Don't Let Troy Tulowitzki's Sad Decline Take Away from His Greatness

Tulo was a superstar, once among MLB's very best players. But injuries got the best of him, leading to his release from the Toronto Blue Jays.

|
Dec 12 2018, 8:51pm

Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press

It's not a tragedy when a player destined for greatness has to settle for "immensely wealthy and universally respected by his peers" but watching athletes turn to shadows of themselves is never easy.

The Toronto Blue Jays just paid Troy Tulowitzki, one of the greatest shortstops of his generation, a 34-year-old player who was above average at the plate and in the field as recently as two seasons ago, $38 million to go away.

Unable and unwilling to fit the perennial All-Star into their plans or their lineup, a highly paid and potentially bothersome roadblock to the development and assessment of future franchise cornerstones was cast aside with a sympathetic smile and lukewarm words of encouragement.

Players who make the impossible routine, who are somehow bigger, faster, and stronger than life trick us into believing anything is possible, when reality and gravity bide their time and come for us all. Just because this roster move seems logical doesn't mean it doesn't sting a little, seeing someone who seemed to operate on a higher plane land in an undignified heap back on Earth.

It was never going to end well for Tulo in Toronto, a player who was acquired on the backend of his career once decline had settled in. Most Blue Jays fans never got to see the real Troy Tulowitzki, a player in the conversation for the game's best for the better part of a decade.

Tulowitzki hit .300/.375/.524 between 2007 and 2014, averaging 22 home runs and 26 doubles a year while playing all-universe defense at shortstop the entire time. Across this peak, the former seventh overall draft pick amassed more Wins Above Replacement than all but 13 position players, despite ranking 101st in games played during the same span. Tulo got on base, hit for power, turned heads with his arm strength and defensive play and had a run where he posted a .900-plus OPS in five of six years. He won Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards and made five All-Star teams. There was no disputing his greatness. Then he was traded to Toronto in a 2015 blockbuster stunner and things would never be the same.

He would show occasional flashes of his brilliance on the sickly green carpet of the Rogers Centre while manning shortstop for the Blue Jays. His defense remained a revelation, though something of a slowed down version of himself. He remained smooth, accurate and sure-handed as ever. At the plate, he didn't quite look the part, as wear-and-tear robbed him of bat speed during a moment in baseball's history when the ability to get around on the hard stuff makes or breaks a hitter's fortunes.

Instead of watching a renaissance, we watched a once-great player break down. In 2017, as the front office began disassembling an aging group with its best days in the rearview mirror, Tulowitzki struggled and then disappeared, as another freak injury in a career full of freak injuries knocked him out, and he never returned. Now a free agent following his release, Tulowitzki enters the 2019 season having not played a major league game since July 2017.

Class is an overused sports cliché, just as judgments of character are often misapplied in the professional sporting context. Good luck and good genes conspire to dictate the legacy of most players, as few are lucky enough to walk off the field on their own terms at close to the top of their games.

Not everybody gets to go out like Ted Williams, homering in their final at-bat. The final pitches Roy Halladay threw in the big leagues registered on the radar guns in the low 80s, and were misclassified as changeups even when they weren't. His shoulder had had enough and his career was over.

Carlos Beltran won a ring in his final year but limped to the worst season of his career, posting career lows in every imaginable category while looking a husk of his former dynamic, five-tool self as a designated hitter. He got his title but was used sparingly during the postseason, managing just three hits in 20 at-bats.

Alex Rodriguez returned from suspension in 2015 with a brilliant comeback season, only to crater the following year. The then 40-year-old, still looking every bit like a cyborg programmed to play baseball, posted such grim numbers that he hung up his spikes in August. The less said about Albert Pujols, the better.

The ability to bow out gracefully is a luxury most can't afford, as the abuse professional athletes heap upon their bodies sometimes demands its reckoning all at once rather than slowly over time.

Healthy players are healthy until they aren't. They're great until they aren't. Some declines we can chalk up to bad luck, others bad decisions or an inability to read the writing on the wall. But when a great player falls so far, so fast, it sticks with us. How could this happen? To HIM?! Those capable of the extraordinary somehow seem less believable when performing the mundane.

There are so many factors that contribute to steep declines or injury-ravaged careers. Maybe a player is drafted by a team without a strong track record for keeping players healthy. Sometimes they play their home games in a ballpark that produces soft tissue injuries at a dizzying rate. Sometimes they work themselves too hard, allowing motivations both internal and external to drown out the sound of their body saying "that's enough."

Troy Tulowitzki showing off his arm on the Colorado Rockies. Photo by Rick Giase/EPA
Tulowitzi, during better days with the Rockies, showing off his arm. Photo by Rick Giase/EPA

Tulowitzki came to Toronto amid a cultural shift in the front office. Gone were malcontents and players without winning pedigrees, in came consummate professionals who lived, ate, and breathed baseball. Tulo fit this mould, the prototypical baseball gym rat, tireless in his efforts to improve and stay at the top of his game.

It was that reputation that allowed his former team to invest so heavily in him, seeing his grit and determination as positive indicators of continued production even as he aged. But modern sports medicine prizes rest as much as repetition. There's a strong chance the injury-prone superstar was the author of his own demise in some ways, pushing a body that needed to recover too many times.

The word "sunk cost" is going to get a workout this week. Baseball and its economics are inseparable today, as much a part of the fan experience as sunny days at the ballpark and dramatic home runs. "Sunk cost" might accurately describe Tulo's contract, but the bold gambit that brought him to Toronto represents the best of what sports can offer.

Hope and awe wore No. 2 in Toronto, as in Colorado before. Fans couldn't believe this guy—Troy Tulowitzki!—played for their team. A larger-than-life figure in the sport with unbelievable numbers and a game that only looked better the closer you looked. But the inevitable came quickly, and the MBA calculus of a braintrust saddled with, rather than blessed by, his presence took the drastic step to end the relationship.

Many fans won't remember the Troy Tulowitzki Era in Toronto as fondly as they remember his acquisition. Fans of rival NL West clubs likely remember the strong feelings of dislike they had for the brash guy with the stunt mullet to hit everything thrown his way and sucked up every grounder hit anywhere near him.

Sports fans love to turn injury-prone players into punchlines, which seems doubly shameful when the player in question was capable of incredible things on the field. Sometimes the notoriously short memories of sports fans serves a purpose, as wondering what might have been tends to gnaw at us more than remembering the wonder they provided.