‘Riding the shuttle’: BYU’s lone player in MLB still chasing the dream
Former Cougars All-American Michael Rucker is adjusting to life in professional baseball, and the shuttle rides that take him back and forth between Des Moines and Chicago
For Michael Rucker, the drive to Chicago from Des Moines, Iowa, is a lot shorter than the same drive from Chicago to Des Moines.
It’s still 333 miles either way on I-80 and I-88, but the destinations are different. Much different.
“I’ve always tried to simplify pitching to what it is at its root — playing catch.” — Michael Rucker
For a pitcher like Rucker, the drive from Iowa to the Windy City is quickened by the dream that awaits — Wrigley Field and all of its glory. Whereas the drive from Chicago to Des Moines is slowed by the same feelings that come on the day after Christmas — an emotional letdown.
Rucker and his right arm belong to the Chicago Cubs for the next five years. The former BYU pitcher stands alone as the only Cougar on a 40-man roster in Major League Baseball this season and he is pitching like crazy to stay there.
The Cubs’ Triple-A team is in Des Moines. By nature of Rucker’s contract, the Cubs can move him back and forth as needed — and they do.
“They call it ‘riding the shuttle’ between Des Moines and Chicago,” Rucker says. “I knew that getting bounced around was going to be an option. I just know I have to perform regardless of where I’m pitching.”
In two seasons, the 6-foot-1, 28-year-old righty has appeared in 35 games for the Cubs, including 20 this year, where his ERA is 5.2 with one defeat.
“I’ve always tried to simplify pitching to what it is at its root — playing catch,” he said. “It’s a glorified game of playing catch against a guy who has a bat in his hand trying to prevent the ball from getting to the catcher.”
He makes it sound easy, but professional pitching, and the wild world that surrounds it, is a hard job.
“It’s just a little bit easier than being a professional hitter,” Rucker says with a laugh. “There are a lot of different ways to get guys out. But it’s tough. It takes mental fortitude. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Highs and lows
“Rucker, let’s go!”
The Dodgers had just taken a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, and they are threatening for more.
Rucker sprints from the right-field bullpen to the mound where Cubs manager David Ross is waiting. It’s a long run at sea level and he’s out of breath.
“Here we go, Ruck,” Ross tells him. “You have a guy on second base and two outs. Let’s get ’em.”
With that, Ross hands Rucker the ball and walks back to the dugout, leaving him alone on the altar of baseball’s storied cathedral — Dodger Stadium — to face the hottest team in the National League.
This is the moment he has dreamed about and prepared for his entire life, including at BYU, where he went 16-2 in two seasons to earn the Cubs’ 11th round draft pick in 2016, and his subsequent five years in the minors.
“I believe what gives him his staying power is No. 1, he’s got filthy stuff and No. 2, is his consistent demeanor,” says Rucker’s former BYU coach Mike Littlewood. “He never gets anxious, never gets scared, never gets upset, or at least he never shows it.”
With a deep breath, Rucker looks over at Dodgers stars Mookie Betts on second base and Freddie Freeman on first — two players with combined contracts worth of $527 million.
The Cubs’ $702,500 man, facing an invigorated crowd, winds up and attacks Will Smith, getting him to fly out to right field to end the threat.
“Way to go Ruck!” shouts Ross as Rucker enters the Cubs dugout. “Stick with it.”
Rucker takes a seat on the bench and prepares for the next inning, where he’ll face another round of Los Angeles artillery from Max Muncy, Jake Lamb, Gavin Lux and Cody Bellinger.
“I know I’m done if I get a handshake from Ross,” Rucker says. “If you don’t get a handshake, you know you are still in the game.”
Working opposite of the Cubs reliever is Dodgers All-Star pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who made his MLB debut the same year Rucker turned 13. The veteran lefty dominated the Cubs with 10 strikeouts.
Rucker returned for the eighth inning and after Muncy reached first on an error, he retired the next three hitters. Ross greeted him at the dugout with a handshake and his night was over.
