UF baseball signee has huge heart

Walking through the Rady Children’s Hospital, Tucker Simpson was speechless. The 6-foot-7 right-handed pitcher saw first-hand what baseball can do for those less fortunate than him.

He was visiting the San Diego hospital, which houses kids with terminal illnesses, with the East and West teams at the Perfect Game All-American Classic. The classic has featured future major league all-stars such as Buster Posey and Justin Upton.

“I can’t describe in words the feeling that I had,” Simpson said. “It just makes you feel like you were able to actually touch somebody’s life that has a lot bigger problems than the problems you face on a daily basis.”

The kids knew these players might be future big leaguers.

For Tucker Simpson, the big leagues will have to wait for now. The Oxford High School pitcher signed his letter of intent Nov. 9 in front of friends and family, which he said was a relief.

“I believe my mom brought a little tears to her eyes when I was signing,” Simpson said. “They told me they were proud of me. I got a big hug from my dad when we got home. It was a pretty special day.”

Signing with UF almost didn’t happen for Simpson. He was committed to Georgia Tech up until late August and early September. As a power pitcher who throws in the low 90s and can hit 94 mph on the gun, switching to the University of Florida was an easy decision.

Simpson wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference and have the opportunity to play for Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, whom he called one of the top pitching coaches in the country.

O’Sullivan has experience dealing with power arms. Sophomore righty Karsten Whitson arrived at UF with high expectations after turning down a pro contract worth $2.1 million.

As the Sunday starter, Whitson went 8-1 with a 2.40 ERA and grew stronger as the year progressed. Simpson was impressed with how the UF head coach did not take advantage of Whitson and overuse him.

“Sully is not a guy who is going to run the same guy out there multiple times a week,” Simpson said. “He is not going to jeopardize somebody’s future in the game.”

Simpson took his official visit to UF Oct. 1 for the football game against Alabama. He visited again for the Florida State game Nov. 26.

Freshman right-handed pitcher Johnny Magliozzi hosted Simpson on his official visit. The two played with Whitson on the esteemed East Cobb Astros. Simpson couldn’t have been happier about his visit.

“I love it,” Simpson said. “Everything feels right when I am on campus.”

The 220-pound pitcher will arrive on campus for the summer B session. He has kept in touch with Magliozzi and other freshmen.

Barring any signees electing to sign professional contracts, 16 other players will join Simpson on campus. Among those unofficial list of players includes right-handed pitcher Lance McCullers and outfielder Jesse Winker.

The two players played with Simpson on the East squad at the 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic, which features the top rising seniors in the country. McCullers and Winker are projected high draft picks in next June’s MLB draft.

“I am tickled to death that he [Winker] is coming to Florida,” Simpson said. “I’m not going to have to pitch against him in an SEC series. With Lance, he is extremely talented. I am glad he is coming to Florida and we don’t have to face him on Friday nights somewhere.”

Simpson was not the only Oxford Yellow Jacket to ink a letter of intent on signing day. Six players in total, including two pledging to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide, signed letters.

The group spent signing day together. After a meal together, they went to Dick’s Sporting Goods and had a putting competition in the golf section.

“We were playing for fun,” Simpson said. “When you get six guys like that together, competitive nature takes over. Everyone wanted to win.”

Winning will be a common theme for Simpson’s future UF team this year. The Gators are projected as the early No. 1 team in the country and figure to make another run to Omaha with the entire weekend starting rotation returning and seven out of nine starters coming back.

Simpson is scheduled to play for UF in 2013. The Gators could look much different with a possible mass exodus to the professional ranks by rising juniors.

Although Simpson plays first base in high school, he will pitch at UF and will help out a pitching staff that could lose two starters and three key relievers.

“I just want to go in there and give it everything I got every day,” Simpson said. “That is all I can ask for.”

Baseball has been in Simpson’s life since the age of 4. His father introduced him to the game and would hit and throw with his son multiple times a week.

Now, another Simpson is working with this future Gator. His younger brother Trent, who is 16 months apart, is a junior in high school. He plays baseball and football for Oxford High School.

Simpson said his younger brother, a defensive end and tight end, has talked to ACC and SEC schools about playing football at the next level.

For Simpson, playing baseball in college has always been a dream. Despite the numerous all-star games, travel-ball tournaments and signing a letter of intent to play at UF, one event off the diamond is most memorable.

“To see their faces when we walked in the hospital,” Simpson said. “Those are the kids battling cancer. To be able to put a smile on their faces was really special for me.”