'The Best Player, Like, Ever': The Painful Story of Troy Tulowitzki

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 7, 2018

** FOR USE WITH YEAR END AS DESIRED--FILE ** Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton (17), left, celebrates with Troy Tulowitzki (2) after Helton made the last out to win Game 4 of the National League Championship baseball series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, 6-4, and advance to the World Series, in this Oct. 15, 2007, file photo, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Do this, the baseball card photographer said one warm day in Florida during spring training. And so, sure enough, Troy Tulowitzki did it.

Kicked his left leg. Balanced on his right. Reared back, came forward and, arm extended and baseball in hand, struck a pitcher's pose.

Clickclickclick!

Sigh.

Time was, Tulowitzki would not have been a victim of mistaken identity. He arguably was the best shortstop in the majors. His first five seasons, it looked as if the guy might be on a collision course with Cooperstown.

Then his pure awesomeness collided hard with a spectacular array of injuries. And Tulowitzki began spending more time wrapped in ice bags and Ace bandages than covered in glory.

Now, all that's left are the long-ago echoes of sold-out Denver crowds roaring "Tu-Lo! Tu-Lo!"...and veteran photographers who can't recall who he once was.

"You see the work he puts in to try to get his body right," said third baseman Nolan Arenado, Colorado's second-round draft pick in 2009, the summer Tulowitzki played 151 games for the Rockies and slammed 32 homers. "... I talk to him a lot, and to see what is happening to him is pretty sad."

What could have been has fractured into what is: Tulowitzki, 33, is back on Toronto's 60-day disabled list, having had surgery April 2 to remove bone spurs in both heels. It is his 10th trip to the disabled list in the past 13 seasons. He was cleared to resume "light baseball activities" the last week of April, but his 2018 debut awaits. Still.

He played along with the baseball card photographer during spring training, following instructions to the letter even though through 1,286 career major league games over 13 seasons, covering 5,402 plate appearances and five All-Star Games, he had never pitched in a game. Not once.

Not even in college at Long Beach State.

"Not since high school. But in high school, I think everyone pitches," Tulowitzki quipped.

He smiled as he talked, because what else can he do? Pout? Scream?

"The people who know me know I love playing this game and I enjoy being out there," Tulowitzki said. "I've been tested with some injuries in my career and, you know what, I look at it as a challenge, too.

"I like the fact that people can say what they want to say. Does he still have anything left? Anything in the tank? That's cool. Rightfully so. That's their job. But I appreciate that because it gives me the feeling to keep on wanting to go."

He didn't play in a Grapefruit League game during spring training because of the bone spur in his right heel, which started giving him problems as he rehabbed this winter, trying to come back from surgery to repair ankle ligaments torn in a game in July. That injury occurred as he crossed first base while attempting to beat out a ground ball. On the play, he stepped on the foot of the Los Angeles Angels' C.J. Cron.

It was the latest in a remarkable string of frequent and jaw-dropping injuries that started in 2008: Torn tendon in left quadriceps. Right hand laceration. Fractured left wrist. Strained left groin muscle. Fractured right rib cage. Left hip injury. Strained right quadriceps. Cracked left shoulder blade. Chip fracture in right thumb.

Somewhere along the line, Tulowitzki became more like a med school lab project than a major league shortstop.

The people who know him best, those who have lockered next to him or played against him, simply shake their heads in disbelief.

"In the past couple of years, I just can't believe it's the same guy, really," said Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon, who debuted with Colorado in 2011 as Tulowitzki was hitting .302 with 30 homers and 105 RBI. "After playing with him, he was the best player, like, ever. He was the best player on our team. He was so productive. An incredible talent."

His first full season in the majors, Tulowitzki's emergence helped spark Colorado to its unforgettable late-season run of 21 wins in 22 games—a streak that landed the Rockies in the franchise's only World Series.

He became a two-time Silver Slugger and two-time Gold Glove winner and a Rockies all-timer—especially when they awarded him a 10-year, $157.8 million deal following the 2010 season.

From his rookie season in '07 through the end of 2013, his 154 homers and 546 RBI were the most among all MLB shortstops. In 2011, he became just the second National League shortstop to produce a 30-homer, 100-RBI season after Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who did it five times.

When he won his second Gold Glove in 2011 at 26, he became the youngest NL shortstop to win two since Ozzie Smith in 1981. And he was the only player in the major leagues to be named an All-Star and win Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in both 2010 and 2011.

"His capability is off the charts," Arenado said. "His talent is top 10 in baseball for me. A big shortstop who can move, can make every play, can hit homers. He's a five-tool shortstop who's 6'3", 6'4". I know the talent Tulo is. When he was here, he was always getting hurt. But he was capable of hitting 40-plus [homers] a year. He had that ability. He just couldn't stay healthy, unfortunately."

