The Face Of The Franchise
DENVER—From September of last year on to the beginning of this season, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki enjoyed a power surge that almost defied reason.
He hit 14 home runs from Sept. 3-18 last season and batted .377. This year, Tulowitzki belted seven homers with 14 RBIs from April 5-14, while hitting .444. After the Rockies swept a series from the Mets, Tulowitzki had hit 21 home runs in 42 games, dating back to Sept. 1. Almost apologetically, he insisted the game wasn't as easy as he was making it look. Hitters talk about seeing the ball well, the ball looking as big as a grapefruit and being in the zone. But Tulowitzki made no reference to visual acuity, citrus fruit or the metaphysical.
"I don't know what you'd call it," he said. "But during those streaks, I continually try to humble myself. I never want to get too big-headed. There's no doubt about it; I believe I'm a good player. But at the same time, I just won't fall into that trap to believe that I'm the best player in the game or close to (it) or things like that, (things) that some people may say. I just want to work is basically what it comes down to."
Tulowitzki, 26, hit 32 home runs and drove in 95 runs in 2009 when he hit .297/.377/.552, becoming the first shortstop in Rockies history to lead the team in home runs, RBIs, runs (101) and total bases. He was limited to 122 games last year, missing 33 games with a broken left wrist after Twins reliever Alex Burnett hit him with a pitch on June 17, and he finished at .315/.381/.568 thanks to a September that was Ruthian.
He finished the month with 15 homers and 40 RBIs. The only player in major league history who exceeded those September totals was Babe Ruth, with 17 homers and 43 RBIs in September 1927.
Tulowitzki is a productive clean-up hitter but by no means defined only by his offense. He won a Gold Glove last year for his defensive play at a premium position. He has great range and an accurate arm that is stunningly strong. Former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle would marvel at how Tulowitzki would go deep in the hole for a ball and while backing into the outfield, unleash long, successful jump throws to first base. Reaching across sports and across decades, Hurdle compared Tulowitzki's let-it-fly acrobatics to quarterback Sammy Baugh's jump passes. Considering that the venerable Baugh was known as Slingin' Sammy, the comparison seemed appropriate.
"The thing that makes Tulo the guy who he is, is he's fearless," Rockies teammate Jason Giambi said. "He really is. He plays with the passion of making plays that nobody else will even try to make. He wants to be that guy up at the plate in the big situation to get the big hit to win the game for the team."
After last season, Tulowitzki signed a six-year contract extension through 2020 worth $119 million. Even before that deal, Tulowitzki had become the face of the Rockies franchise, assuming the role once held by first baseman Todd Helton, 37.
It's one thing for a younger player to be the face of the franchise on a team going nowhere. But the Rockies have been in the postseason two of the past four years. Their chances to return to the playoffs or win their first National League West title looked promising after a 16-7 start. Though he's just 26, Tulowitzki is the face of a contending franchise.
"I think it shows a great sign of maturity," general manager Dan O'Dowd said, "and understanding the value of leadership and what his role within it is. And I think it's real rare.
"I think you lead a number of different ways. But I think he's one of the hardest workers we have. We have a team of hard workers, but Tulo's always trying to find an edge to make himself better, and as such, he's always trying to find a way to make the team better."
No Problem Speaking Up
Tulowitzki, the seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Long Beach State, reached the big leagues in late August 2006. As a rookie in '07, he played on a Rockies team that reached the postseason with a 14-1 stretch run that became a 22-1 romp to the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox.
The Rockies lost 88 games in 2008, giving Tulowitzki the experience of playing on a losing team. They started slowly the following year, but after Jim Tracy replaced Hurdle as manager in late May they began a turnaround that resulted in more October baseball.
Soon after becoming manager, Tracy asked veterans Helton and Brad Hawpe to be more assertive in the clubhouse and to say whatever they deemed necessary to their teammates—in other words, to wield their veteran clout when necessary. It was not a request Tracy had to make of Tulowitzki, even though he had far less service time.
"It's very rare to find a guy at his age that will push guys," Giambi said. "He's not afraid to speak up. He's not afraid to get up in front at a team meeting and say we got to do things differently. That's a rare breed to find."
It's simply part of his skill set for Tulowitzki to voice his opinion, to prod if necessary and to do what must be done to get the group going in the right direction and win.
