What they have produced, over the length of their careers, has had an incredibly positive, buoying, and consoling effect on my life. Their work on the field has saved me during the times I needed saving, has helped me better understand my world and the pain I’ve endured, and has simply made me happy when I needed a little more happy in my life. And even if I don’t know them personally, I can admire, respect, and be grateful to them for the solace they’ve offered me, win or lose.
- Stacey May Fowles, on favorite baseball players
Ten years ago, when I was nine years old, I enjoyed baseball a reasonable amount. I played on a team, I knew all the players you had to know, and when I watched games on TV with my family, I could understand and appreciate what was going on. But baseball was a casual, non-urgent interest: something I took pleasure in, but to which I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention.
Until, on some Sportsnet highlight reel in September, I caught a glimpse of Troy Tulowitzki.
He didn’t play like anyone I’d ever seen. He played shortstop like a dancer, running and jumping and turning and throwing all in one fluid motion, the ball dropping into the first baseman’s glove as though he’d simply reached out and placed it there. When he hit, the ball seemed to explode away from him.
Mesmerized, I did some research. I found out that the Colorado Rockies were an underdog, a team that had never won anything and that nobody had ever really cared about, making a miraculous run at their first-ever postseason. More importantly, I found out that no. 2, the tall shortstop with the curly mullet, was a 22-year-old taking the league by storm in his first full season in the majors. He was poised for superstardom. They called him Tulo.
For the rest of the season, I made sure I kept up with the Rockies. While my older brother lamented the continued mediocrity of the Blue Jays, I bailed on watching them (save for Halladay starts). Instead, I hunted down whatever Rockies highlights I could find, and checked the NL wild card standings with ever-growing excitement as they won game after unlikely game. In the middle of the magic was Tulo, my new favorite baseball player. My first favorite baseball player.
But the magic didn’t outlast October, and the Rockies, after sweeping their way through the NLDS and NLCS, got swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. For the first time in my life, baseball had broken my heart.
In retrospect, though, the Red Sox were the better team. They were deeper, stronger, more experienced. The end of that magical run was inevitable.
On April 29th, 2008, a chilly spring evening in San Francisco, Tulo was pulled off the bench right before the game began. It was supposed to be a night off for him, but the listed starter at shortstop had injured himself during the pregame warmup. In the bottom of the 1st, Tulo strained his left thigh and left the game. The next day, he hit the DL for the first time in his major-league career.
Going into that April 29th game, the Rockies’ record was 10-16: not ideal, but not a hole too deep to dig themselves out of. When Tulo was reinstated from the DL 51 days later, the Rockies had sunk to 31-42: last place in their division, and the second-worst record in the National League.
A single injury, of course, is not cause for overwhelming alarm, especially when the injury seemed to be a result of circumstance – being put into a game that he had not adequately warmed up for – rather than an indicator of latent physical problems. But after the leg strain, the injuries kept coming. Though the thigh and hip injuries became a disturbing running theme, many of Tulo’s injuries (34 of them from the beginning of 2007 to the end of 2014) weren’t localized, or in the expected place. Some of them were the result of stupidity, like the thumb laceration Tulo inflicted on himself by smashing a bat in frustration in 2008, sending him to the DL for 16 days. Many of them were bad luck, like the hit-by-pitch hamate fracture that sidelined him for 39 days in 2010.
It’s wonderful having a charismatic star player to build your team around. When that player is so often injured, though, when the team must constantly account for some number of days when he’s not going to be there, the overall value of such a player can be called into question. And as the Rockies struggled through the first half of this decade, Tulo’s injuries were inseparable from the woes of the team. When he was healthy, he dazzled, a glimmer of hope for the Rockies; when he went down, as he seemed to every alternating season, he brought the team’s hopes with him.
Being a fan of Tulo has been an exercise in anticipatory dread, of being enthralled by greatness while always painfully aware of its finitude. His injury history has been a sword of Damocles dangling over the team that employs him. There have been few players in the recent past who have shown the kind of spectacular ability on both sides of the ball that Tulo has, and it is that very ability which has made his inevitable DL stints and inevitable decline even more painful. The phantom of how great he was, and of how much greater he could have been, follows him like a shadow.
