Faith, love and baseball

Mark Philbrick
Mike Rucker winds up against a USF batter at Miller Park. Rucker led the Cougars with 6 saves this season. (Mark Philbrick)

BYU pitcher Mike Rucker only needed one reason to transfer from Gonzaga to the Y. “I wasn’t happy there,” he said. “I couldn’t really see myself there for four years.” It was that simple. Rucker knew he would only be truly happy when he was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and could be with the girl he loved.

Rucker was born in Mississippi and moved to Washington before starting little league. Baseball quickly became his passion and he realized that pitching was his forte.

“My dad had me start throwing to him while he was squatting down in the backyard, so we played catch that way,” Rucker claimed. “Even when I was nine or ten, pitching or just throwing in general was something that I was good at. Hitting and fielding were my secondary skills.”

College recruiters noticed Rucker early in his career at Auburn Riverside High School. But Rucker was thinking about more than just his baseball career at that point. He started dating a girl named Sydney his sophomore year, and meeting her changed his life. Rucker was raised Catholic and was going through his confirmation classes when he and Sydney began dating. Sydney was an LDS Church member.  His interest in her faith quickly went from simple curiosity to a profound desire to know the truth.

“What do I really believe? What do I really think about heaven and Heavenly Father?” Rucker asked himself. “Through going to church with her and having missionaries over, my mind was just more open.”

Rucker’s parents initially didn’t mind that he was meeting with missionaries. That changed once they saw that he was serious about his interest in the LDS faith.

“There was a point that my parents didn’t want me talking with missionaries, they wanted me to ask the Catholic priest questions,” Rucker said. “They didn’t want me to find those answers out for myself. Being part of my family’s identity was being Catholic.”

Rucker was rising in the ranks of Washington baseball prospects. He had an ERA of 1.51 and tallied 102 strikeouts as a junior, enough to earn him First-team All-State 4A. Baseball Northwest rated him as the ninth best overall prospect in the state and Washington’s third best right-handed pitcher. Scholarship offers began pouring in, including those from Gonzaga and BYU.

Ari Davis
Mike Rucker watches his team during a game against St. Mary’s. Rucker was anxious to play this year after spending all of the 2014 season in the dugout. (Ari Davis)

“My Dad and I were big decision makers on that. We made pros and cons lists for each one,” he explained. “I really wanted to go to BYU, that was my initial mindset, that’s what I wanted to do.”

He even called Gonzaga at one point and told them he decided to continue his baseball career at BYU, but the Gonzaga coach informed him of coaching changes that BYU had recently made. Rucker contacted BYU and found out the pitching coach who had recruited him had left a month prior.

“I felt like I wasn’t a priority,” Rucker said. He decided to accept Gonzaga’s offer and enrolled in fall of 2012.

The most challenging aspect of being in Spokane was that his girlfriend, Sydney, was 800 miles away at BYU.

“We did the long distance relationship thing, which was hard,” he said. “With my baseball commitments I wasn’t able to go down and see her except once. She was able to come up and see me several times, which was nice. I enjoyed every moment that we had together.”

The turning point for Rucker was when he realized he wasn’t happy. He missed Sydney every day and wanted to be around others who shared his morals and standards of living. He decided to transfer to BYU before the start of his sophomore year. He knew that transferring to BYU would invoke several major changes in his life.

“I made a decision. That summer following school at Gonzaga, I wanted to be baptized,” Rucker said. “In August, back home at Lake Tapps, my wife’s dad — my father in law now — baptized me. It was just great. I can’t speak enough about that experience.”

His baptism was not the only change he made when coming to BYU. He changed his major from mechanical engineering to business management, and although the transition was difficult, Rucker says he got his grades under his belt and is now doing well in the program.

Rucker wasn’t allowed to play the 2014 baseball season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he was okay with that. “I was with my girlfriend,” he said, “and I was around a good group of guys — good teammates who had my back.”

Rucker and Sydney eloped to the Laie, Hawaii LDS temple on August 20, 2014, just 367 days after his baptism.

Rucker was eager to get on the field and has been utilized primarily as a relief pitcher this season. He has six of BYU’s eight saves this year. He also leads the team in ERA and has a 5-1 record. His pitching has helped the Cougars earn the No. 3 seed in the West Coast Conference Tournament.

Fellow BYU pitcher Brandon Kinser only needed one word to describe Rucker: “Dynamite.”

BYU head coach Mike Littlewood is happy to have Rucker in his dugout. “It’s nice to know we have a guy like Mike Rucker on our side who can come in and close the door in any situation,” Littlewood said after an April game against LMU.

Rucker used a single word to describe his journey. “Phenomenal. It’s been everything I expected and more,” he said.

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