This post is a personal story about me, why Troy Tulowitzki is my favorite player, and how his actions helped me get over something that has haunted me for nearly a decade. If you think that sounds crazy, just wait until after the jump when you read my story.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
"Troy Tulowitzki out 6-8 weeks with fractured left wrist"
There had to be some sort of mistake I thought. "The Rockies need Tulo too much!!!" Surely if I check another news report it will say something different.
"Troy Tulowitzki to the DL with a broken wrist"
I still refused to believe it. "Let me check another article." I said
"Rockies’ Tulowitzki out with fractured wrist"
After playing this game maybe a half dozen times I began to realize that the nightmare was a reality and that the Rockies were going to have to play on without Tulo for quite some time. My initial reaction to this was shock, but as it always does, the shock wore off and my emotions soon shifted toward anger and sadness. I was sad about how Tulo’s injury would affect the Rockies as a team and wondered if losing their best offensive player, their best defensive player, and their team leader all in one would end up being something that keeps them out of the playoffs. I felt sad for Tulo on an individual level and how this wrist injury was going to keep him from playing in the All Star game and once again rob him of any accolades he’s long deserved. (See the 2007 and 2009 Gold Glove Awards along with the 2007 Rookie of the Year Voting for more on this).
But when it came right down to it, I also felt sad on a much more selfish level. I was shocked, angry, confused and heartbroken that I wouldn’t be able to see my favorite player man shortstop on a nightly basis anymore; and worse yet, I couldn’t quite grasp why I felt the way I did. Sure I expected to feel bad about Tulo’s injury, but this issue preyed upon my mind wherever I would go. It didn’t matter if I was in the car, at work, eating dinner, lying awake in bed at night, or actually watching the Rockies game, I just couldn’t stop replaying the injury in my mind over and over again and questioning how it could have turned out differently. I would ask things like…
"Why did Alex Burnett have to select that pitch?"
"Why did it have to be Tulo?"
"What if it hit Tulo on the arm instead of the wrist?"
I knew it was a fruitless endeavor, but I just couldn’t stop my mind from partaking in it.
After agonizing over this nonstop for several days, my anger began to turn away from an incident with nobody to blame and toward myself. You see, I broke my number one rule with Tulo; NEVER get too attached to a player. I would like to tell you that I have some noble reason for this rule, somewhere along the lines of not putting any one player above the team but sadly that’s not the case. Instead, this self imposed sports rule stems from a childhood scar that has haunted me for nearly a decade, or at least it did until Tulo’s injury forced me to reevaluate why I cherished having him on the Rockies so much.
Now to understand this next part of my story, you have to understand that before I fell in love with baseball, I was OBSESSED with Nascar. (Yeah, yeah, I know it’s just cars going around in circles but bear with me here. I promise it’s relevant.) I won’t go into all the details since this post is already way to long and I’ll probably just bore the life out of all of you, but just know that I still have hundreds of VHS tapes stored away which contain the broadcasts of almost every Nascar race from the early 1990’s to about 2004. As a child, I remember watching these tapes regularly and pretending to broadcast them so I could practice one day becoming a Nascar play by play man. (A dream that has long sense died off.) I could give you countless more examples of how Nascar preoccupied my youth, but I think you get the picture here.
So let’s cut to the chase. It’s February 2001; I’m every bit as much of a Dale Earnhardt fan as I am a Nascar fan and my Aunt and Uncle surprise me with tickets to the Daytona 500 three days before the event. I was beyond ecstatic. (For some perspective here, imagine being a kid and surprised with tickets to see the Rockies play in the World Series. This was the Nascar equivalent to that) I was about to see a race at Daytona, hear the roar of forty-three engines, and feel the history that echoed around the place where Nascar’s most memorable moments have occurred. For the 13 year old version of me, it was Shangri-La.
The race itself was phenomenal; one of the most competitive in history! The only way I might be able to put it into context would be through the amount of time the crowd spent standing. We only sat down when the cautions came out; there was that much action. Nobody in the crowd left their feet as we watched the lead change hands dozens and dozens of times within a 35 car pack separated by less than two seconds.
