The long, rewarding road back for Yankees' Troy Tulowitzki

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/7850/" data-ylk="slk:Troy Tulowitzki">Troy Tulowitzki</a> is back playing baseball after injuries sidelined him in Toronto. (Getty Images)
Troy Tulowitzki is back playing baseball after injuries sidelined him in Toronto. (Getty Images)

TAMPA, Fla. -- A slow-played Sunday morning found half the New York Yankees boarding a bus bound for Lakeland, many with a paper coffee cup in one hand, a paper plate of eggs in the other, a bat bag slung over one shoulder. The rest stayed behind to play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

An hour’s an hour, and the disappearance of just the one served to heighten gravity’s devilish pull on another day like the one before and the one before that.

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Reggie Jackson, he’s 72 now, padded into the clubhouse, nodded good morning and, on the fly, paged through a print edition of the New York Post. Ron Guidry, 68, unhurriedly chased wisps of steam from his black coffee. Willie Randolph, 64, stopped, said his oldest grandchild is 10 now and that he lives near enough to them all to see them grow, then smiled at wherever the years go.

Giancarlo StantonAaron JudgeTroy Tulowitzki and Brett Gardner were in the lineup but not in the locker room. Jacoby Ellsbury’s jersey has been hanging in the same locker for a month, untouched, not pondered upon. A slow-played CC Sabathia (heart, knee, five-game suspension), reasonably encouraged he said by his football team trading for Antonio Brown, sat in his chair with a paper cup on the floor between his legs and spat at that.

The Yankees might win the World Series or come reasonably close. But not today. Troy Tulowitzki will be a major league shortstop again and wield a feared bat again in regular season games again, for a relevant team, and he’s not quite there today, but he’s close enough for today.

What he knows is that every day he discovers a little something from his past. So, while Yankees fans here stumble through a scattered and thin Tulo chant, the one that echoed first in Colorado and then in Toronto, Tulowitzki asks his body and mind to recall what they did with a fastball in, or away, or how they jumped a ball in the hole, and what that throw was like. It’s repetition. It’s recovery. Then repetition again. On a slow-play Sunday coming up on the middle of March, two-and-a-half weeks before it comes for real, it’s peeling the uniform off when plenty of his teammates are long gone.

“Right now, the most enjoyable thing for me is being out on the field, in the dirt,” Tulowitzki said. “It’s been so long. And I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

In the middle of the summer of ‘17, Tulowitzki had stopped playing baseball. He was 32. His feet were sore all the time. He’d tried to make it work, tried to balance himself away from the pain, somewhere else on his feet, and then new places hurt. He couldn’t be the player he had to be anymore, could barely be the human being he wanted to be anymore.

Troy Tulowitzki homered in his first spring training at-bat as a member of the New York Yankees. (AP)
Troy Tulowitzki homered in his first spring training at-bat as a member of the New York Yankees. (AP)

“There were many days,” he said, “sitting on the couch I couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom. And I’d say to myself, ‘Man, how the heck am I going to do this?’ ”

He meant the baseball. How was he ever going to be a functioning baseball player again? Beyond that, maybe, be a great baseball player?

All that, all the worry, all the inactivity, all the resignation, all the days spent looking out at some cloudy future, is the reason for all this. Why he hunts at-bats. Why he can’t wait for minor-league games to come, so he can find more of them. Why he smiles at the notion of some clubby having to knock real dirt off these very spikes, at having a sun-reddened neck that stings to the touch, at going oh-fer with two strikeouts and a double-play grounder against the Pittsburgh Pirates, because progress and full health and comebacks are measured in something other than spring averages. Some days, it’s measured in one’s ability to get out of bed in the morning. Others, it’s this muscle firing exactly on time, and this bat head being precisely where it was intended to be, and some guy stopping at second base, looking him up and down and saying, “Hey, man, good to have you back.”

The best part, he said late Sunday afternoon, “Is just the grind of how hard it is. When you get the game taken away from you and you have to watch a lot of games, I remember thinking, ‘Man, the next time, if there’s a next time, I’m going to enjoy it.’ I know I have work in front of me. But each and every day something happens where I’m like, ‘Yeah, that was good. I can still do that.’ ”

One day, with any luck, he’ll be one of those guys carrying a coffee cup and shuffling in soft shoes across a clubhouse that isn’t really for them anymore. That could be his jersey hanging unattended in some locker room somewhere, some jersey he’d never actually touched. He’s been close before. But not today.

Instead, he’d be the guy who struck out twice and grounded into a double play.

“Which,” he pointed out, “is really not a good day.”

Except that it was. In fact, as far as days go, they don’t come much better.

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