SOME OCTOBERS, asif with a wink and a grin, baseball grants a peek at its future, slipping thebest of its coming attractions into the Sturm und Drang of the postseason. The1951 World Series gave us the sweet synchronicity of rookies Mickey Mantle andWillie Mays facing each other. In 1995, Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones, both23 and playing in their first postseason, squared off in the Fall Classic. LastOctober the opening game of the National League Championship Series broughtanother clash of phenoms, though seeing was less revelatory than hearing,"Get your ass down to first base and shut up!"
This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue
Listen up,people. What's next for baseball, which is still trying to distance itself fromthe Steroid Era, was articulated last Oct. 11 in the middle of the diamond ofChase Field in Phoenix. There was Colorado Rockies rookie shortstop TroyTulowitzki, a day after turning 23, giving an earful to Arizona Diamondbacksrookie rightfielder Justin Upton, two months removed from his 20thbirthday.
A pitch frommild-mannered Rockies lefthander Jeff Francis had hit Upton with theDiamondbacks trailing 5--1, a runner on second and no outs in the seventhinning. Upton was slow to take his base, and his body language made clear hethought he'd been plunked on purpose. Tulowitzki directed Upton to quietly haula certain body part of his as well as the rest of himself to first.
"Why would wehit you?" Tulowitzki barked. "You're a .200 hitter! We want you in thebox! Shut up and go to the bag!"
At springtraining Tulowitzki explained the outburst: "Upton should have been happyhe got hit in that situation. Get a runner on base, and you can startsomething. He took too long to get to first, and I saw that Jeff didn't likeit. But Jeff's not the kind of guy who's going to do anything to anybody, so Ifelt I needed to say something. I respect guys who play the game the right way,and I didn't feel [Upton] did the right thing in that situation. Does that meanI don't like him? No."
On the nextbatted ball Upton plowed into second baseman Kaz Matsui to prevent his turninga double play. Umpire Larry Vanover thought Upton went in too aggressively andruled inter ference, giving Colorado the DP. The Rockies won the game 5--1 andswept the series.
"He had someadrenaline going," Tulowitzki says. "I have no problem with that. To methat's the way you play the game."
During BP beforeGame 2, Upton approached Tulowitzki behind the cage and asked, "Do you havea problem with me?"
"No,"Tulowitzki recalls saying. "It's just that if I got hit in that situation,I'm going to be happy getting on first. I understand it might not feel great,but it's a team game and that's the way you play."
Game on. Eraon.
MUCH OF what'snext for baseball—the championships, the MVP awards, the rivalries, theendorsements, even the drug testing—will arise from the events of June 7, 2005.On that day the majors held a draft that is likely to eclipse the greatest inbaseball history: 1985, when Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, WillClark, B.J. Surhoff, Pete Incaviglia and Gregg Jefferies were among the first22 picks.
Upton was the topchoice; Tulowitzki, to Colorado's everlasting gratitude, slipped to seventh. A"franchise-changing" moment, Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd callsselecting Tulowitzki.
In a little morethan two years the class of '05 has already changed the fortunes of franchises,and more impact players from that draft are in the pipeline. The mother lodeincluded:
• Upton (No. 1),who last season, in just his fifth big league appearance, became the firstteenager since Danny Murphy of the 1961 Chicago Cubs to collect nine totalbases in a game. Arizona reached the NLCS after averaging 94 losses theprevious three seasons, and this year Upton will be the starting rightfielderfrom Opening Day.
• Alex Gordon(No. 2), the Kansas City Royals' third baseman, whom the team sees as a GeorgeBrett--type franchise player. After a miserable start last year, Gordon batted.285 over his final 98 games. The Royals improved by seven wins and areconsidered a team on the rise.
• Ryan Zimmerman(No. 4), the Washington Nationals' third baseman, who is one of 17 players tohit 20 homers and drive in 90 runs in a season twice before turning 23.
• Ryan Braun (No.5), who slugged a rookie-record .643 and helped the Milwaukee Brewers finishabove .500 for the first time in 15 seasons.
• Tulowitzki (No.7), the surest-handed shortstop in baseball last year, whose .987 fieldingpercentage was the best ever for a rookie shortstop. He batted .291 with 99RBIs and was the first rookie at his position to hit at least 24 homers for aWorld Series team.
• Jacoby Ellsbury(No. 23), the Boston Red Sox' centerfielder who became the sixth player since1947 to hit as high as .353 with at least 100 at bats in his first season. Hethen batted .360 during the postseason for the world champions.
• Clay Buchholz(No. 42), who in his second big league start became the second-youngest Red Soxpitcher to throw a no-hitter.
