Tulowitzki's game, passion belie his rookie status

PHILADELPHIA -- Troy Tulowitzki has come a long way since spring training of 2006, when his Colorado teammates made him and fellow prospect Ian Stewart re-enact the Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey finale from "Dirty Dancing." With the exception of wearing a dress to a Phoenix-area Cheesecake Factory during a September call-up, the incident marked the height of his early hazing ordeal.

But he's still a rookie -- technically, anyway -- and the veteran Rockies are happy to put him in his place. They teased him enough about his Derek Jeter hero worship that Tulowitzki showed up one day with a bottle of Jeter's "Driven" cologne as a gag. A few Rockies even dabbed it on during a series against the Yankees in June.

And sometimes Tulowitzki gets so worked up over a Rockies rally, you'd think he was back in the home dugout at Long Beach State's Blair Field, indulging the Dirtbag within.

"His passion for the game comes out and boils over sometimes," pitcher Josh Fogg said. "He'll start screaming in the dugout, and you'll look and realize how much he loves it. We say he's 12 years old off the field and 30 years old on the field."

With his contagious energy and all-around game, Tulowitzki makes his teammates feel younger and provides hope for Rockies fans who feel beleaguered, skeptical and deprived after six straight years of sub.-500 baseball.

Milwaukee's Ryan Braun is the clear front-runner for National League Rookie of the Year based on his overwhelming numbers, but Tulowitzki is an appealing Plan B for voters who like their candidates with a more well-rounded portfolio. Consider:

• Tulowitzki hit his 20th home run Monday night at Citizens Bank Park to break Ernie Banks' National League record for a rookie shortstop. Four American League rookie shortstops (Nomar Garciaparra, Bobby Crosby, Ron Hansen and Cal Ripken Jr.) hit more, and they all won the Rookie of the Year award.

• He's on a roll just when the Rockies need it most, with 17 hits in his last 43 at-bats (.395) with runners in scoring position.

• If the coaches and managers discount reputation and judge strictly on the merits, Tulowitzki should receive consideration for a Gold Glove. He's first among major league shortstops in range factor and third in zone rating behind Omar Vizquel and Jose Reyes, and he ranks third in fielding percentage at .985 despite handling a whopping 740 chances, by far a major league high.

Tulowitzki is on pace for 565 assists, which would be the most by a shortstop since Ozzie Smith recorded 621 for San Diego in 1980. He even pulled off an unassisted triple play to boot.

The people in Colorado's traveling party rave about other things -- like the way Tulowitzki grinds out at-bats, hangs in on the double-play pivot, makes spectacular plays routine and routine plays seem automatic. He slows the game down to his pace, rather than speeding up his actions to suit the game, and he wants to be in the batter's box or handling that final ground ball with two outs in the ninth.

Rockies utilityman Jamey Carroll says Tulowitzki's "confident arrogance" stems from an intense desire to win. And he means it as a compliment. "That's the Long Beach side of him," Carroll said.

Tulowitzki, who grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., has a picture of himself at age 2 hitting a baseball off a tee. His father, Ken, who worked assembling computer parts for Sun Microsystems, coached him from Little League through his teen years, and instilled in him an appreciation for the fundamentals and a desire to always be better.

Tulowitzki grew up an Athletics fan, and the family would routinely make the hour drive to Oakland Coliseum to watch Mark McGwire and company play. As fate would have it, the Rockies are loaded with former A's -- from Jamie Quirk and Mike Gallego on the coaching staff to Walt Weiss in the front office.

Tulowitzki played on the same youth league team with former Oakland third baseman Carney Lansford's son, Josh. The elder Lansford is now Colorado's Triple-A hitting instructor and accompanying the Rockies on their current NL East swing.

"You don't find too many young 'old-school' types, but he was like that even in high school," Lansford said. "He doesn't throw away at-bats or take innings off. He's all business."

Tulowitzki scored 22.6 points per game as a guard for his high school team and was second team all-state in basketball. But tall, rangy shortstops were in vogue, and Tulowitzki, all 6 feet, 3 inches of him, attended Long Beach State as the heir to Crosby at the position.

His principal selling point has always been an arm that ranks somewhere between 70 and "oh my gosh" on the 20-80 scouts evaluation scale. Colorado reliever Matt Herges calls it a Shawon Dunston-caliber arm, and Tulowitzki routinely elicits comparisons to Reyes and Rafael Furcal.

He is more assertive than your typical rookie. Earlier this season, Tulowitzki publicly took issue with Toronto catcher Jason Phillips and Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein for what he considered unsportsmanlike plays.

"If there's a dirty play where the catcher did something or I think a guy slid in way off the bag, I'm definitely going to say something," he said. "I think the game should be played right."

Tulowitzki can't arrive at the clubhouse these days without a Rookie of the Year update. If Braun hits another home run or Houston outfielder Hunter Pence has a stat-padding game, he's sure to hear about it from his teammates, who want him to keep pace.

Besides his talent, the thing that impresses me the most is his unbelievable will to win. Normally a kid comes up and he's thinking, 'I just want to stay here and do the best I can.' But this guy is like a veteran. He's way beyond his

--Rockies reliever Matt Herges on Troy Tulowitzki

"We tell him he's got third place locked up," Fogg joked.

The Rockies, who haven't made the playoffs since 1995, are hanging around the NL wild-card race despite the loss of starters Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez to the disabled list and a bullpen packed to the point of bursting.

Fourteen Rockies relievers jockeyed for space in the Citizens Bank Park 'pen Monday night when Colorado's slim postseason hopes took a hit with a 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Phillies. The Rockies probably will have to win the next three in Philadelphia to have a legitimate chance. In the meantime, people are taking notice of the team's improved play. Outfielder Matt Holliday should receive some MVP consideration, and Clint Hurdle's name is likely to appear on a few Manager of the Year ballots.

Tulowitzki's home-road splits (a .974 OPS at Coors Field compared to .672 on the road) won't help his Rookie of the Year case. But his teammates see the same approach regardless of venue.

"Besides his talent, the thing that impresses me the most is his unbelievable will to win," Herges said. "Normally a kid comes up and he's thinking, 'I just want to stay here and do the best I can.' But this guy is like a veteran. He's way beyond his years."

In the spring, Tulowitzki seemed reticent to talk to the media. But just as he overcame a penchant for swinging at fastballs in his eyes, he's become more comfortable in the spotlight. Rookie of the Year consideration and meaningful baseball games in Denver in September: Who could have envisioned that?

Tulowitzki, for starters.

"It's funny," he said. "I was talking with someone the other day, and I can't recall a team I've ever played on that's lost. There hasn't been one."

The look on his face says he has no desire to start now.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.