Yankees Magazine: Road to Redemption

For Troy Tulowitzki, putting on the pinstripes carries special meaning

March 29th, 2019
New York Yankees

It's midmorning in Henderson, Nevada, a quiet suburban town less than 20 miles from Las Vegas. Troy Tulowitzki's day will include a long workout, but to this point, his time has been spent with his wife, Danyll, and their 5-year-old son, Taz.

Following his tenure as one of the game's brightest stars, and then a five-year stretch during which Tulowitzki's career seemed to implode after the shortstop suffered one injury after another, he signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Yankees in January.

With a few weeks remaining before heading to Tampa, Florida, for the start of his first Spring Training with the team he grew up dreaming of playing for one day, the 34-year-old is filled with optimism.

The foundation of those emotions comes from his physical well-being these days.

"I feel great," Tulowitzki says from the family's kitchen table. "I can't predict how I will feel after the games start piling up, but I'm taking it one day at a time."

That optimism began to permeate Tulowitzki's being when he held an open workout for any and all interested Major League teams at his alma mater, Long Beach State.

"I had a lot of excitement because I wanted to show all of the teams what I could do," he says. "I was excited to get their wheels spinning. That day brought me back a while. I hadn't worked out for scouts since I was getting ready for the draft when I was in college. It was cool to be back on the same field, trying to impress a group of scouts all these years later.

"Obviously, it's been quite a journey. People's careers take different turns. You never know where you're going to end up, but I'm excited for the opportunity."

That opportunity came after the Yankees found themselves without starter , who underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm in October and who is expected to miss the first few months of the 2019 season. Tulowitzki impressed Yankees brass enough for them to request a private workout, which ultimately resulted in the team bringing him on board. 

"Playing for the Yankees was an easy decision for me," Tulowitzki says. "The two things I have always fought for in my career were to play for a winning team and to play shortstop. Now I have a chance to re-establish my career on the biggest stage. I believe in this team and the roster we have. I believe that we can win the World Series."

With a smile on his face, Tulowitzki walks over to a couch in his living room to make sure that his son is comfortable, then returns to the kitchen. When he gets there, he's greeted by the family's two boxers, Ripken and Rawlings.

The shortstop refills his coffee mug, which features a painting of a dog that looks similar to the two at his feet.

"Cal Ripken Jr. was one of my favorite shortstops," Tulowitzki says. "That's how this guy got his name. And we got Rawlings the day that I won my first Gold Glove Award."

While Tulowitzki has long admired Ripken, the former Baltimore Orioles icon is far from the only shortstop that he followed during his childhood.

"I watched the Yankees in all of those postseason games in the late '90s and 2000s," the Southern California native says. "I always saw Derek Jeter as a leader, and that gave me added motivation to play that position. The job of a shortstop is so much more than fielding ground balls and throwing. You put leaders at shortstop, and that's who I wanted to be and who I've always been. That's why I love the position so much."


Wearing a Vegas Golden Knights hat and a running shirt with a pair of sweatpants, Tulowitzki, who rose to the top of the game with the Colorado Rockies, walks from one side of the sprawling house to the other and enters a room that showcases his passion for the game. From floor to ceiling, two of the walls are covered with autographed bats from more than 100 big league greats. Another wall features two All-Star Game jerseys, one that Tulowitzki wore and one that Jeter donned. Of the many prized items in the room, one carries special meaning to Tulowitzki.

"If I had to pick a favorite thing in this room, it would definitely be the bat that Derek gave me," Tulowitzki says. "That's an easy choice."

Not only is the bat special because it was Jeter's, but also because it is inscribed to Tulowitzki, "Keep working hard. It's been a pleasure to watch you play."

"It doesn't get any better than that," Tulowitzki says.

After spending a few minutes in his baseball shrine, Tulowitzki walks back to the living room and peers out a large window that overlooks Las Vegas and the snowcapped mountains that surround the City of Lights.

"We love it here," he says, a granola bar in one hand and the decorative mug in the other. "When I was with the Rockies, I became close friends with Jason Giambi. He lives right down the street, and part of the reason I moved here was to train with him in the offseason."

For Tulowitzki, those were the good ol' days. While Giambi was winding his career down in Colorado, Tulowitzki was building a résumé that seemed destined to get him to Cooperstown someday. From 2006, when he was initially called up, through 2015, Tulowitzki earned five All-Star nods, hit 193 home runs -- including 30 or more home runs in two separate seasons -- and produced a .297 batting average. He helped lead Colorado to its only World Series berth in 2007 and also won back-to-back Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011.

The rising star wasn't completely spared from injury during his prime. He dealt with a torn tendon in his left quad in 2008, a fractured left wrist in 2010 and a chip fracture in his right thumb, all of which caused him to miss time. But the list of accomplishments that Tulowitzki had racked up prior to his 30th birthday greatly overshadowed the amount of time he spent on the disabled list.