And coming soon:a gifted set of outfielders taken out of high school in '05. The group includesCameron Maybin of the Florida Marlins (No. 10), the centerpiece of the packagethe Detroit Tigers surrendered to get third baseman Miguel Cabrera; AndrewMcCutcheon of the Pittsburgh Pirates (No. 11); Jay Bruce of the Cincinnati Reds(No. 12), the No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America; and Colby Rasmus ofthe St. Louis Cardinals (No. 28). Says O'Dowd, "There's never been a draftlike this."
The class of '05is chock-full of made-to-order franchise players, men who understand and evenwelcome the responsibility of representing their team, their city and theirgame. Says Royals senior scouting director Deric Ladnier, "It's rare whenyou see somebody come along where you say, 'This guy is the complete package.'And yet that year there were several guys you could say that about. They'regoing to be the face of the game for a long time."
By happenstance,they're also inheriting the toxic mess of the Steroid Era: The draft came justthree months after the congressional hearing in which Mark McGwire destroyedhis reputation and Palmeiro pointed a fateful finger. For the players of theclass of '05, drug testing has been part of their professional lives. Theirclubhouse culture, while not assumed to be entirely pure, does not encourageusing performance enhancers as an accepted tariff of competition. SaysTulowitzki, "I'd be in favor of any test, a blood test, whatever, if itmeans keeping the game clean."
In his firstseason Tulowitzki called out teammates, not just opponents; dragged a franchisethat had never won a playoff series into its first Fall Classic; earned his owngoose-bump-raising signature chant at Coors Field (rhythmic clapping followedby a shout of Tu-LO!); then signed the biggest contract (six years, $31 millionwith a club option for $15 million in 2014) given to a player with less thantwo years of service—after which he bought his mother, Susan, a house andpromised to be a fixture in the Denver community. "I'm willing to do thatand want to do that," Tulowitzki says.
Team leader?Community activist? Baseball ambassador? Anti drug advocate? Power-hittingshortstop who's built like Cal Ripken (6'3", 205 pounds), moves like RobinYount and leads like Derek Jeter? There can be only one question about a23-year-old who meets the franchise-player gold standard.
How the heck didhe last until the seventh pick?
TULOWITZKI AWOKEon the morning of June 7, 2005, convinced he was headed to Seattle. TheMariners held the third selection. "A couple of minutes before thedraft," he says, "they'd called me and said, 'You're our guy.'"
The first twopicks held no mystery. The Diamondbacks knew they were taking Upton the momentthey clinched the worst record of 2004—and with it the first pick of '05. Everyclub had scouted Upton since he was 13. Arizona had someone at every game ofhis senior season at Great Bridge High in Chesapeake, Va.
Even in therichest draft ever, says Mike Rizzo, then the Diamondbacks' scouting directorand now Washington's assistant G.M., "it was obvious there was a gapbetween him and the other candidates. He ran a 6.3 60, showed a plus arm, hadprodigious power as a 13-year-old, had a great family background and had gonethrough every test at the highest levels of competition and just dominated. Hisprofessional attitude, the immense physical assets—he had the perfect package.A very high-reward, very low-risk type."
Upton hit .221 in43 games last year, and .357 in the post season. "I believe he's going tobe a superstar," Rizzo says. "Nothing would surprise me with hisability."
Next up were theRoyals. Gordon went to high school and college in Lincoln, Neb., and likeBrett, played third and had a sweet lefthanded stroke. "The ability, themakeup, the desire, the fact that he was a Midwesterner, it was a perfectfit," Ladnier says. "You knew he was going to be an exceptional player,but also a great representative of the Royals for many years."
Seattle, at No.3, presented the first suspense in the draft. Scouts talk to one another enoughto get a good idea of how the opening round is likely to play out. TheNationals were known to be taking Zimmerman, a strong hitter and extraordinaryfielder who, like Gordon, had the added value of being a regional attraction(he grew up in Virginia Beach and played college ball at Virginia) withterrific intangibles. Seattle, though, had not shown its hand.
At home inSunnyvale, Calif., Tulowitzki was hosting a draft party to which he had invitedfamily, friends, coaches, "anybody in my life who had helped me in the gameof baseball," he says. "Anybody who took me to any games or threw meany balls."
His phone rang.It was the Mariners, saying that they needed a catcher—during the '05 seasonthey would use seven—and were choosing Jeff Clement. A 6'1", 210-poundlefthanded hitter, Clement was second alltime in home runs for USC (46), behindMcGwire. Baseball America rated him the 12th-most-talented player in thedraft.