Then with just under 30 laps to go the inevitable happened. A 20 car pileup that saw Tony Stewart take one of the most horrifying rides in Nascar history reduced the number of drivers that could realistically win the race from about twenty, to four. (Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt and the two cars Earnhardt owned (Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr.) were left to battle it out.) When the white flag waved it was Waltrip and Jr. leading Earnhardt who was doing everything humanly possible to prevent Marlin from spoiling a one-two-three finish for the Earnhardt related cars. As the field came through the final set of turns, there was contact between Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt. The result was an accident that sent Earnhardt’s car smashing head on into the wall at nearly 200 mph!
It certainly was a violent impact, but at first glance there didn’t seem to be anything truly unique about this crash. Even as the safety vehicles accumulated in the vicinity of where the car had come to rest, my concern did not elevate. Perhaps it was because Stewart had just walked away from a crash that looked much worse, perhaps it was because I was distracted by getting to set foot on Daytona’s sacred Tri-Oval, or maybe it was just because I couldn’t stomach the thought, but I never believed the crash in turns three and four had taken Earnhardt’s life.
When I returned to the hotel I dashed over to the TV and prepared to watch the race again on the VHS tape I had set to record before leaving to go to the race that morning. Before it finished rewinding however, there was a Breaking News Report that changed my life forever. A Florida news anchor appeared on the screen and informed me that Dale Earnhardt was dead. Struck with sadness and disbelief, I instantly jumped into my father’s arms, buried my head in his chest, and broke down in tears. In an instant, February 18, 2001 went from the best day of my life to the worst. Dale Earnhardt was a hero to me, and heroes just aren’t supposed to die.
I never picked another driver to cheer for. Most Earnhardt fans switched their allegiance to his son (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) but I just couldn’t do it. I was too hurt by what had happened. In fact, I was willing to do anything humanly possible to make sure that I never felt this type of pain again. So instead of picking someone new to root for, I made a rule for myself. I would never again get too attached to an athlete.
For nearly a decade, I followed this rule with remarkable stubbornness. Even once I became a baseball fan I allowed myself to pick a favorite team, but not a favorite player. Earnhardt’s death had put a genuine fear in me and it was influencing the way I lived my life - I had literally caged myself emotionally. I can't pinpoint exactly when this happened, eventually this fear penetrated so deeply into my subconscious that it didn’t matter if the potential loss of something as simple as my favorite player was through death, free agency, a trade, or injury; all that mattered was that I was too afraid to pick a favorite player in fear of getting burned again. Despite desperately wanting to cheer a little harder for a guy like Todd Helton for being the ultimate Rockie, or Matt Holliday for the way he blossomed into a superstar, or even Josh Fogg for the way he took down one Ace after another during that magical 2007 season, the pain I felt from February 18, 2001 always resurfaced and served as a reminder not to get too attached. (Love the team, not the player I always reminded myself)
There was one player though, who kept challenging me on this front. He was passionate, intense, and unlike anything I'd ever seen on the Rockies before. There was just something about this Tulowitzki guy that made me happier than ever to be a Rockies fan.
First and foremost, I loved the way he played the game. It may sound silly to some of you, but one of the first things I ask myself when looking at a player is not just "how good is he" but also "does he play the game the right way?" With his a burning fire, diving stops, and constant awareness about what’s going on with each particular situation in a game, Tulo not only passes this test, but he embodies what a player who plays the game the right way should be in my opinion. Everything I've seen and read about him (this includes quotes from other people) leaves little doubt in my mind that Tulo takes a tremendous amout of pride in putting in a maximum effort, being prepared for each game, and being a good teammate - And it really shows. This is just me, I understand if certain folks see this differently out there, but I would wholeheartedly disagree with them.
Of course I also loved Tulo’s game itself. (How could I not be amazed by a slick fielding shortstop that has a howitzer for a throwing arm and has the ability to go Mt. Vesuvius at the plate?)
But my admiration for Tulo went even beyond that. It was going to have to for me to get out of this rut.
