For as long as he can remember, native and recent White Sox draft pick Tony Bucciferro has been chasing after a dream of playing in the big leagues.
He grew up three houses down from the Troy Baseball diamonds and played youth ball there on the sandlots as a youngster—and other games, too. He went on to attend Minooka Junior High and earned all-area and all-state honors pitching at Minooka High School.
Then, he became a fixture in the starting rotation at Michigan State University. As a junior, he was a part of the Spartans’ first Big Ten championship team in 32 years. As a senior, he played on a MSU team that earned a surprise bid into NCAA tournament play.
He left his mark in the land of Sparty.
Bucciferro, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, exited after rewriting much of the MSU pitching record book. He is the school’s all-time leader in innings pitched (372.1) and starts (55), ranks second in strikeouts (273) and tied for third in wins (26).
He was selected by the Whit Sox in the 14th round of the amateur draft in early June. After attending a brief mini-camp in Arizona, he reported to Rookie League ball in Bristol (Va.) about three weeks ago. And he slowly is inching forward in pursuit of his dream, pitching an inning here and an inning there for the Bristol White Sox out of the bullpen.
In the beginning, his new Sox coaches are taking it easy because Bucciferro logged so many innings for MSU during the collegiate season. The idea is build him back up to a starting role. He confessed to being nervous the first time he was summoned from the pen. He hit a batter and allowed two runs—one earned—and struck out a pair.
Up until now, he always has started games. Many times, he has finished them too, going all the way back to Troy Baseball. Bucciferro was the dominant pitcher in his age group then, a youngster capable of blowing the ball by anybody and everybody.
“That was my childhood—six years of my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the same person without Troy ball. I still have friends—all my childhood friends—from Troy ball. I was there every night. We played tag and pickle until they turned the lights off. I loved that place.”
Bucciferro learned to pitch—really pitch—from Minooka assistant coach Jim Lamping and Michigan State associate head coach Mark Van Ameyde. Today, ‘Booch’ is a product of their teachings. He counts five pitches in his repertoire, the list running the gamut from a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball and changeup to a slider and knuckle-curve.
“Tony is an outstanding competitor who knows how to pitch,” Michigan State coach Jake Boss said in an article on msuspartans.com. “He’s not going to light up the radar gun at 96-mile an hour, but he’ll be upper-80s to low-90s and the ball moves all over the place out of his hand.”
“Coach Van Ameyde expressed a lot of the same thoughts and beliefs as Coach Lamping,” Bucciferro said. “It was, ‘You don’t need to throw 95 miles an hour to get people out.’ It listened and did what they told me and it worked out. Shocker.”
Bucciferro was picked on the second day of the major league draft by the White Sox, but not before waiting through some anxious moments. His mother, Judy Bucciferro, called the day “grueling” because Tony received feelers from several teams before the Sox entered the picture.
She said Tony was told he would be picked in the ninth round. Never happened. She said Tony was told he would be picked in the 10th round. Again, never happened.
“That was his first introduction to the business-world side of baseball,” Judy Bucciferro said. “All that waiting is heart-breaking. Then, to get picked when you least expect it—the White Sox hadn’t talked to him since Christmas—it overshadows what from a mom’s perspective is a lot of grief. The stars come out.”
And the telephone phone starts ringing. Tony huddled at his Joliet home with his parents, his extended family and some old friends, including former Troy and Minooka teammate Sam Jones.
“I went out early on our pool deck,” Bucciferro said. “I got everything ready. I set up a laptop with a speaker. We just waited and listened to everything. Six hours later, I was extremely sunburned. And my name hadn’t been called yet.
“It was a roller-coaster kind of day.”
The day came with a happy ending. When Bucciferro finally was selected by the White Sox, he gleefully replied to text messages from well-wishers. He made his grandfather proud. Dominic Bucciferro long has been a Sox fan.
And his father?
“He bought his first Sox hat,” Tony Bucciferro said of Jim Bucciferro. “He’s been a Cubs fan up until now.”
The dream of playing in the bigs is one Tony has come to view in a more realistic fashion as he has aged to 22 years old. He often jokes with his parents about living the life, the dream. He plans to return to MSU in August and work toward completing his degree in economics. He needs 11 more credit hours to graduate.
“He might work in a baseball arena or office some day—go that route,” Judy Bucciferro said. “What people don’t always realize, in collegiate ball and in the minor leagues, it’s baseball 24x7. There are very few days off. This is your job.
“We’ve talked with Tony about it. We joke about living the ‘dream.’ We’ve reminded him, ‘People quit their jobs sometimes.’ That’s OK. We don’t want him to feel like he has to make it or else. We want him to know life goes on after baseball.”
Still, Tony’s dream is to play this game out to completion. He is at the ballpark by about 1 p.m. every day. He lifts weights. He runs. He stretches. He throws. And he is lucky to be in bed by midnight.
“It’s a different lifestyle than what everyone thinks,” he said. “You have long days, five-hour bus rides. But you get to play baseball. So, you can’t complain too much.”
He knows the grass isn’t any greener on the other side of the fence.