It seemed like the usual mundane spring-training routine in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse Thursday morning.
Players sat slumped in front of their lockers before workouts were to begin, absently pecking on their smart phones. Others ducked in and out of the medical room, through a door with a large sign that ominously warns the nosy media to stay out.
The MLB Network was tuned into the large TV near the front entrance.
Suddenly, there was a commotion toward the back of the room.
Players started whooping it up in the jocular fashion they often do, yelling and laughing with plenty of backslapping and manly hugs. Conversations in Spanish started to erupt.
Jose Bautista was in the house and, as usual in whatever he is doing, his presence created a stir.
Bautista threw his bag into his locker in the high-rent district of the clubhouse and immediately started to engage with Troy Tulowitzki, another of the team luminaries who is as quietly confident as Bautista is brazenly brash.
Tulowitzki was glad to see his old teammate, who had hoped to land a lucrative free-agent contract this past off-season. When that failed to materialize, Bautista agreed to a deal that will keep him in Toronto for at least one more season at $18-million (U.S.).
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tulowitzki said a few hours later, remarking on Bautista’s return. “It’s one of those things when a guy gets to test the market, you want good things for him so you want him to be somewhere where he’s going to be happy, obviously somewhere where he makes a lot of money.
“But bottom line, you want him to be back. So for Jose to come back, I think everybody knows how much he means to the city, how much he means to the Blue Jays. And he’s definitely a leader on this team so we welcome him back. He makes us a better ball club.”
So, too, does Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays shortstop who is beginning his second full season with the American League club, and whose presence as a clubhouse leader cannot be underestimated. He goes about his business quietly but efficiently, especially on the baseball diamond where he remains one of the game’s premier shortstops at age 32.
His face is usually locked into a determined grimace and Tulowitzki speaks his mind when he has something to say. But he is also generous with his time with any player who wants to learn the game and get better.
Tulowitzki, heading into his 12th major-league season, is almost a throwback to the old days of the game, before Sabermetrics and cellphones, when players sat around more, shooting the breeze and dispensing knowledge.
“I always considered myself a little bit more of an old-school type,” Tulowitzki said. “I don’t think there’s too many of me around. … I’m here all the time. I started early today and I’m leaving right now. I put in long hours.
“And I can keep saying, I respect this game, I love this game. I want to do it as long as I can and it means something to me.”
When he was cutting his teeth in baseball, the leading lights at shortstop were Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, who had yet to make the transition to third base.
Tulowitzki cherished the moments when he had a chance to talk with them.
“I’d have to talk about how they were my role models and how I had posters of them in my room,” Tulowitzki said.
Now it has come full circle for Tulowitzki with a fresh crop of young and exciting shortstops entering the game, including Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros and Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians.
These players now come up to Tulowitzki when their paths cross, telling him that they studied his game when they were younger.
Sturdily built at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Tulowitzki in the old days would have been considered too bulky, not nimble enough, to play shortstop. That thinking went out the door when 6-foot-4 Cal Ripken Jr. established himself as one of the game’s greats playing 21 years for the Baltimore Orioles.
While Ripken finished off his career at third base, Tulowitzki is determined to continue at shortstop.
At least, that’s his plan.
“I’m trying to do something that no one’s ever done – and that’s, being as big as I am, continually playing shortstop at the highest level,” he said. “And it’s fun. I challenge myself every single day to keep this thing going. It’s something I take pride in and hopefully for my entire career I’ll be at that position.”
As for the Blue Jays’ infield defence, Tulowitzki said he will challenge them on a daily basis to get better.
Josh Donaldson at third base “made huge strides last year and really made himself into an elite defender,” Tulowitzki said. Justin Smoak at first, he said, “is as good as it gets.”
And Devon Travis at second base? Tulowitzki considers him an unpolished product.
“Devon’s, someone I’m going to constantly be doing early work with and you’re going to see me on the field with him, putting in work, because he wants to get better,” Tulowitzki said. “He needs to get better in that area. But with his work ethic he’s going to get better, no doubt.”Report Typo/Error
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