Only five monthslater Seattle signed Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year, $16.5million contract. Clement, who played nine games in the majors in '07, is acareer .276 minor league hitter with power, but he has work to do on defense."Absolutely, we feel good about Jeff," says Seattle G.M. Bill Bavasi."He'd be on our club right now if Joh weren't there. One thing we can't dowith Clement is have him sitting and waiting. We have [Richie] Sexson at first,[Jose] Vidro at DH, Joh catching, so it's just too tough to get him atbats."
Washington, asexpected, then took Zimmerman. Next up was Milwaukee, but Tulowitzki knew hewasn't going there. The Brewers had called him before the draft to work out adeal, but there was a catch: They'd just installed 22-year-old J.J. Hardy astheir shortstop and wanted to move Tulowitzki to third.
Tulowitzki hadbeen a shortstop his whole life, a kid in Little League who chased every flyball and grounder he could get near and who still played the position withsandlot gusto. "A ball hog, that's what he is," Rockies third basecoach Mike Gallego says. "And he doesn't just get to balls. You see a lotof players make spectacular dives and stops, but the guy is safe at first.Troy's got such a great arm that he throws him out too. He's a greatfinisher."
When Tulowitzkitold the Brewers he had no interest in playing third, they took Braun, aUniversity of Miami third baseman renowned for his bat but not his glove.(Colorado, for instance, had scouted Braun with the idea of making him acenterfielder.) Braun hit .324 last season with 34 home runs and 97 RBIs,edging Tulowitzki in the Rookie of the Year voting 128--126. This season he'llbe playing leftfield for Milwaukee.
Toronto held thenext pick. Tulowitzki waited for his phone to ring. The Blue Jays were tornbetween him and Ricky Romero, a lefthander from Cal State--Fullerton who'd beenTulowitzki's roommate on the powerhouse 2004 USA Baseball team, a squad thatincluded Gordon, Clement and Zimmerman.
The Blue Jays hadRuss Adams, 24, playing shortstop, and Aaron Hill, 23, a converted shortstop,as a utilityman. "We thought we had the position covered," says J.P.Ricciardi, Toronto's G.M. "One thing we thought about was, we can't getpitching unless we draft it. It wasn't as if free agents were knocking down ourdoor."
Baseball Americarated Mike Pelfrey and Luke Hochevar as the top pitchers in the draft, but bothwere being advised by agent Scott Boras. That ruled them out as too hard tosign. "Romero was aggressive, had a really good breaking ball and changeup,above-average fastball, was a great competitor," Ricciardi says. "Allthe things you saw in Tulowitzki as an everyday player, you saw in [Romero] asa pitcher. And being lefthanded, that was huge."
Says Boston G.M.Theo Epstein, "I thought Romero was as sure a bet as any collegepitcher."
Tulowitzki,watching the draft unfold on the Internet, saw Toronto select his formerroommate. Romero, 23, is 8--13 with a 4.19 ERA in three minor league seasons,none higher than Double A.
"Totally mycall," Ricciardi says. "Right now we made the wrong choice. I've beenin [talent] evaluation my whole life. It happens. When we were in Oakland, wetook [Ariel] Prieto over [Todd] Helton. Romero hasn't come as fast as the otherguys, but it's really only his third year. We still like him."
Last winterTulowitzki took a vacation to Las Vegas with his friend Romero. Like Prieto andHelton—or Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan—they will always be connected."Tulo," Romero told him, "the fans in the minors are all over me.They say, 'We should have picked Tulowitzki!'"
The Rockies werenext. Seattle, Milwaukee and Toronto had passed on Tulo witzki in part becauseof their organizational needs. "After what happened [in '05]," says oneAmerican League G.M., "I'm really convinced you should never let positionalneeds influence you. Just take the best player."
Tulowitzki wasthe right player for Colorado. And it was not just because the Rockies needed ashortstop. It was also because of what had happened at 1:30 a.m. on a Fridaysix months earlier, when police in Lakewood, Colo., pulled over a whiteCadillac Escalade.
IN THE SUMMER of2001, after Long Beach State found out that its top shortstop prospect hadfailed to qualify academically, Troy Buckley, a Long Beach State coach, thoughtof the tall, athletic kid from Fremont High in Sunnyvale, whom he'd watchedover the summer. Tulowitzki signed to play for the Dirtbags in November, andthe following month Buckley went to see his new recruit play basketball.
"His team wasoutmanned, but the one thing I did see was that he ran his team," saysBuckley, now pitching coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "After that Icalled the head coach and said, 'This guy's not just a special player. This guyis going to be a billboard for the program. A leader.'"