"It's not like I could have turned this organization around by myself," Tulowitzki said. "But I think collectively as a group, I saw a bunch of young guys who had the talent. They just needed to believe that we could win. And every time I've taken the field, I've never been scared of any pitchers. I've never been scared of any opposing players. Even as a young rookie, you idolize some guys you're playing against, but I never backed down. I wanted to compete against the best. But not only did I want to compete against them, I wanted to beat them. So I think it was more of a mentality change in the organization to sit here and know we have good players."
Because they both went to Long Beach State, Giambi, 40, said he watched Tulowitzki from afar until Giambi joined the Rockies for the final month of the 2009 season. When Giambi came up with the Athletics, he remembers asking veteran Mark McGwire questions, and now he has come full circle. Tulowitzki is the young player, seeking information and wisdom from Giambi. They are good friends whose lockers are adjacent in the Rockies clubhouse.
"He does an incredible job of retaining what you tell him," Giambi said. "That's the difference I see between when I played (as a young major leaguer) and now is that the players don't really retain as much. He's old school.
"When I came up, we kind of ate, drank, slept baseball. These kids are like, I got my iPad. I have my video games. And I play baseball. Where he lives it. Like Derek Jeter, he is the poster child for your minor league kids. This is who you want to be when you get to the big leagues. This is what you want to do. This is how you want to approach the game. This is how you want to work at the game."
Tulowitzki wears No. 2 out of respect for Jeter. He has two boxers and has named the dogs Rawlings and Ripken, paying homage to his defensive tool of the trade and to a Hall of Fame shortstop who was seen as bigger than the norm for his position.
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Tulowitzki is a linear descendant of big shortstops such as Cal Ripken Jr., and a decade later, Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez.
Referring to the latter three, Giambi said of Tulowitzki, "He's like a combination of those guys rolled into one. He's got the talent and power of A-Rod. He's making more incredible plays than A-Rod made. Nomar was the fearless one; Nomar would make (spectacular) plays and throw (balls) in the stands and didn't care because he wanted to (try). He was a bad-ball hitter; Tulo can hit the bad ball.
"Jeter's that guy that every day goes out there nose to the grindstone, is going to play the game perfectly. He does what he's supposed to do. He's going to win you a ton of ballgames. He's never going to lose you a ballgame."
A Lifelong Rockie?
Tulowitzki is in his fifth full season with the Rockies and seems likely to spend his entire career with them after signing through 2020. He had three years remaining on his contract with a club option for 2014, meaning the Rockies already owed him $38.75 million. The six-year extension that runs through 2020—there is a $15 million club option or $4 million buyout for 2021—is worth $119 million, giving Tulowitzki $157.75 million guaranteed in the next decade.
Shortly after finalizing Tulowitzki's deal, the Rockies signed 25-year-old outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to a seven-year, $80 million contract. The last time the Rockies spent heavily on two players in one offseason was December 2000, whey they plunged into the free-agent pitching market and signed Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $121 million contract and Denny Neagle for five years and $51 million. Hampton lasted two years in Denver and Neagle three, and the two combined to go 40-51 for the Rockies. Their signings set the franchise back considerably.
"I think we know these players," O'Dowd said. "And we really didn't know the other two like we should have. They weren't good decisions. These will remain to be judged if they're good decisions, and you're going to have to give it a lot of years for that to work out.
"We were trying to create winning and taking a lot of shortcuts to do it. And we didn't have an infrastructure in place to be able to support that. It wasn't a good strategic long-term decision. These were made under a totally different set of circumstances."
At the end of the 2020 season, Tulowitzki will be nearing his 36th birthday. O'Dowd said they discussed "at length" the possibility that the demands of shortstop would become too great, forcing Tulowitzki to move to another position.
"He's a guy that takes a lot of pride in his conditioning and what he eats and how he trains," O'Dowd said. "I think the key would be if there's someone who comes along at some point in time (who is) better.
"One thing Tulo is blessed with, he's got a great first step and tremendous anticipation of where the ball's going to be hit. And I think when you combine those two things, there's a longer longevity there, as long as he can physically stay healthy."
Understandably, Tulowitzki isn't giving any thought to the matter now, saying his hope is to remain at shortstop as long as possible. It is there he already has made a mark and where he hopes, years from now, to be regarded as truly great.
"I'm not afraid to throw out Hall of Fame, things like that, because that means a lot to me," he said. "I pay attention. I watch the game. I respect the players who have done it for a long time. There's no doubt about it; I think about things like that. I look at my ranks with the all-time shortstops and things like that. It continues to try to make me better.
"And when it's all said and done, I want the guys who watched me and played with me to say I played real hard and I was a good player."