Baseball is a game designed to oppress those who play it. No other sport evokes as much failure from its participants, as even the greatest players in the game find themselves hanging their heads in defeat more often than they do basking in the glow of accomplishment. Playing in the major leagues isn’t like playing in the NBA, where the court exists as a blank canvas on which the game’s otherwordly athlete’s are free to invent their own geometries and flight patterns. A spectacular point guard is set free to display his quickness and pre-cognitive abilities, whereas a premier second basemen is confined to a 45 square foot plot of dirt.
The constrictive nature of the game can at times sap the dynamism out of even its most transcendent players. Baseball is an unyielding game of averages, and eventually every player falls or rises to the level of success that appropriately corresponds with their skill level. Throughout the course of a season slumps will be broken out of, hot streaks will give way to regressions to the mean, and everyone will end up where they belong. In the meantime, players will go through the same set of motions every day, grinding away at a game that is designed to break them.
This high degree of difficulty has brought with it the creation of certain archetypes within the game. Teams around the league are stocked with near identical power hitting corner outfielders, smooth fielding shortstops, and speedy center fielders. Players exist within these predetermined roles and perform the duties that the game requires of them. Even greats like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera find themselves beholden to these archetypes. Each year they methodically crush home runs and send balls screeching into the gaps, fulfilling their destinies as classically trained power hitters. It’s exceedingly rare to find a player that manages to circumvent these conventions and create his own role, thus bending the game to his will.
Troy Tulowitzki is one of these players.
The archetypal shortstop is one of the most recognizable positions in baseball. Take a moment to picture in your mind the image of a shortstop ranging to his right to field a ground ball.The ball leaves the bat, and he takes a few quick steps to his right, transitioning to sidelong shuffles as he squares his body towards home and fields the ball smoothly. One more quick step inward and then to his left, a rhythmic double clutch, and finally a smooth fling of the ball towards first. All of these things happen as part of one fluid motion, as the shortstop never truly breaks the momentum of his first stride.
Every successful defensive shortstop has acted out that precise sequence of events a thousand times. He has maximized the efficiency of his motions, discovering the preferred choreography of his position. In other words, he has learned to play shortstop in a way that the game has determined he is supposed to.
Troy Tulowitzki, on the other hand, has no use for said choreography. When he fields a ground ball he does it on his own terms, and the results give fans an aesthetic experience that is entirely unique.
When Tulowitzki chases down a ball in the hole, he doesn’t pursue it with the short, measured steps of a fleet-footed infielder. Instead, he carries himself towards the ball with a few powerful strides, his legs–the one’s that seem way too long to belong to a shortstop–pumping smoothly. Sometimes, upon reaching his destination, he won’t even bother to square his body towards the ball. He’ll instead choose to stick his mitt out and field it on the backhand. He can do this because his mitt doesn’t look like a shortstop’s mitt should. He eschews the classic iteration, defined by it’s inward curve minimal size, in favor of a much larger glove, which looks less like a natural extension of his hand and more like a giant pancake dangling from his wrist.
It’s not until he has secured the ball, though, that Tulowitzki’s unique brilliance as a fielder becomes apparent. There is no fluid transfer from fielding the ball to his throwing motion. You won’t see a subtle redirection of momentum followed by a tepid throw to first. When Tulowitzki finally grabs hold of the ball, he pauses for what seems like a beat too long, and you can’t help but wonder, just for a second, if he’s even going to throw it at all.
That’s when it happens. Without warning, Tulowitzki’s arm tomahawks forward with a seemingly impossible amount of force. His entire body jerks towards first base behind the power of his throw, and sometimes it even looks like his head might snap off from the whiplash. The ball doesn’t just fly out of Tulowitzki’s hand, it explodes, and you are left wondering if you’ve ever seen a shortstop throw a ball that hard. This is a routine play, but it feels like more than that. It feels like a performance.
He does this simply because he can. He’s big and strong, and he can play shortstop like few others are capable of doing. Of course, he isn’t the first big man to play the position, but it always seemed as if the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada were masquerading to an extent. They did their best impressions of the archetypal shortstop, but they never seemed to fit into the position that was created for sprites rather than giants. Tulowitzki refuses to pretend, and he has tamed the position under his own terms. He’s a big, powerful man, and he can’t help but play like one–conventions be damned.
Tulowitzki’s performance at the plate can be equally as awe inspiring as his work in the field. Nothing captures his brilliance as a hitter quite like this boxscore from a June 23, 2009 game against the Los Angeles Angels.
Just by looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Tulowitzki had a great day at the plate, collecting 2 home runs, a walk, and 3 RBI’s. What the numbers won’t tell you, however, is that when Troy Tulowitzki hit those two home runs, he pulled off one of the most impressive feats that I have ever seen on a baseball field.
Tulowitzki came to the plate in the top of the 4th inning with his team down 1-0. Up to this point the game had been pretty mundane, defined by weak ground outs and a few hits strung together here and there. On the first pitch of the at-bat, Angels pitcher Sean O’Sullivan uncorked a fastball that sailed right behind Tulowitzki’s ear. Tulowitzki ducked slightly and immediately popped back up, staring down O’Sullivan with an unsettling malice. Tulowitzki was, quite simply, extremely pissed off.
Both players gathered themselves for the next pitch, and as it crossed home plate Tulowitzki hammered it into the left field bleachers. He pumped his fist with purpose, and gave a long, cold stare toward O’Sullivan as he rounded first base. His steps were fueled by the kind of fire and confrontational attitude that rarely seep into the buttoned down propriety of a baseball game. That’s what happens when you screw with me, was the undeniable message that Tulowitzki was sending.
Tulowitzki came back up to the plate in the 6th inning. He let O’Sullivan’s first pitch sail past him for a strike. He laced the next pitch down the left field line and out of the park for a home run. Once again, O’Sullivan found himself on the wrong end of Tulowitzki’s gaze as the shortstop rounded the bases. No, really dude, this is what happens when you screw with me.
And just like that, Troy Tulowitzki hit two home runs just because he was pissed off and he wanted to teach Sean O’Sullivan a lesson.
This was a rare moment in which a baseball player was able to do precisely what he wanted to do on the field, for no other reason that it was what he felt like doing. Baseball’s supposed to be too hard to allow for anything like that to happen. A player can’t just hit two home runs in a row whenever he feels like it. A home run is the result of a miraculous combination of strength, precision, and luck–it is far too elusive for anyone like Tulowitzki to use it as a tool of revenge. At least, that’s how things normally are, when the players on the field find themselves at the mercy of the game. On this day, however, Troy Tulowitzki’s will was too strong to be contained.
It can sometimes be hard to watch a game that is so often defined by failure. It is far from comforting to know that your favorite player is more likely to ground out weakly to second base than he is to launch a double off of the left field wall.
This is why it is so satisfying to watch Troy Tulowitzki play baseball, because he refuses to give in so easily to the game’s dire inevitability. Whether it be through one of his startlingly powerful throws from shortstop or a mean-spirited home run, he continually does things on a baseball field that you don’t quite expect to see. He is blessed with the ability to rise above the regimented nature of the game, and in the process he gives us fans a chance to watch something truly unique.
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