Colorado scouts,including Dave Snow, a former coach at Long Beach State, followed Tulowitzkiclosely in the spring of 2005. They watched practices, asked questions."They were in the process of turning the organization around without usknowing it," Buckley says. "They were after quality people."
The whiteEscalade in question was driven by Rockies pitcher Denny Neagle. With his beltundone. With a woman who would be cited for prostitution in the passenger seat.Neagle was cited for misdemeanor soliciting prostitution, and three days laterthe Rockies terminated his contract. (After disputing the termination, Neagleand the team reportedly settled for $16 million.)
By the spring of'05 the Rockies were scouting character as carefully as they would bat speedand arm strength. The organization's scouting manual included preferredcharacter traits. Scouting reports included sections devoted to thesubject.
Tulowitzki hadjust the kind of makeup they were seeking. "Until you get to know him, youcan't do it justice," O'Dowd says. "What the scouts said was accurate,or probably even understated."
Says New YorkYankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, "He's like DiMaggio, who saidsome people might get to see him play only once, so he owed it to them to playhard every game. That's what it looks like with Tulowitzki."
It did not takelong for Tulowitzki to make an impact. Last May 21, Colorado lost 6--5 atArizona and fell to 18--27. As the players trudged back to the clubhouse,somebody sent equipment bouncing off walls as he yelled, "This team is toogood to be playing this [bleep]!" It was Tulo witzki, the .258-hittingrookie who had just played career game number 66. That was the moment theRockies became his team. From then on they went 72--46.
"There aredays in the course of a long year where you come in with a low energylevel," says Helton, the Rockies' 34-year-old first baseman. "Ithappens. But a few guys have the knack of getting your energy back up to whereit should be just by being themselves. Troy's one of those guys. He picks usup, and it's all genuine."
Tulowitzki says,"You can make comments that will wake guys up. I'll pull guys aside andsay, 'Hey, what were you thinking?' on a certain play or, 'That ball that wasin the gap, you settled for a single and maybe you want to stretch that into adouble.'"
Last summer theRockies brought their latest No. 1 pick, righthander Casey Weathers, to Denverfor a look at Coors Field. Not only did Tulo witzki introduce himself in theclubhouse before a game, but he also invited Weathers to dinner that night,where he talked to him about what to expect as a No. 1 pick.
"We turned acorner as a franchise last year, and the biggest reason for that was Troy,"O'Dowd says. "It's the single-minded focus he brought, that winning comesabove everything else. He's one of those very rare players who makes playersaround him better."
THE ROCKIES weredone with an early spring training workout in Tucson last month, andTulowitzki, who likes being the first to arrive and the last to leave, wasstill in his gear, throwing batting practice to a kid in a black Rockies jerseyunder an endlessly beautiful Southwestern sky. Tulowitzki was 12 years old whenhe started watching Jeter in the World Series what seemed like every year. Heunderstood that Jeter—like Russell, Magic, Messier and Montana—was defined moreby his team's success than by his own numbers. That's the kind of player Troywanted to be. His father, Ken, who delivers computer equipment for anelectronics company, coached his son in Little League and helped stoke Troy'sdrive to get there.
"I know whatit takes to be the best," says Troy, who's the oldest of three children."My father taught me the game of baseball and taught me that guys getbetter as you go up levels, so you have to work harder and harder."
Tulowitzki isn'tmarried. He doesn't fish, hunt or play golf. Video games are the closest thinghe has to a hobby, and even then he hooks the Xbox to the stationary bike inthe Rockies' fitness room. Playing baseball, and playing it the right way, iswhat consumes him, what thrills him.
"C'mon, throwit!" the kid in the Rockies jersey says.
"O.K., butjust one more," Tulowitzki replies. "I've got to go do my abwork."
The kid is fouryears old. It's Jackson Holliday, son of Rockies leftfielder Matt Holliday.Matt, Jackson and Troy are playing with a rag-style ball and a tiny foam bat ona plush patch of grass underneath an old cottonwood tree. Two things arenoteworthy about this bit of playtime. One, Tulowitzki seems to be having evenmore fun than the ferociously swinging Jackson. Two, Jackson's Rockies jerseydoes not say holliday on the back. It says TULOWITZKI.
"O.K., I'vereally got to go now!" Tulo witzki says.
He jogs off.There is so much more to do.
NOW ON SI.COM
SPORTS IN REAL TIME. ALL THE TIME. ALL FREE.
Read an exclusiveInside Baseball column and mailbag from Tom Verducci, plus Jon Heyman's DailyScoop, every week.