Baseball's never been a fair game. It's not fair that the line drive dropping in 10 feet in front of the outfielder is a hit while the guy who hit the same line drive ten feet further is retired for an out. It's not fair that a pitcher can get a win giving up five runs in five innings while another guy on his team can go out the next day and get a no decision for throwing eight shutout frames. It's not fair that the Rockies are expected to compete with the Dodgers when they can spend more than twice as much money on their team every single year, and it's not fair that you can spend six months and 162 games proving you're the best team in baseball only to get picked off by a hot team who finished 15 games behind you in a fluky best-of-five division series.
Yes, baseball, just like life, is unfair. That's how it's designed.
For Troy Tulowitzki and all the Rockies fans who love him, last summer's trade to Toronto was unfair. It happened in the middle of the night, on a road trip, and it came as a complete shock to everyone. Fans never got a chance to say goodbye to their beloved shortstop who will likely be the best player they ever see wear the purple pinstripes at that position, and Tulo saw his Rockies tenure end in about the most disappointing fashion imaginable after signing that huge extension in the fall of 2010.
That's why Monday night was a good night for everybody involved. The crowd got to thank Tulo for all the great memories he provided, Tulo got one last special moment at the place he called home for nearly a decade, and both he and the Rockies got a much more appropriate punctuation mark on the legacy that leaves him as, at worst, the third most important Rockie of all time.
Personally, the 30 second standing ovation Tulo received Monday was the most satisfying 30 seconds of baseball I've experienced since he was traded to the Blue Jays last July. I did my best to savor it and make it last as long as possible while crying tears of sadness and joy at the same time:
For one last time, the Rockies faithful cheered Tulo at Coors Field. A small Clap-Clap Clap-Clap-Clap Clap-Clap-Clap-Clap - TU-LO (!!!) chant even broke out during his at bat. It was a goosebumps moment awash with soothing and bittersweet emotions.
About three hours before being showered with love from Rockies fans, many of whom grew up watching him hold down shortstop at Coors Field for nearly a decade, Troy Tulowitzki met with the media in the visitors dugout and shared the emotions surrounding his early days in Colorado.
"When I got drafted here people said, ‘These guys are terrible. They suck. You don't want to be a Rockie, you're just going to go there and lose,'" Tulo recalled. "Immediately that lit a fire in me. I wanted it to be cool to be a Rockie, and I wanted free agents to want to sign here. I wanted it to be a place where you can win."
And for a while, he seemed to be getting his wish. From 2007 through 2010, the Rockies put together the most successful run of baseball they've ever had. It's not even close. First they went to the 2007 World Series in thrilling fashion (winning 21 of 22 games), and then they put together a 258 game stretch spanning from June 2009 through September of 2010 where they went a magnificent 50 games over .500 (154-104).
Cherry-pick the franchise history for any stretch of games, for any stretch of seasons, for any length of time you want, and you'll find nothing that approaches 50 games over .500. For instance, the best run the original Blake Street Bombers ever put was a 26 games over .500 run from April of 1995 through May of 1997. The 2009/2010 Rockies doubled that feat.
Just as Tulo wanted, it was "cool to be a Rockie." Not only that, but it felt like Tulo was the engine behind those winning Rockies teams. The 50 games over .500 stretch began the week he changed his batting stance to a more upright position, which transformed him into the hitter we all love and remember with the Rockies; and the stretch ended when he went on that volcanic run in September of 2010, launching 14 home runs in 15 games, and collecting more RBI during that calendar month than anyone in baseball history not named Babe Ruth. All together, Tulo posted a 1.009 OPS during the 258 game run, and he did it while playing better defense at shortstop than anyone else in the game. It was a spectacle we'll probably never see again.
In total, Tulo posted an astounding 20 rWAR(!!!) during just the three winning seasons the Rockies had early in his career. If you take away everything else he's done as a Rockie outside of 2007, 2009 and 2010, he would still rank fourth in franchise history in rWAR behind only Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Carlos Gonzalez.
Looking back now, it all makes sense that against this backdrop, the Rockies and Tulo agreed to an extension through 2020 that fall that was supposed to keep him a Rockie forever. Tulo was everything the Rockies wanted, and the Rockies were everything Tulo wanted. The front office got a potential Hall of Famer entering the prime of his career who loved playing in Denver and wanted to make the Rockies a winning franchise, and Tulo got a franchise he could play for during his entire career and partner together with to help build his own legacy. It was a match made in heaven, at least before it all went to hell.