The next few years would not be nearly as kind to Tulowitzki, especially those that came after the 2015 trade that sent the shortstop from the Rockies to the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I feel like I always had a great work ethic," Tulowitzki, now sitting at the kitchen table, says. "You have to put in the work. Looking back on that time, I would never have gotten to where I was if I didn't put in the work. But with that work came a breakdown of my body. I was the guy who would hit after games. I never took a break in the offseason. I worked out every day. I think that drive took a toll on me."

That toll was great. From the midseason trade in 2015 through the end of the 2018 season, Tulowitzki played in 238 games. He missed the last three weeks of the 2015 regular season after fracturing his shoulder in an on-field collision with another player. And after a relatively productive 2016 campaign -- he batted .254 and hit 24 home runs in 131 games -- he was limited to just 66 games in 2017 because of a late-April hamstring strain and a severely sprained right ankle.

At the start of the 2018 season, Tulowitzki underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from both heels, and despite his efforts to return to the field last season, it wasn't in the cards.

With $38 million left on his contract, the Blue Jays released Tulowitzki after the season. For an intense competitor and prideful player, the injuries were as tough on Tulowitzki's spirit as they were on his body.

"The most frustrating part of the last few years is that people really began to judge me differently and really took a lot of shots at me," he says. "If you look at the history of my injuries, they're freak things. They didn't happen because I didn't take care of myself or didn't know how to train or didn't work hard. If you're running to first base, looking straight ahead, and you step on someone's foot and snap your ankle, you can't control that. The wear and tear of all of the years, plus the ankle injury, caused the bone spurs. It wasn't something that just came out of nowhere.

"I was playing through a lot of pain for the last three or four years," he continues. "I was proud that I was able to gut it out for as long as I did. It hurts to hear so many people talking about why I got hurt or how I've dealt with the injuries. People assume so much, but a lot of things that were out there never added up or made any sense."

If sitting out the 2018 season had any positive effect on the shortstop, it allowed his body to recover, and it allowed him to re-evaluate what mattered most. Tulowitzki's soul searching helped him realize that while becoming the player he once was would bring him happiness, there was much more to his desire than that.

"What I learned is that when you try to make a comeback, you need things that aren't about yourself or your numbers," he says. "You need something else to motivate you, and that something else is my son. He's been to about 200 games, but the last time he saw me play, he was 3 years old, and he doesn't remember it. When I was rehabbing, when I'm in the gym now, my thoughts are on how much I want to take the field again for my son."


Of course, writing the final chapters of his baseball story the way he wants them to be written is never far from Tulowitzki's mind either.

"When I was in Colorado, all I heard was that I was on a path to Cooperstown," Tulowitzki says. "And now, those same people say that I have no chance. That certainly fuels me. I don't know if I will do enough to ultimately make it in someday, but I want to at least get myself back into the conversation. More than that, to be able to say that I got knocked down and I worked my way back -- to say that I answered the bell and made myself a name again -- that would be a great story."

It's now late morning, and Danyll comes downstairs to get Taz ready for hockey practice. Before he heads out, the young boy walks over to his father and hugs him.

"Do good, OK?" Tulowitzki says.

"I will," Taz responds.

The positive vibe in the house continues as Tulowitzki discusses his ultimate dream.

"I think about winning the World Series with the Yankees every day," he says. "That would be the pinnacle. That's what you play the game for. First, to win a World Series, but to do it in pinstripes would mean that much more. To be a piece that hopefully helps the team get over the top would mean a lot to me.

"That was a big part of my decision. I hope to be the player I once was, and I think I definitely can be, but I have other qualities that I know will help this team, a team that is so close. I'm always thinking about the next play, the next pitch. That's the way I've always been, and I definitely think that can give this team a little edge and make them a little meaner. I hope that rubs off on some young guys as well. I love mentoring young players that love to work hard. Everything I've heard about the young guys on the team is that they do like to work, but I think I can definitely take that up a notch and really help them."

One player Tulowitzki is especially excited to work with is Gregorius.

"I've always respected him," Tulowitzki says. "Didi is a great player. He's as solid as they come. I think I can help Didi become a better player, and I think he can help me become a better player. A lot of people wonder what will happen when he comes back, but if I play well, I'm sure everything will work out really well for both of us. The only thing I'm worried about is winning games."

The challenge ahead of Tulowitzki will be undeniably hard, but he's embracing it.

"I'm up against it," Tulowitzki says. "There's no doubt about it. With my age and the injury history, I see the doubters out there. I hear them. I understand it, but I've never been one to be scared of a challenge and to try to prove people wrong. That's definitely where I'm at."

With so much in front of him, Tulowitzki is admittedly anxious for Spring Training on this mid-January morning.

"Taking the field in pinstripes is going to mean something," he says. "Even playing in Spring Training games with that emblem on my chest will be special. Not just because I'm a Yankee, but taking the field with any team would be special. It's been a journey."

Tulowitzki has no idea what the destination of that journey will be, but he's approaching it with the right mindset.

"I don't feel pressure," he says. "I have nothing to lose. I've heard a million people say that I should just stay home and hang it up. I can't control how my body will hold up, but I think there is going to be a really great ending to this story."