Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is the leader of the Colorado Rockies and he even attempts to throw in the 'hero' role all the time. But even heroes can't bat 1.000.
These are the three moments I think about when I think about Troy Tulowitzki:
1. As an intern at the Rockies flagship station during the spring of 2007, I made a lot of trips into the Coors Field locker room for postgame duties. Before the first game of that season, a rare home opener against Arizona, the team held a workout for season ticket holders only, and I went in the hopes of scoring some sound bites and maybe a one-on-one interview or two afterwards. After being part of a mob in front of the team's established stars, I noticed that nobody was talking to the rookie shortstop that had been handed the everyday job just a year and a half after being a first-round pick; I walked over to Tulo's locker, introduced myself, and started asking questions.
I don't remember everything I asked him - something about why he changed his jersey to No. 2, I think, and something about what his September cameo with the Rockies in 2006 had taught him about what he needed to improve upon in his game. But eventually, the media horde started wandering over in our direction, as they were as interested to hear what Tulo had to say as I was. I knew I only had one question left, so I knew I had to make it count.
"What would you say your expectations are for your first full season?" I asked.
Troy Tulowitzki, all of 22 years old, with only 25 major league games to his credit, looked me dead in the eye and said, firmly, "I don't have any expectations. I just want to win."
2. October 1, 2007. You know the game. Tulo's double to the left-center gap scores Kaz Matsui with the first run of the 13th inning. He comes home himself on Matt Holliday's triple. Two batters later, Matt Holliday is knocking himself silly diving towards home plate with the most important run in the franchise's history. It's a mob scene at home plate, of course, as the players haven't completely realized that Holliday's on queer street and are ready to bury him in a pile of giddy humanity.
Watch that scene again - come on, you're a Rockies fan, you've got that game on tape or iTunes or something. Watch that pile form behind home plate. Watch one guy fly into the picture with a towel, waving it madly, only he's not facing his teammates. He's facing the stands, towards the 50,000 fans that had begun chanting his nickname during the team's September charge and forever changing the way any Rockies fans hears that familiar clap, clap, clapclapclap, clapclapclapclap refrain.
Troy Tulowitzki is the happiest person in that ballpark right then. It's not even a contest.
3. It's October again, 2009 this time, and by now Tulo's a bonafide star, the cleanup hitter whose massive second half helped the Rockies get to the postseason again. And after splitting the first two games of the NLDS against the Phillies, the Rockies have a chance to seize control of the series with a Game 3 win. I'm sitting in the center field bleachers, colder than I've ever been at a live sporting event, and I've watched the Rockies, with help from Jerry Meals, Ron Kulpa, and Huston Street (in descending order of culpability), fall behind 6-5 in the ninth inning. But we've got the top of the order up in the ninth, and if we can get a runner on base for Tulowitzki, there's not one person in the park who won't like our odds.
Turns out, we get two on. Carlos Gonzalez draws a one-out walk, and steals second, but Jason Giambi pops out. Then Todd Helton walks. The always-shaky Brad Lidge is on the ropes. Tulo's at the plate. With CarGo's speed, a single ties it. With the blur that is Eric Young Jr. pinch-running for Helton, a gap-shot means we can dance down Park Avenue. And on the 1-0 pitch, Tulo gets the pitch he's looking for, the best pitch he'll see all night... and misses it by one lousy freaking grain of wood. The lazy fly settles in Ben Francisco's glove as Tulowitzki shatters his bat before the cursory trot to first base.
The next night he'll shatter another one after his mighty hack passes through a Lidge slider for the final out of the series after a Game Four loss that surpasses the night before on the gut punch scale. And the best team in the National League over the last four months of that season goes home for the winter.
That was the moment Troy Tulowitzki would sell his soul for. And he failed.
Those three moments are Troy Tulowitzki writ small. An unsurpassed desire to win, a child's delight in every victory (seriously, the happiest-looking guy after every single walk-off win the Rockies have had in the last four seasons has been Tulo)... and chances to be a hero that have passed him by.
Troy Tulowitzki is batting .183 in 'late and close' situations in 2011, including a strikeout with the go-ahead run on third in the eighth inning of Wednesday's win over Houston. (He did draw a leadoff walk and score the winning run in the 10th.) His OPS through the game goes from 1.004 in the first three innings of games, to .944 in the middle three, to .748 in the late stages. And lest you think that's a small sample size anomaly, when expanded to include the rest of his career, his 'late and close' slash line is .223/.320/.349, and his OPS numbers go from .939 to .940 to, stunningly, .682 in the final frames.
The guy is everything you want in a baseball player but... well, 'clutch'. But if you've watched Troy Tulowitzki, you kinda understand. He's desperate to be the hero, but he isn't. He's made to be the hero, but he hasn't. And it adds more pressure to come through in those big spots, to the point where Tulo almost seems uptight in those at-bats, too eager to fire at a first pitch instead of waiting for the right one, trying so hard to hit the hero shot that instead of missing by one grain. He misses by several and can do nothing but scream in frustration as a pop-up dies just past the infield dirt.
That problem seems exacerbated in this long slog of a season, where too often it seemed like Tulo tried to do too much in his at-bats with his team behind, feeling even more heat to try and lift his team out of the doldrums they've been in since the calendar flipped to May.
He's done everything he can. He's smoked a career high 34 doubles, banged 26 home runs, driven in 89 runs, and has played astounding defense that will surely earn him a second straight Gold Glove. When this season ends shy of the postseason, just as last year's did despite his Ruthian September surge, it's not going to be Tulowitzki's fault.
But based on what I know from watching him play, he doesn't think that way at all. Troy Tulowitzki wants to carry this team, every single day, to hit the home run when the single will suffice, to be the one underneath the dogpile instead of the one jumping for joy on the periphery. It is his gift, and his curse, and it is what makes him the occasionally frustrating, but much more often brilliant star, perfect for this occasionally brilliant, but much more often frustrating team.
Troy Tulowitzki just wants to win. It's simultaneously not as easy and not as hard as he makes it seem.