LONG BEACH, Calif. — By late Tuesday morning, a half-dozen or so teams had told or hinted to Troy Tulowitzki that he could be their next shortstop or third baseman or second baseman, the non-binding smiles and shoulder claps representing about half of those who showed up to watch the former All-Star and sudden free agent at Blair Field near Long Beach State.
After an hour-long workout, during which he fielded grounders only at shortstop and took a handful of batting practice rounds, all to a country music soundtrack, Tulowitzki himself shrugged and offered little beyond him being pleased to be healthy again and on a baseball field. By then, the sun had broken through a morning haze.
He has not played since July 2017, that due to injuries, the list of those long, the most recent being bone spurs in both heels. The Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and others came for a look at Tulo. General manager types Billy Eppler (Angels) and Farhan Zaidi (Giants) attended, as did Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who hitched a ride from San Diego with Tigers special assistant Alan Trammell.
“I think I needed to get myself right, mentally and physically,” Tulowitzki said. “I took a year off to get myself right. I’m looking forward to playing the game I love.”
Near the end of a week that may or may not have been jarring to him – the Toronto Blue Jays announced last Tuesday he’d been released, two years and $38 million before his contract would expire (“I don’t want to talk about anything like that,” he said) – he wore black sweats, a black shirt and a black cap. He shook hands with at least 30 scouts and thanked them for coming. He knew many of their names. He hugged Mike Gallego, of the Angels. Then he began the process of trying to make a baseball team for maybe the first time since he arrived at this diamond, where the batting cages bear the names of Troy and Danyll Tulowitzki, where the outfield wall holds his number, where he became a first-round draft pick and a Dirtbag Hall of Famer. Nearing the end of Tuesday, hours after the workout ended, the word of scouts having reached home offices, more offers had arrived.
He is 34 – just 34, already 34, depending on the day probably – and the years have settled in his eyes. Those are wary if not unfriendly. He remains long and lean, about as willowy as they ever made a shortstop who could also hit you 30 home runs, who could also win you a Gold Glove. The fungoes sent him right and left and brought him in and sent him away, and Tulo was again light on his feet, the ankle surgeries of last spring having finally and mercifully ended the pain and brought back the life. He told scouts he’d worked so hard to recover, he’d committed so fully to bring it all back, and he’d gestured to the field, as if to say, “Hold on, I’ll show you.”
Then he glided again across the dirt, and let go of the throws in that way that could only be him, and pounded baseballs into the gaps and over the fences, and if this was sure to be Troy Tulowitzki again for another year or two or three, then a few dozen scouts would have had somewhere else to be on a Tuesday morning in December. Because Troy Tulowitzki would be a Blue Jay.
He last played at least 140 games in a season in 2011. He was last an All-Star in 2015. He was last great in 2014, a season in which he played 91 games. None of it mattered to him, or seemed to, on Tuesday morning.
Wisdom comes with trying times, if you’re lucky or paying any attention. He spent a lot of nights watching baseball, watching his prime leak away. It wasn’t his fault. The game just comes and gets you sometimes, singles you out for disappointment, the same way it once made you a superstar. It would seem unreasonable to accept one without the other, given enough time to heal. So maybe it’ll be fun again soon.
Which was where we found Troy Tulowitzki on this Tuesday morning. The game looked easy. He smiled a lot. He popped his glove when he came up on one of those ground balls on that college infield, when that ground ball stayed down and rolled into left field, and he shot Gallego a look that made them both laugh. There would be no perfect here. There’d only be a guy working his way back on determination and reputation, with still a year or two or three left in him. He’ll go be somebody’s shortstop or third baseman or second baseman – he’ll go home before he’s a utility player – and he’ll do it on the Blue Jays’ dime, which is all of the past he seemed willing to take with him.
“I really have nothing in mind,” he said. “Just coming out and doing what I love.”
That simple. One day soon he’ll have to choose a new team. It could be a team that might not contend but will come with plenty of at-bats, that plays its games near his home in the Bay Area or not, a way back to regular playing time. It could be a team with variables, say with a mending shortstop and a third baseman on the trade market that measures itself in championships. Regardless, it will be a team on real dirt and real grass, and Tulo will have his chance again, to win a job or a chance at a job or whatever this has become, which, for a morning, looked especially promising. In the coming hours, or days, he will narrow his possible teams to a few, then choose his path, wherever it will lead.
“I have no idea,” Tulowitzki said. “I don’t control that. My job’s to be accountable, to play the game. Time will tell. Talk is talk.”
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