Troy Tulowitzki retired last Thursday, bringing an end to one of the more evanescent MLB careers of the 2000s. Tulowitzki made it through 13 seasons as a professional, though he played over 120 games in just seven of those. Various injuries kept him from playing full seasons throughout his career, and their compounding impact seem to be the reason he has given up on the game at age 34. It occurs to me now that Troy Tulowitzki, a player who mattered as much to me, a lifelong baseball fan, as any other player I’ve ever seen, probably won’t be remembered for too long. The guy who once seemed destined to become a Hall of Famer worthy of worship is now more likely to end up as just a guy to be vaguely remembered.
Imagine taking a look at Tulo’s Baseball Reference page in 10 years. What will jump out? There are some excellent seasons, sure, but nothing that really grabs anyone by the collar and starts shouting the words “generational player.” Those 25-homer seasons and Gold Gloves and bushels of doubles are impressive, but none of them will make anyone think that they are looking at statistics belonging to one of the coolest players to ever put on a uniform. Troy Tulowitzki was that, I swear to God.
One of the best things about being a sports fan is that moment of recognizing and subsequently being charmed by the ineffable qualities of a young player. When Tulowitzki arrived in Denver as a 21-year-old prospect, he was nothing but ineffable qualities. There was just so much to see when Tulo was on the field, and so much to be taken with.
He was huge, for one thing. Six-foot-three and mostly legs. When he moved around the infield it looked like someone had taught a free safety how to play shortstop. Balls weren’t hit to him so much as they were hunted down, their escape routes closed off by a ball-hawk striding into the hole. Once he got ahold of those balls, he did terribly rude things to them. Tulo was never one to try and beat a runner by flipping the ball across the diamond as quickly as possible, instead preferring to take his time, line up his shot, and then fire a rocket into the first baseman’s mitt. I can see him now, gobbling up a ball, taking a too-long beat to pump it into his big floppy glove, and then throwing the ball with such force that it looked like his right shoulder blade would come bursting out of his back.
And then after all that, you got to watch him hit. Good lord, could he hit! He always swung the bat just like he threw the ball—as hard as possible—and for a time the best thing a Rockies game could offer was the chance to see Tulo latch his bat onto a chest-high fastball, which he could never watch go by, and send it deep into the left-field bleachers. Sometimes he’d catch hold of one and send it straight out with such force that for a second it would look like the ball was about to come crashing through the centerfield camera and into your living room. Instead, it would fly over everyone’s head and bang off the wall in center before Tulo was even finished rounding first.
I’m sure there are highlights out there on the internet that illustrate some of what I’ve been trying to describe, but that’s never been a sufficient method for understanding who a ballplayer was and what he meant. Being a fan of a specific baseball team means coming home from work and turning the TV to the same channel for 100-plus nights a year, and then spending the next three or so hours letting all the little details of the team and players you love imprint themselves on you. In all my years as a Rockies fan, nobody made a stronger impression than Tulowitzki. The way he swung the bat, threw the ball, glared at opponents who had wronged him, stiffly stomped around the bases after a homer, even the face he made when making a particularly strenuous throw—it’s all still there, locked away in my mind and just as fun to rewatch there as it was on my TV screen years ago.
There is a universe in which Tulo was allowed to imprint himself on more than just those wayward few of us who watched hundreds of Rockies games from 2006-2015. Without his hips and feet and legs constantly failing him, Tulowitzki’s journey to the American League could have made him a household name. Imagine him now, as a healthy 34-year-old shortstop, playing every day for the Yankees and putting the finishing touches on a Hall-of-Fame career. Maybe he wouldn’t be quite as spry in the field as he once was, but the bat would still be there, lashing baseballs all over the field in front of fans who would never forget him. What an ending that would have been.
What Tulowitzki got instead was an early retirement that probably went unnoticed by plenty of baseball fans. It’s a shitty way for such a noteworthy player to leave the game, and the numbers he leaves behind—225 homers, 1,391 hits, and a .290/.361/.495 slash line—aren’t likely to garner much attention as time goes on. Troy Tulowitzki will not go down as a legendary baseball player, but for those of us who saw him play like one, who spent a few years of our lives watching him take the field every day and smother it with his talent, a legend is all he can be.