Tulo confident, ready to roll on Opening Day
Rockies shortstop eager to prove he's still among best in the game
MILWAUKEE -- Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has spent 10 months waiting, and he became surprisingly good at it. On Sunday afternoon, he leaned against the visitors' dugout at Miller Park and gave the relaxed smile of a man who knew the payoff was coming in less than 24 hours, yet he wasn't staring at the clock.
Tulowitzki, 28, underwent surgery to remove scar tissue from his troublesome left groin and didn't play after May 30 last year. He wisely didn't risk his health just to get back into uniform to experience the end of the worst season in Rockies history (64-98). During Spring Training, Tulowitzki saved his patented leaping laser throws from across the infield and the trademark hustle until the final days.
Tulowitzki completed his spring with a jaw-dropping home run in Salt Lake City on Saturday against Mariners rookie sensation Brandon Maurer. Step by step, Tulowitzki has arrived exactly where he wanted to be -- ready for the Rockies' 2013 Opening Day game against the Brewers on Monday.
"This game is going to build some nerves and some stress sometimes," Tulowitzki said. "But the older I've gotten, I've become a little bit more relaxed. You've been through a lot, whether it be struggling or injuries, whatever this game can throw at me. I'm back at it again here and ready to try to help the team win games.
"More than anything, you just gain some patience to stick this thing, and hopefully it's going to be all right."
Patience wasn't always a Tulowitzki trait. It seemed he believed he could make what he wanted to happen -- right now -- through force of will. Sometimes that's what happened.
Tulowitzki's precocious play and attitude in his rookie year of 2007 was one of several delightfully unexpected attributes of the team during its run to a World Series appearance. His hard-driving style made him a leader of another team that went to the playoffs two years later. Rather than wait for arbitration and free agency to become factors and stresses, Tulowitzki signed two contracts, the last covering seasons through 2020.
But Tulowitzki has learned that neither baseball nor his career operate solely on his schedule. Originally injured during the first series of last season, Tulowitzki pushed until May 30, when his groin became so bad he couldn't continue to play. After an aborted rehab attempt, Tulowitzki underwent surgery in Philadelphia with sports hernia specialist Dr. William Myers.
The aftermath tried the patience that Tulowitzki didn't know he had. After healing, Tulowitzki played some Minor League rehab games but never felt confident enough to return to the Majors. After such a year of discontent for himself and the team, Tulowitzki believed the club would move him to fill multiple needs and escape some of its $140 million commitment to him. It was a long, painful reversal of fortunes for Tulowitzki. Not only was he an All-Star the previous two years, but he had embraced face-of-the-franchise status, the point that he vocally defended the Rockies when former pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez -- traded in 2011 -- expressed disappointment over contract issues.
But no deal happened, and rehab continued. Somewhere along the line, Tulowitzki moved toward a big-picture approach.
"You understand it," Tulowitzki said. "All you can do is just go out there, play the game the right way, help your team win games and let all that stuff take care of itself. Whether it happens or not, just be a professional."
Tulowitzki vows to at least try being patient with himself. He won't be able to resist postgame trips to the batting cage when his swing isn't right, but said he'll do it with the thought of regaining feel, rather than pounding out frustration. He has learned more about managing his muscles through rest, flexibility programs and massage.
But where the new attitude could show best is in dealings with others.
As a rookie, there was the clubhouse incident in Arizona when Tulowitzki announced to teammates that he had never lost before and wasn't about to start. Granted, it was months later that Colorado made an improbable run to the postseason and the World Series and, more accurately, he was putting himself in line with already-frustrated veteran players, rather than ahead of them on the leadership hierarchy.
But afterward, Tulowitzki struggled to find his persona as a leader. He became more vocal most of the time, but at times, he would withdraw when struggling. He also admits he didn't always have the best timing -- an issue that is difficult for managers and coaches, much less a teammate in his 20s.
"A lot of times, I confronted guys right when things happened," Tulowitzki said. "Now I sit back, watch, get to know the guy a little bit better. That's changed a little bit. I just have to keep in perspective how hard it is to play this game."
Now Tulowitzki says he better understands players like Todd Helton, still the team's elder statesman, Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe, who led quietly by first making younger teammates feel accepted.
"You've got to show them some love, that's the best way to put it," Tulowitzki said. "Whether you're coaches or an older guy trying to help them, show them some love and they tend to listen a little bit better.
"That being said, I'm not worrying about that. I can be who I am. I don't have to do anything different to lead. Put my work in. Play the game the right way. That's the kind of leading I'm into."
Make no mistake. The fire can burn in a relaxed man.
Winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards in 2010 and '11 made Tulowitzki simply the best two-way shortstop in the game.
Yet, he hears the whispers that a guy 6-foot-3 and powerfully built simply isn't flexible enough to handle the demands of what traditionally was a little man's position. He hears the low expectations for the club this year, even though with Tulowitzki in the cleanup spot behind No. 3 hitter Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have a lineup that has a chance to overcome the team's iffy pitching.
For nearly a year, Tulowitzki has held back so much, physically and emotionally. But he knows Monday is time to let it all flow with his characteristic furor.
"I think the confidence I've always had is still with me," Tulowitzki said. "You hear those whispers of the injuries or, 'He needs to be healthy and put up his numbers before.' You want to do that, to prove to them that you've still got it. There's a lot of stuff built up inside of me of why I want to have a good year.
"Then again, there are some things you can't control, and I realize that, too. I can want all I want and that doesn't mean it's going to happen. You have to be out there on the field. But if I'm out there, I believe in my abilities."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.