There were also the leadership qualities he brought to the team. Not many players would be able to do what Tulo did just 66 games into his big league career when as a rookie he called out the 18-27 Rockies’ team for underperforming and instantly became a guy others looked up to in the clubhouse. (Even fewer players would be able to back up their word with a game winning double in the 9th inning the next day which Tulo did against the D’Backs.)
Even something as simple as Tulo’s intensity and the way he conducts himself night in and night out was a big draw for me. I don’t want to make it sound like I think half the players don’t care about their performance each game (because I know that couldn't be further from the truth), but when someone like Tulo wears their emotions on their sleeve for the entire world to see, I just relate to it. Right or wrong, it makes me think "hey, that guy’s as pumped up as I am about that double" (or as furious as I am that he stuck out, or whatever the case may be) This resonates so strongly with me that when Tulo lacerated his hand while slamming his bat after striking out in a big spot in a game in July of 2008, it only made him a more relatable character in my eyes. Even though I couldn’t defend the action itself, it felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one who slams things when the Rockies lose. Repeat, I'm not defending the action, but it's such a natural human response for a passionate person that it helped illustrate to me that all players are just common men doing uncommon things on a baseball diamond - A fact that's so easy to forget.
(Like the Nascar thing above, I could keep going on with examples of why I admire Tulo but the length of this post is already insane so I’ll stop here. Hats off to you if you’ve made it this far by the way.)
What’s really most important to know at this point in the story though is that despite all of these reasons to adopt Tulo as my favorite player, I still didn’t. My fear of getting burned again still reigned supreme and it made me convince myself that Tulo had some gargantuan flaw that I just didn’t know about yet. I was certain that if I looked hard enough, I would eventually find something regarding Tulo’s personality that completely turned me off.
So 2007 went by, 2008 went by, and 2009 went by and I found nothing. It was becoming harder and harder to convince myself that this "something" I hated about Tulo actually existed. It's not that I didn't see any flaws with him (Tulo's not perfect); it's that I could see the flaws, and I still loved him anyway. There was just something about him that I could relate too, not in the "I know him personally" sense (far from it actually), but in the I can apply some of his qualities to my own life and become a better person from it sense.
Then, just before Spring Training this season, a few things happened that finally pushed me over the edge. First off, was the letter Tulo wrote to legendary UCLA basketball coach and motivational speaker John Wooden. The idea that Tulo would reach out to a guy who preached things like "Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day" and "Learn as if you were going to live forever. Live as if you are going to die tomorrow." really told me a lot about his personality and that this guy wanted to get better as a person and not just a player. It was just so refreshing to read about; especially when you consider how many self centered, egotistical, divas we have roaming the sports world today.
Second, was that he was willing to look ridiculous and grow a mullet to help raise money for the Children’s Hospital and Special Olympics. You see, as a child I had cancer. In fact, shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia, I was given a 30 percent chance to live by doctors. (You can read more about what type of cancer I had here if you’re interested. Again, I’d go into more detail with this but the length of this piece is out of control.) So as a cancer survivor and someone who spent many days of their own childhood in a Children’s Hospital, Tulo’s charity work and willingness to get involved in the community really hit home for me.
Finally, I began to develop this strange sense of trust with Tulo. To this day, I truly believe in my heart that he wants to be a Rockie long term and turn Colorado into a winning organization. (This is where I probably overstep my bounds a bit but so be it. If I'm wrong, I'll certainly admit it later, but this is something I feel very strong about.) Despite what I've heard from other fans who are convinced Tulo is just waiting until his contract is up in 2014 to sign with a club like the Yankees, I see a guy who idolized players like Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter growing up - both of whom have played their entire career on one team. I'm confident that matters to Tulo, and I'm also confident that he loves it here. In the end, it equaled trust. Most importantly though, that trust was enough to finally force me out of my shell and declare Tulo my favorite player. FEAR BE DAMNED!!!!
You know how poet Thomas Wolfe once said "You Can’t Go Home Again"? Well he was wrong because I did!!! For the first two and a half months of this season I had flash backs to my Nascar loving childhood. During my nine years of not having a favorite player, I had forgotten how much fun it was to have one. Everything in the world seemed right. The Rockies, although underperforming were in contention, and I got to watch Tulo play short night in and night out. Obviously it would have been even better if the team was in 1st as I'd rather Tulo go 0-5 at the plate in a win than 5-5 in a loss, but life was good.