Said Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu: "He was the best shortstop in the game. Defensively, he made plays that no one dared to make, the way he'd backhand balls. Offensively, he was one of the better hitters in the game. He was a stud."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Teammates of Tulo will tell you nobody works harder. Nobody cares more. Sometimes in Colorado following an oh-fer, he would punish himself in the Coors Field indoor batting cage, taking lonely swings by himself until 1 or 2 in the morning. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

He was the face of the franchise until the injuries mounted, the rebuilding began and it was just too expensive to keep him around. So before the July trade deadline in 2015, the Rockies shipped him to Toronto, which acquired him when Jose Reyes appeared past his expiration date at shortstop.

Whereupon in a game against the New York Yankees six weeks later, Tulowitzki collided with center fielder Kevin Pillar and suffered the cracked shoulder blade. Though he was back by October for Toronto's spirited run to the American League Championship Series against Kansas City, the injury was an indicator of what was to come. He played 131 games in Toronto in '16 and then just 66 in '17.

"I'll tell you what, though," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, "when we picked him up in '15, he might have had the biggest impact on turning us around because of the way he played defense. We were having a tough time catching the ball at shortstop. Balls were rolling through. Tulo came in, and, bam, it was like night and day. Because that was really hurting us."

It is the memory of moments like that in his career that continues to drive him.

"It is frustrating, but I don't necessarily base every single year off of my performance because it's not necessarily about me," he said. "When I first came over, we won a lot of games and made it to the playoffs and made it to the ALCS.

"The next year, I think, was not a bad year but maybe not what people expect of me [.254/.318/.443, 24 homers, 79 RBI]. But I helped the team win ballgames, and I take some pride in that. We made it to the playoffs again. Last year, I got hurt. We didn't make the playoffs, and that hurts me just as much as the injury."

Always, whether from the lineup or the trainers' table, Tulowitzki has been a team guy.

"I try to be," he said. "Throughout the years, I've noticed that's when I've had the most fun—when we win and being around winning players. ... It's going out to the field every day with one thing in mind: Try to beat the other team. And that's how it should be."

From the sideline, he said one thing that removes some of the sting is watching players he has mentored flourish. Back when baseball card photographers knew him as a shortstop, Tulowitzki had a hand in the development of Arenado, Blackmon and LeMahieu of the Rockies, the Yankees' Brandon Drury and the Royals' Ryan Goins.

The Yankees' Brandon Drury was mentored by Troy Tulowitzki.
The Yankees' Brandon Drury was mentored by Troy Tulowitzki.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He wants to be the best, and he takes every day so seriously to find a way to get better," said Drury, who first met Tulowitzki at 14 because they had the same high school coach. "He's taught me the mindset of Don't let a day go by just going through the motions. Find something. Pick something up. Get better. Something defensively, something in the gym. ... He has just a relentless mindset of getting better every day."

Said St. Louis right fielder Dexter Fowler, a former teammate of Tulowitzki's in Colorado: "He works his butt off, which can be a downfall, too. He wants to do well so bad. He loves the game so much that he puts all that into it. It can be a gift and a curse. I know he wants to get back out there from all the injuries, but sometimes you've gotta throttle the other way."

Sometimes, though, what makes the great ones great is that they simply cannot throttle down. Tulowitzki was shadowed for much of spring training by his son Taz, 4, who already has a pretty good little swing. Tulowitzki loves being able to bring his son to the clubhouse, imagining how cool that would have been for himself when he was a young boy if his own father had played in the majors. But while he acknowledged fatherhood has changed him, it's only to a degree, he said.

"It hasn't changed me much when it comes to baseball, honestly," Tulowitzki said. "I'm not one of those guys who, if I have a bad game, goes home and it's like, Oh, there's my son. I know he thinks I'm great. If I have a bad game, I still wear it on my sleeve. ... I'm not one of those guys where everything goes away because that's not who I am. That's not in my DNA."

So he soldiers on despite having played more than 128 games in a season only once since 2011. He loves that he has proved wrong those who said he was too big to play shortstop. He treasures friendships he's built with former teammates such as Todd Helton and Matt Holliday—relationships, he says, that will last a lifetime.

But though he still has some $58 million remaining on a deal that runs through 2020, the Blue Jays can spot a trend. So they acquired Aledmys Diaz from St. Louis and Yangervis Solarte from San Diego in the offseason for middle infield depth.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Meantime, across the game, those who know would never mistake him for a pitcher, no matter how many trips he makes to the DL.

"I remember he'd stand tall and then just attack the ball when he was in Colorado," Mets third baseman Todd Frazier said. "It was one of those things where I'm playing third base, and it's just like, Gosh, don't pull this ball down the line."

Now shoulder, legs, hip, hands, feet...there's hardly a part of his body that hasn't been bruised, beaten or battered. Yet at 33 and after going under another surgeon's knife, Tulowitzki has a healthy perspective on a career that could have turned out oh so different.

"Some of the injuries, like stepping on someone's foot, you just can't control," he said. "But the injuries I can control are the ones I try to look myself in the mirror and say, OK, you need to get better in this area. But there are times where it's just kind of bad luck, and I think things happen for a reason.

"I've learned so much about the game of baseball and my body itself that, who knows, maybe one day in whatever I'm doing, it gives me an edge."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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