Playing at a higher altitude

BY: ABBEY MASTRACCO

1050472890

On April 29, the Atlanta Braves were playing the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver. For 22- year-old Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, it was only his 46th major league game. The game was tied with nobody out in the top of the seventh. The Braves' Kelly Johnson was on second and Edgar Rentaria on first, with the always-dangerous Chipper Jones was at bat. On a full count Jones smashed a line drive to the gap in left-center field. Tulowitzki caught it, stepped on second to retire Johnson and then tagged Rentaria before he could return to first. In a matter of mere seconds, Tulowitzki had retired the side and created major league history by completing the 13th unassisted triple play ever.

"That's pretty special," Tulowitzki said of his play. "I knew it was a triple play. I didn't know the extent. Not too many people have done it."

His quick play secured him a spot in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the Baseball Hall of Fame. A simple catch and two tags were enough to get his hat and jersey immediately shipped off to Cooperstown.

"It was probably one of the easiest plays I've ever made," Tulowitzki said. "I just caught the ball, tagged the base and tagged the runner. Not too much more than that."

In his rookie year, the former Dirtbag has made almost everything look easy. The 6-foot 3-inch middle infielder known for his soft hands, excellent footwork and impressive arm has racked up a .292 batting average, 82 RBIs, 21 homers, 85 runs and a .475 slugging percentage.

While Tulowitzki is making history in Denver these days, it's easy to forget that just two years ago he was here in Long Beach, starting for the Dirtbags. Back then the barely legal infielder was the star of the Dirtbags, along with Tampa Bay Devil Rays third base prospect Evan Longoria.

In his senior season, Tulowitzki batted .349 with 12 doubles, eight home runs, 29 RBIs and had a .954 fielding percentage. During his tenure at Long Beach State, Tulowitzki received numerous accolades, including three All-Americans, three all-conference awards and was named to two all-regional teams and the Regional Outstanding Player in the 2004 regional playoff. He also played for LBSU head coach Mike Weathers for Team USA in 2004, following in the footsteps of former Dirtbag major league shortstops Chris Gomez and Bobby Crosby.

Tulowitzki wasted no time in the minors, playing in his first major league game on Aug. 30, 2006, only a little more than a year after being drafted seventh overall in 2005. During this year's spring training Tulowitzki thrived, earning Spring Training MVP and was given the nod to start full time.

"It was a dream come true," Tulowitzki said. "All that hard work that I did on and off the field paid off."

His work has paid off this year, as Tulowitzki is close to earning the National League Rookie of the Year honors.

"It's something that's definitely a privilege," Tulowitzki said of being considered for the honor. "It's a privilege to be mentioned or even to win it."

Although he trails in batting average, the former Dirtbag leads NL rookies in home runs and far surpasses all other rookies in RBIs. And if you ask him whom he thinks will win it, he's quick to tell you it's going to be him.

"I never really said I want to win rookie of the year, [but] I think I'm going to win it,"

A shortstop garnering rookie of the year honors should sound familiar to Dirtbag fans, because three years ago another former Dirtbag shortstop, Bobby Crosby of the Oakland A's, was the American League's Rookie of the Year.

In true Dirtbag tradition, Crosby served as somewhat of a mentor for the young Tulowitzki when he took over his position in 2003. Tulowitzki credits much of his success to Crosby.

"He's definitely had a big influence," Tulowitzki said. "He would come back in the off-season to get ready for spring training and work with me. He's definitely helped me become the player that I am today."

Crosby's advice spanned from game preparations, what to expect in the bigs, making certain plays on the field to how to carry himself as a person and a ballplayer. These days Tulowitzki is playing that same role and passing on the same knowledge to current shortstop Danny Espinosa. Like Tulowitzki and the shortstops who came before him, Espinosa also played for Weathers this past summer on Team USA.

"Definitely everything that Bobby has taught me I pass along to him," Tulowitzki said. "Keeping in the Dirtbag tradition to have good shortstops, he kind of fits the mold of Bobby and I."

Dirtbag tradition remains important to Tulowitzki today. Tulowitzki took great pride in wearing the Dirtbag jersey - and still does. The meaning of the LBSU baseball team's nickname varies slightly from person to person, but the consensus is always the same: A player who leaves everything out on the field and gives more than 100 percent in every game.

"Putting the team first before every individual, I think I fit that mold perfectly to a tee," Tulowitzki said. "I always played hard and gave it all, and that's what they believe in. I definitely think that it was a perfect school, a perfect fit."

Tulowitzki especially appreciates the support from the school and community of the Dirtbags. Games at Blair Field are some of his best college memories and he couldn't imagine having played for any other school.

"I had one of the best experiences that someone who goes to college to play baseball could possibly have," Tulowitzki said. "It was awesome going to Blair Field every Friday night and playing in front of a nice crowd that gets behind us. I honestly believe there wasn't a better school I could pick to attend.