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Family Pitched In for Ortiz

The Tuckers opened their home and hearts to help Angels player adjust to U.S. culture.

October 24, 2002|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Back when he was a minor league ballplayer and barely spoke a word of English, Angels pitcher Ramon Ortiz told Jim and Angie Tucker, "You're going to be my American family."

It was 1998, and they'd just met Ortiz during a game in Lake Elsinore, where the young Dominican pitcher was playing for the Angels farm club. The Tuckers were just spectators but, after a chance meeting, the three became fast friends when Ortiz found out Angie spoke Spanish.

Still, the couple was skeptical of Ortiz's promise to stay in touch. They smiled and said their goodbyes.

"We've been around a lot of players. We've heard a lot of talk," said Jim Tucker, 39, a devout Angels fan who has followed the team all his life.

His wife agreed: "Naturally, I was sitting there going, 'Yeah, right.' "

But Ortiz did not forget. He burrowed his way into their lives, bunked with them in Buena Park for a couple seasons after being called up to the majors, and turned Angie Tucker into a good-luck charm.

So on Tuesday, when Ortiz pitched Game 3 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, the couple took their seats in the section allotted for Angels' family members, right alongside Ortiz's wife and daughter.

"They're my family. They take care of me," Ortiz said Wednesday. "For me, I'm very happy they got to watch me pitch."

Tuesday's game may have been the highlight of the 29-year-old pitcher's career, but the Tuckers, who now live in Cerritos, have been there for just about every big moment -- and the not-so-big ones.

A year after meeting Ortiz in Lake Elsinore, the Tuckers bumped into Ortiz for a second time during a 1999 Angels spring training game in Arizona. He sought them out and gave Angie Tucker a T-shirt he had brought back for her from the Dominican Republic.

They were friendly, familiar faces, Ortiz explained. And he finally had someone to talk to in Spanish. Every night the Tuckers were in Arizona they spent with Ortiz.

"He was really happy," Angie Tucker recalled, "because he knew somebody there."

Six months later, Ortiz phoned the Tuckers with his big news. Angie Tucker wasn't home, but his message was clear, even when it came in broken English, her husband said. Ortiz had just been called up to the big leagues.

"He said, 'grande liga' and 'my first start' and 'pitching in Chicago,' " Jim Tucker said. "I understood that."

As luck would have it, Angie Tucker was in Chicago visiting her son. That night, she watched Ortiz, her surrogate son, pitch his first major league game. He struck out nine and beat the White Sox, 8-1.

Back in Orange County, Ortiz spent his free time with the Tucker family and, eventually, moved in with them. The Tuckers were even given explicit instructions from Ortiz's mother in the Dominican Republic.

"She tells me, 'Let me know if he's misbehaving,' and 'You can pull his ears any time you want,' " Angie Tucker said.

As they adopted Ortiz into their family, they helped him learn English and American culture. They still tease him about the time giggling store clerks asked him, "Can I have your number?"

No problem, Ortiz said. He gave them his autograph and jotted down "#36," his uniform number.

"He was very naive when he first started," Angie Tucker said. "It was just like raising a child again."

They attend every home game Ortiz pitches. And, ever since Angie Tucker smiled and waved to Ortiz before one of his winning games, she must repeat that pattern for good luck.

So there was no question Ortiz would be taking them with him to San Francisco for the World Series.

Tuesday afternoon, Ortiz didn't have to ride the team bus because starting pitchers can arrive late to games. Rather than catch a cab, he asked Jim Tucker to drive him to the game, so he could relax and listen to merengue, the fast, Latin dance music.

But when they left the hotel, they were immediately caught in city traffic. Ortiz kept glancing at his watch and began fretting that he might be late. Several nervous minutes later, Jim Tucker waved down a motorcycle officer. This was the last thing Ortiz needed to be worried about before the game.

"I have the starting pitcher for the Angels," Tucker told the officer. "He needs to get to the stadium." Ortiz chimed in, "I've got to go. I've got to go pitch."

If the cop was a Giants fan, he set that aside and escorted them to Pacific Bell Park, where Ortiz arrived with a few minutes to spare.

"Never a dull moment with Ramon," Jim Tucker said. "That's my World Series memory."

Well, that and Barry Bonds' three-pitch strikeout. And the win, of course -- the big, fat W next to Ortiz's name in the World Series history books.

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