It would be a lot easier to accept how poorly the Jays have played this year if they were not so much the same team we saw triumphant in 2015 and 2016, the same team that has given us so many unforgettable moments and inspired a new generation of Blue Jays fans. You look at the lineup and see those familiar names and numbers: Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. You still get excited when they take the field, still feel that rush of hope, the leftover thrill from two playoff runs that ended too soon.
And then you watch them ground into double plays, flail at bad pitches, foul off middle-middle fastballs that you know they would have sent into the stratosphere even just a year ago. They are the same people, sure, but they are two years older than they were 2015, one year older than they were last year. Even Donaldson, who was until recently as sturdy a player as one could think of, has seen his ability sapped by injury. As much as you want the gang to stay together, to finally finish what they started and bring a World Series parade to Toronto, they simply aren’t the same players who made up the best team in baseball in 2015. They are human beings who have aged, and the passage of time is one ailment that a major league training staff can’t fix.
Troy Tulowitzki is not the same player he was when I first saw him on that highlight reel ten years ago. He’s not the same player he was before that thigh strain in San Francisco, or before the surgery to remove scar tissue around a nerve in his groin in 2012, or before the hip surgery in 2014, or before the trade that upended his life in 2015. There are flashes of who he used to be, sometimes: when his bat comes around with its former speed, or when he turns a double play in that inimitable way he does.
But in the end, these are only flashes, memories intruding on the present day. The reality is that my favorite baseball player is no longer very good at baseball. The reality is that Tulo is a player who no longer hits the ball hard, who no longer has the range or the unfailing hands that he once did. He is 32 years old, and he has only played in 66 games this season. He is costing the Jays 20 million dollars a year.
A winning Blue Jays team might no longer have room for Tulo on it.
On July 28th, Tulo caught his foot on C.J. Cron’s trying to beat a ground ball to first. He immediately crumpled to the ground and lay there, grimacing, making no attempt to move. It was the second anniversary of the blockbuster trade that brought him to Toronto. The training staff huddled around him, and in the absence of any more interesting footage, the Sportsnet broadcast kept replaying the injury in slow motion, gratuitously, as if to make us all feel the pain.
Tulo eventually hobbled off the field, almost all of his weight carried by the training staff. The crowd applauded. The no. 2 on his back disappeared into the clubhouse tunnel. Goins took over at shortstop, and Darwin Barney came into the game to play second.
It all felt curiously prewritten: that, on a day when debate was raging about Tulo’s cost and age and injury-proneness, the very day that had seen him brought to the Blue Jays, he just happened to suffer an injury that will likely keep him off the field for the rest of the season. It was such tidy summation of his time as a Blue Jay, so neat, so perfectly circular.
It felt like an ending.
(Bo Bichette is batting .410/.462/.518 in Dunedin. They say he could stick at shortstop.)
Of all the many moments I could pick to sum up Tulo’s legacy for me – all the beautiful jump-throws, all the clutch home runs, all the stupid, painful injuries, all the many, many days he couldn’t play – there is one that stands out above the others.
I graduated from high school in June of 2015. I had spent most the previous two years either on the verge of suicide or in hospital recovering from failed attempts. After emerging from the most recent and longest hospital stay in March of that year, I’d decided that it would be my last one.
But as the summer wore on, I was beginning to have doubts about that resolution. Summer has always been my worst season. School, though I never enjoyed it, was at least a way to pass the time. But summer was long and hot and empty and joyless. I didn’t have anything I wanted to do, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do anything. I felt like I had no reason to wake up in the morning.
Like it had done with most of my interests, depression had long ago taken away any joy I had in baseball. After Tulo’s MVP-caliber first half of 2014 ended in season-ending hip surgery, I’d become too sad to even check up on his stats. My only remaining connection to the sport was my eight-year-old brother, a nascent Blue Jays fan. He was watching Sportsnet with rapt attention when I came home from work on July 28th.
When I saw the name in big letters on the screen, my heart stopped for a second. I felt the same way I did when I was nine, when I saw that highlight reel.
“The Jays got Tulo?” I asked incredulously. “The Jays got Tulo?”
“Yeah,” my brother responded. He turned and looked at me. “I don’t know who that is. Have you heard of him?”
I haven’t had a joyless summer since.
Lead Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports