KANSAS CITY — Troy Tulowitzki leaned back in his chair at a table inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium with four men who were complete strangers to him months ago.
There was Ryan Goins, still fuming over the strike zone in the ninth inning of the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals that ended their season. There was Kevin Pillar, who frankly looked relieved to be through with the hardest, most demanding year of his young life, as he tipped back a light beer and sighed. There was Mark Lowe, the clubhouse clown and constant provider of comic relief, who tried to lighten the mood and disrupt interviews by farting on demand. And there was Chris Colabello, the seven-year independent ball veteran who finally broke through in the majors in 2015 with a remarkable season, who turned 32-years-old literally as he sat at that table, and who demanded someone include Lowe’s antics in their writing (Happy Birthday, Chris).
Then there was Tulowitzki. It’s been a hard year for the 31-year-old. He was traded mid-season to a team he never thought he’d play for; he struggled offensively, falling well short of the best-hitting-shortstop-in-the-game level he’s proven himself capable of; he played through an injury throughout October, one that clearly made him uncomfortable at the plate.
Through it all, he’s kept his head down, said all the right things and tried to go about his business while attracting as little attention as possible. He hasn’t wanted to talk about the discomfort he’s been feeling, both physically and emotionally. But on this night, just an hour after his long, tiring season ended, surrounded by some of his closest friends on his new team, he let himself open up.
"You know what, and this is just being completely honest, it’s tough for me now to trust anybody in this game after what happened," Tulowitzki said. "I’m sure these guys (in the Blue Jays front office) are great here. But at the same time, with what happened, it’s really tough."
What happened was Tulowitzki was traded from the place where his career began, and where he figured it would end. He’d signed a 10-year contract with Colorado in 2010. He didn’t think he was going anywhere. But trade rumours persisted throughout his Rockies tenure as the team drastically underperformed, and Tulowitzki suddenly went from a franchise player on a possible contender to a tradable asset on a perennially losing team.
"It’s been a tough year for me, to be honest. Just with everything that went down with the trade. It threw me for a loop. It threw my family for a loop," Tulowitzki said. "I’m excited to go to spring training and get a fresh start with the team and be with these guys for a whole year and not have to worry about trade talks and all that. The last three or four years I had to worry about it and talk about it every single day in Colorado. So, I’m looking forward to having a year where I don’t have to talk about it. It’s going to be great."
Tulowitzki was blunt when he was introduced to Toronto shortly after his acquisition in late July—he hadn’t expected the trade. But he never let on just how much it affected his psyche.
He was always told that if the Rockies front office was thinking about moving him, he’d be made aware of it. He never had a sense that anything was imminent. But then, on July 28, he was removed from a game without explanation. It hurt him a lot.
"I didn’t expect it at all. It caught me off guard. I think some people when they get traded they either expect it or know they’re going somewhere. The team tells them something," Tulowitzki said. "With mine it was, ‘Hey you’re not going anywhere.’ And then I come out of the game, and I’m here in Toronto, and then we go on a run, and we make the playoffs. It was crazy."
It was a lot for Tulowitzki to process—especially the place he was traded to. He didn’t know much about Toronto and likely never would have considered it as a free agent.
"They had a shortstop. So it wasn’t even a place that you’d ever imagine going to. That was definitely a shock," Tulowitzki said. "I just didn’t know what to expect. It was a much bigger city than I originally thought. I really was excited when we started to win—how the country got behind us. That was fun, to go to a packed house every single night. But I didn’t even know they were capable of that—even if we won."
Tulowitzki admits that he never truly felt settled in Toronto over the final three months of the season; never felt comfortable or much like himself.
When he came over to the Blue Jays, everyone told him to beware of the Rogers Centre turf. But he found that wasn’t the biggest adjustment, or even much of a problem at all. The hardest thing for Tulowitzki to adapt to was being a Blue Jay after nearly a decade of being a Rockie.
"I mean, these guys are great and I’m getting to know them. But at the same time, when you don’t spend the whole year with the team, it’s hard to feel settled," Tulowitzki said. "Now that I’m here though, I figure things happen for a reason. And this team is really good and I’m excited to come back next year."
Tulowitzki finished his 2015 with a .280/.337/.440 line. He hit 17 homers and drove in 70 runs. He was worth 2.3 wins above replacement. In the aggregate, he was very good, especially for a shortstop.
But most of that production came with the Rockies, who he hit .300/.348/.471 for over 87 games. As a Blue Jay he never truly found his feet, batting .239/.317/.380 after the trade, and .205/.239/.386 in 11 games this post-season. There’s no way around it—he produced much better before July 28 than he did after.
"It was just one day and one deal, " Tulowitzki says, "That kind of changed my mind on some things."
To be fair, Tulowitzki provided some of the biggest hits of the Blue Jays’ post-season, like the three-run homer in Game 3 against the Rangers, the three-run homer in Game 3 against the Royals, and the bases-loaded double in Game 5 of the ALCS that helped the Blue Jays get as far as they did. That was all accomplished while Tulowitzki played through the lingering effects of a cracked shoulder blade, something he admitted he was battling with throughout the playoffs, and something he was finally starting to turn the corner on just as the Blue Jays' season came to an end.
"I was pretty honest. Some days I felt good, some days I wasn’t too good," Tulowitzki said. "It’s not like I’m going to come out and announce now that I had a torn something. It’s not like that. But these last couple days, honestly, I’ve felt a lot better than the previous week or two."
Now, Tulowitzki goes home for a rest. To thoroughly heal his shoulder; to thoroughly clear his mind; to thoroughly evaluate where his career is at and what it’s going to be like to play the next five years of his contract as a Blue Jay. It’s been a really tough year, and there’s a small part of him that’s relieved it’s over.
But there’s also a part of him excited to see how his new team grows. Tulowitzki talked at length about the experience of the post-season and high-pressure, meaningful baseball—how it can affect young players like Goins and Pillar, who sat around that clubhouse table with him as he talked.
He speaks from experience, having gone to the playoffs when he was 22 and 24 with Colorado. He remembers how much better it made him as a ballplayer. How it taught him to slow the game down.
"I think you’re instantly going to see them be better players next year, just because of games like that," Tulowitzki said. "Then you look at the talent we have, and I would think Alex [Anthopoulos] is going to be really aggressive in the off-season because he had so much success with some of the moves that he made. I think you’ll see more of that and I think our team will only get better."
After some much needed time away from the game, Tulowitzki thinks he’s only going to get better, too.