During this time period, it's actually possible Tulo and the Rockies loved each other too much. I say this because I think they both overestimated what the other could provide them in their quest to be successful together. Despite being arguably the best player in the game for a few years when on the field, Tulo never stayed healthy enough to clearly capture that title, and despite their best efforts, the Rockies never came close to surrounding Tulo with enough talent, especially in the pitching department, to give him another opportunity to play on a winning team in Colorado.
This is why the last five seasons of Tulo's Rockie career hurts so much. All parties involved had dreams that towered as high as the mountains in Denver's western skyline. Watching them crumble the way they did was nothing short of devastating. Any negative feelings that may have surfaced around or since Tulo's departure from either side probably ultimately had less to do with them being truly mad at each other, and more to do them being upset that the last few years didn't work out, because I know how much they both wanted to have more winning seasons together.
Nothing would have been sweeter than the look on Tulo's face if the Rockies had been able to turn this mess around while he was still here. It was something I looked forward to seeing for years, cursed now with the reality of knowing I'll never get to experience that moment. It still hurts.
As therapeutic as Monday night was, it came with an overarching feeling that this wasn't the true happy ending we were all looking for during years gone by; it's just the one most people can live with. But again, baseball isn't fair. It doesn't usually provide happy endings.
In addition to being unfair, baseball is a sport of mythical contradictions. It's the team game that most prominently displays the individual stars; allowing them to show off their remarkable skills during their own at bats and on defense with individual eye-popping plays. Baseball also invites the fans to get to know these players, spend their evening with them on a daily basis, and familiarize themselves with all their idiosyncrasies and routines.
There is however, a catch. Baseball is also the game (among major team sports) where the star players have the smallest impact on the clubs' overall fortunes. This isn't the NBA where a superstar instantly makes you a contender, and it's not the NFL where a great quarterback can jolt your winning percentage by hundreds of percentage points all by himself.
Here's a list of historically great MLB players:
Ken Griffey Jr.
They're all legends, but they also have something else unfortunate in common; they've all never won a World Series. Not because they weren't great, but because they never played on a team with enough depth. (By the way, Mike Trout is heading down a similar road with the Angels. He's already posted 42.5 career rWAR, but has never played on a team that's won a playoff game, and he won't be winning a playoff game anytime soon if he continues to play for the Angels.)
This cruel piece of the baseball puzzle ultimately doomed the end of Troy Tulowitzki's time with the Rockies. Once Ubaldo Jimenez stopped being Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa needed Tommy John surgery (wiping out the bulk of both his 2011 and 2012 seasons), and Ian Stewart decided to piss away millions of dollars worth of talent, there was nothing the Rockies could have done to keep themselves from falling into a pit losing. Not with the farm system as weak as it was five years ago.
These things, coupled with his injuries, brought down the ceiling of Troy Tulowitzki's legacy, which is something that has to crush him. Tulo had big dreams. He wanted to be the best player year in and year out on an era of Rockies teams that turned the franchise around. He wanted to be the face of it.
Some people probably see this as greedy or self absorbed; I see it as exactly the right attitude to have if you have the talent and work ethic to back it up. And while you can accuse Troy Tulowitzki of many things, you can't ever question his drive and work ethic. Just this past weekend Walt Weiss talked in the dugout at length about how Tulo would often be up until 1:00 a.m. working in the cage to get his swing right. He also did his part in working with young players, having a profound impact on the early careers of Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.
He did everything in his power to make the Rockies a winner, but circumstances he couldn't control (his body betraying him and the lack of pitching around him) destroyed his dreams. It's reasonable to conclude that Tulo deserved better, and he did, but baseball doesn't care. Baseball is unfair.
As a fan who couldn't fully embrace Tulo (in fear of losing him) until after he signed that monster extension saying he wanted to be a Rockie forever, I sit here heartbroken knowing that I'm probably going to die not knowing what it feels like to love a player and a team that much together while the team is winning. It's honestly one of my biggest regrets in life –– wondering and not knowing exactly what that feels like.
I still hold out hope that Tulo might somehow end up back on the Rockies years from now at the end of his career as a utility middle infielder with pop off the bench as the Rockies are in a contention window, but I know that probably won't ever happen. Why would it? Baseball's not fair.
Finally, I find myself looking back at the Rockie careers of Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Tulo: the three most important men to ever put on a Rockies uniform. All of them spent their final seasons in purple playing losing, irrelevant baseball. That hurts to think about after all they gave to this franchise, but then I'm once again reminded that baseball, especially Rockies baseball ... is unfair.