad time to watch Kukuk play the game he so loves to play. Trying to decide whether Kukuk has a better future as a pitcher or a hitter is akin to trying to decide whether his last name looks cooler spelled backwards.
One week after his 17th birthday, Kukuk proved soft-tossing high school pitchers and an inward-blowing wind are no match for his left-handed swing that is sweeter than tupelo honey, just like honey from the bee. Drops his bat into the strike zone and sails right around the four bases. Three times against three different Heritage (Ark.) High pitchers to power the Firebirds to a 14-1 mercy-rule-shortened game called after the top of the fifth inning.
Two grand slams, a two-run home run, 10 RBIs. One blown-away crowd that included a scout from the Washington Nationals, who had his fastball clocked from 87 to 91 mph a couple of weeks ago, before Kukuk turned 17.
The beauty of Kukuk’s decision — should he pitch or should he hit — is that it doesn’t need to be made yet.
“I just want to keep doing both for as long as I can,” said Kukuk, 6-foot-4, 195-pound growing boy.
Kukuk has committed orally to Kansas University. He said he wants to go to college to pursue a degree. If he keeps improving, particularly as a pitcher, and the scouts keep liking what they see, he could reconsider that, but he says he’s not worried about it, and he says it a soft-spoken way that lends it credibility.
For now, he focuses on becoming a more complete player, a smoother right fielder with better footwork, and a more polished pitcher, developing his offspeed pitches. He said the work he does with personal trainer Tyler Naylor “four or five times a week” in the offseason makes him a better pitcher and hitter.
“We do a lot of stuff to make my legs stronger,” he said. “My legs were very weak, and I can really tell the difference. And I do a lot of shoulder exercises.”
The guess here is that if he continues to increase his velocity, as his high school coach, Mike Hill, believes he will, major-league scouts will want to look at him as a pitcher first. If so, here’s hoping he gets drafted by a National League team. The swing is just too sweet for it to get wrapped in mothballs at such a young age.
If Kukuk attends KU, he’ll be able to pitch and play a position, either right field or first base. Bobby Thigpen, who saved 57 games in one season for the White Sox, was a two-way star for Mississippi State.
If Kukuk makes it all the way to the bigs, Harry Caray, from his microphone in the clouds, will say, “You know Steve, Kukuk spelled backwards is K-U-K-U-K.”