Troy Tulowitzki's fleeting greatness leaves us wondering what could have been

ByDan Mullen ESPN logo
Friday, July 26, 2019

To understand what Troy Tulowitzki was at his best, you need to know only one phrase. Better yet, you need to chantonly one phrase.

Clap-clap, clap-clap-clap Tu-lo! Clap-clap, clap-clap-clap Tu-lo!

Now imagine that chant roaring down from 50,000 purple-and-black-clad Colorado Rockies fans and reverberating through the see-your-breath-but-can't-feel-your-toes, mile-high air of Coors Field on a chilly October night. Or imagine that same chant following Tulo across the border to the Rogers Centre after he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015.

In a Broncos-loving town embracing a baseball star, the Tu-lo chant turned a young shortstop's at-bats into an event. The chant was all about anticipation for what Tulo might do next when he had a bat in his hands. And watching Tulowitzki was all about what might come next.

Sure, we had seen big shortstops before. Cal Ripken Jr. was a big shortstop. Alex Rodriguez was a big shortstop. So was Derek Jeter. But we had never seen a big shortstop like this.

At his best, Tulowitzki was Mike Trout at shortstop. He was Jeter with defensive metrics. He was, quite simply, the best shortstop in the game, with a chance to be one of the best players of his generation.

This was a player who managed to escape the "Coors Field product" whispers that plagued Colorado stars before him such as Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Matt Holliday, and even Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon after him, because every skill Tulowitzki possessed on the diamond screamed as loud as those Tulo chants.

He pounced on balls in the third-base hole that no shortstop -- let alone one standing 6-foot-3, 205 pounds -- had any business getting a glove on. He grunted as he threw and his arm had no trouble reaching the mid-90s on throws to first base. And at the plate, well, he broke Ernie Banks' National League record for home runs by a rookie shortstop -- in a time before setting home run records was a nightly occurrence in baseball -- and belted 30-plus homers twice in his first five seasons.

Through five All-Star trips, numerous highlight-reel plays and countless chants of his name, Tulowitzki seemed a star destined to break through the thin-air-stigma wall positioned between 20th and Blake and Cooperstown.

The problem? Tulowitzki wasn't at his best nearly enough.

In between all of those MVP-level stretches in Denver sat an equally long list of injuries ranging from a self-inflicted bat wound after the ultracompetitive shortstop cut his hand while smashing his bat during his second full season to a bout of leg problems that ultimately ended his career, with his retirement announcement coming in a letter released Thursday afternoon. With the constantly growing list of injuries, all of the anticipation about what Tulo might do next was slowly replaced with another thought: What could have been?

It's no secret that things didn't end well for Tulowitzki in Colorado. A constant frustration about his team's constant perch on the outside of the playoff picture swelled in Tulo, and his boundless talent became hard to count on when his body couldn't stay on the field more than 120 games in a good year.

By the time Tulowitzki was dealt to the Blue Jays in 2015, it felt like it could be a good thing for both sides. The Rockies could start a new chapter around Arenado, a Tulowitzki protégé, and the shortstop would get a chance to play for a winner as a deadline addition for an absolutely loaded Toronto squad.

Finally, we were talking about what Tulowitzki might do next again instead of wondering what could have been when Tulowitzki welcomed himself to his new home with a home run in his Blue Jays debut. Even though Tulo missed 18 games down the stretch with a cracked shoulder blade, he returned ahead of schedule and Toronto rolled to the American League Championship Series before falling to the Kansas City Royals in six games.

That history of leg injuries reared its ugly head again in 2016, and Tulowitzki struggled to stay healthy or produce when he did play, batting a career low .254 and never really finding his rhythm again in Toronto. Hamstring injuries limited him to 66 games in 2017, and a bone spur to start 2018 ensured that Blue Jays fans would be talking about what could have been instead of what's to come, culminating with the Jays eating the remaining $38 million on his contract.

But then a funny thing happened this winter. The New York Yankees, the team of Tulo's childhood hero in Jeter, had a need at shortstop and took a risk on Tulowitzki. And suddenly the Tulo buzz came back -- even though the odds of him ever being clap-clap, clap-clap-clap Tu-lo sat somewhere between slim and none -- and we were talking about what might be once again.

Tulo, who even at 34 hadn't lost his ability to make the most of a debut, belted a home run against the team that had just released him in his first spring training at-bat. It felt like his comeback story might actually be written in pinstripes. But the regular season proved a different story, and he made it just five games before a calf injury ended the comeback of a player who, despite all the injuries, finishes with the seventh-most home runs ever hit by a shortstop.

And instead of ending with a speech in Cooperstown or even having his number retired by a team, Tulowitzki's career officially ended Thursday with a statement released through the Yankees, saying, "I will forever be grateful for every day that I've had to live out my dream. It has been an absolute honor."

And instead of going down as a player whose all-time rank among shortstops will be debated for decades to come, Troy Tulowitzki's legacy will be on the list of stars about whom we'll always wonder what could have been.

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