Then came that awful afternoon in Minnesota; the box score shows it as a largely uneventful 5-1 Rockies victory but we all know better. It was the day Tulo went down. When I first read that Tulo’s wrist was broken the next day, I was heartbroken. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, it preyed upon my mind nonstop. It seemed so unfair to me that I could wait nine years to find a favorite player and in one instant lose it all (even if it only was for six weeks). It was a selfish action on my part, but I wasn't thinking practically at that moment.
After a few more days went by and I began to get angry at myself for getting too attached to Tulo, I needed some time to clear my mind and think. So one glorious late June afternoon (weather wise anyway), I decided to just go outside, lie down on the grass, and gaze up at the blue umbrella sky searching for some answers. And to my surprise, I found them.
All at one I had an epiphany. It wasn’t Troy Tulowitzki’s play on the field that ultimately convinced me that he was my favorite player; instead it was his overall character off it (letter to John Wooden, charity work, the faith I had somehow developed to trust him about wanting to be a Rockie, etc.). Again, I'm not trying to tell you that I know who Troy Tulowitzki is personally, but I am telling you that the part of Troy Tulowitzki's personality that I do know (however little that may actually be) was enough to inspire me to do something I never thought I'd ever have the strength to do as long as I lived. (More on this in a moment) Along similar lines, I also realized something that on the surface should have been obvious; baseball is just something that Troy Tulowitzki does but it’s not who he is.
When I applied this to myself, I suddenly realized that I had been looking at a major aspect of my own life the wrong way ever since Dale Earnhardt’s death. Being a Nascar fan was just something I loved to do as a child, but it didn’t have to define who I was as a person now, especially since my extreme passion for the sport had long since waned. The reason why this was so important for me to realize was that between Earnhardt’s death and Tulo’s injury this year, I missed watching a grand total of zero Nascar Cup races. Despite becoming disenchanted with the sport over the past few years, I also couldn't let it go. Earnhardt's death still haunted me in the worst way. So even though I didn’t really care about each race that much anymore, I still made a point to watch week, after week, after week, after week. I could do nothing but go through the motions; and since I didn't reach this point overnight, I had just become numb to it.
At this moment I realized that I needed to put Earnhardt’s death behind me once and for all, and I knew exactly how I was going to do it. Remember that VHS tape of the 2001 Daytona 500 that I was rewinding when the Florida news anchor came on and told me that Dale Earnhardt was dead? Well like countless other races, I kept it for years and years. Only this one was different, this one haunted me, this one I just didn’t know what to do with, this one I had never watched.
Well after realizing what was important in my life, I finally had the courage to watch that tape. So I grabbed the old VCR, dusted it off, pressed play, and gave myself a few hours to let out whatever emotions I had repressed for years surrounding Earnhardt's death.
Yes I did cry as I watched the last few laps of the race, but it was also the most cleansing experience I've ever had in my life. For the first time ever, I fully accepted what happened that day. I thought about how a death as colossal as Earnhardt’s forced Nascar to overhaul their safety program and the lives it must have saved. (Since Earnhardt’s death no driver in any of Nascar’s top three series has died. I believe that this is a direct result of the incredible safety advancements that have been made in response to the loss of Earnhardt) Maybe everything really does happen for a reason I thought. (Something Tulo said after first learning of his broken wrist)
Since watching that race I have felt as free as I can ever remember. February 18, 2001 no longer haunts me, not even a little, and I owe that to Tulo. I desperately wish that there was some way I could tell him Thank You but sadly, it's unlikely to ever happen. Instead, I’ll watch my favorite player return to the diamond tonight against the Pirates and use him as a reminder to be the best person I can possibly be in my daily life. If I can help even one person a fraction as much as Tulo’s helped me by just trying to get better at everything he does in life, then all those years I spent in the doldrums were well worth it. My only regret is that I'll never be able to truly repay him.
As small as it may sound, I guess all I have left to say is "Thanks Tulo!"