“Mike does stuff very few pitchers can do,” said Ron Villone, Iowa Cubs pitching coach and a former pitcher who suited up for 12 MLB teams. “The way he manipulates the ball is pretty special.”
The Cubs lost the game that night 4-2, but Rucker’s performance warranted a late-night celebration with his wife Sydney and her visiting family. For the moment, all was right in the world.
Then Sunday happened.
With some momentum to his step, Rucker returned to the ballpark where Ross was waiting for him.
“Ruck, do you got a minute?” Ross said.
Rucker’s heart sank. He knew what this was about. The Cubs needed to clear a roster spot and he was going to get sent back down to Des Moines.
“It’s nothing about your ability to get guys out,” Ross told Rucker. “You will be back and there will be plenty of opportunities with the trade deadline coming up (Aug. 2).”
Just like that, Rucker’s run with the Cubs was on hold and he was again “riding the shuttle” back to Des Moines.
“I didn’t think it would be me,” Rucker recalled. “I had pitched pretty good.”
40 days, 40 nights
Rucker’s last night with the Cubs in Los Angeles capped a wild ride that began June 1 when he was activated from the disabled list after a toe injury. He took the mound at Wrigley Field and struck out all three batters he faced in the seventh inning during a 4-3 win over Milwaukee.
On June 4, Rucker was roughed up for three runs in the 10th inning against St. Louis and suffered his first career defeat. He was sent back to Iowa on June 10 but was recalled by Chicago the next day, June 11, and pitched three innings at Yankee Stadium.
“That was pretty insane, partially because the pitcher before me had given up six solo home runs,” Rucker says. “There is a lot on the line for me as I try to prove I can get hitters at the highest level out.”
The Yankees tagged him for two runs on three hits in the sixth inning, including a sacrifice fly from American League home run leader Aaron Judge.
“Those thoughts are all swirling in my head as you see guys go from first to second, to third and to home. I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” he says. “But I eventually settled down and started hitting my spots.”
Rucker retired six of the next seven Yankees he faced, including Giancarlo Stanton, the MVP of Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Rucker struck him out with back-to-back sliders that Stanton didn’t even swing at.
On June 12, the following day, he was sent back to Iowa where he remained until July 3 when the Cubs called him back to pitch two innings in an 8-3 win at Milwaukee. He followed that with his performance at Los Angeles July 9.
On July 10, capping a wild 40 days and 40 nights, Rucker was sent back to Des Moines, where he will begin the second half of the season and remain with the Iowa Cubs until his phone rings again.
“I’ll usually get a call from our Triple-A manager (Marty Pevey),” Rucker says. “He is the guy who calls and tells people the good news that they are going to the big leagues. If I get a call on my phone from a Georgia area code, that’s when I’ll know.”
Until then, the challenge is to pitch every day like his job depends on it — and try not to go crazy.
“There is more to life than baseball and there is more to me that being a baseball player,” Rucker says. “The more reminders I get of that, the more mentally healthy I am. It can be very consuming at times.”
Getting the call
Sydney Shuman first met Rucker in elementary school in Lake Tapps, Washington.
“He asked me to dance at the sixth grade dance and again at the eighth grade dance,” she recalls. “We were just friends until our sophomore year of high school when he motioned me over to sit by him in biology class. That was a pretty brave thing for him to do.”
They have been connected at the hip ever since, including through his BYU career, his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and six years of professional baseball.
“We say prayers a lot because I feel like you can’t do it all on your own. You ask for all the help you can get,” says the former school teacher-turned full-time baseball spouse. “We were going to chase this dream to the ends of the earth. I knew he wasn’t going to give up, but there were times when I wanted to. I just never had the guts to tell him that because I care too much about him.”
July 29, 2021, after a game in Des Moines, Sydney sat in the car and waited for Rucker so they could drive back to the team hotel. He was taking longer than usual.
“He came out and took a really deep breath as he got in the car,” she says. “He smiled and said, ‘They called me up to the taxi squad.’”
Not knowing what the taxi squad was, Rucker explained to her that the MLB trade deadline was the next day and he was supposed to be in Washington, D.C., in the event the Cubs needed him to pitch against the Nationals.
Chicago was in the middle of a fire sale and expected to move star players Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — which they did. This was not going to be anywhere near the Cubs team that drafted Rucker in 2016 — the year Chicago won the World Series, but an opportunity was knocking.
Not knowing what to expect, the Ruckers packed up their belongings at the team hotel in Des Moines and caught an early flight to D.C., which after a layover, took a good part of the day. Rucker went to the ballpark and Sydney took a nap.
Their lives changed at 5 p.m.
“He called and said, ‘Syd, I made it! I got called up!’”
The timing didn’t allow for any family members to arrive for Rucker’s debut — just Sydney.
“I will never forget the feeling I had walking into Nationals Park,” Sydney said. “There were five tiers of seats, and they were all full. Thousands of people. Way more than I had seen at a minor league game.”
Sydney found her seat and sat down by herself, waiting to watch her husband’s dream come true.
Finally, in the bottom of the seventh inning, the moment arrived.
“I knew it was him because he has a trot that no one else has,” she said.
The moment became overwhelming.
“I started to cry and there was an old man sitting a few seats down from me. He was watching me because I was pretty emotional.”
“Is that your husband out there? the man asked her. “I cried even harder. He walked over and hugged me. I said ‘Yes! That’s my husband!’
With that revelation, Sydney noticed even the Nationals fans sitting in her section began to cheer for her right-handed, Major League Baseball throwing man.
“It reminded me of the feelings we had when we got married,” Sydney says. “None of our family was there when we got married (Hawaii temple, 2014), it was just a bunch of strangers there supporting us. That’s how I felt sitting in the crowd during his debut.”
Rucker promptly retired Washington’s Tres Barrera with a groundout to second base. An inning later, he recorded his first strikeout against Josh Bell.
Living the dream
Climbing on top of a mound of dirt is Rucker’s thing. As a shy 10-year-old, fresh off a move from Columbus, Mississippi, to Lake Tapps for his father’s work, he found solace as an ace for the Cardinals of the Bonney Lake Sumner Little League.
“School stuff, social things and relationships were hard for me,” Rucker says. “Baseball was a big-time outlet where I could compete and do something I felt I was good at and I made some friends.”
The young boy’s arsenal included a fastball, which every little leaguer seemed to have, but his curveball was different. Kids his age were hardly throwing them. It’s the pitch that separated him out from the others — and it still does.
“I’m still throwing that same curveball that I threw in Little League,” he says, along with a much faster fastball and much nastier slider.
It’s the pitcher’s mound and the size of the crowd that has changed. Bonney Lake has been replaced by the bumps at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field, but the dream has never changed.
“I am living the dream that my 10-year-old self had,” Rucker says. “Sometimes when things aren’t going my way, I think about how I owe it to that 10-year-old self to push through and to be better.”
The Ruckers have an apartment in Chicago, a room at the team hotel in Des Moines and their permanent home in Bonney Lake, where he still drives by the Little League field that gave birth to his big-league career.
“That’s the dream,” he says. “To do something to make a living that is fun to do. For me, that’s baseball.”
His pitching coach believes there is a lot more fun ahead for him.
“He has a smorgasbord of shakes around him — meaning he can throw a curve, a slider and a fastball and throw them three different ways,” Villone says. “On the business side, being optioned back and forth is just the business. It’s just the way it goes. But on the pitching side, he is ready to be an everyday major leaguer, no doubt.”
Rucker has dreams of someday reaching the All-Star Game and the World Series, but for now, he’ll settle for a phone call, from a Georgia area code, that will get him on the fast track from Des Moines back to Chicago — on a road he knows all too well.