By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Five years ago, Josh Rutledge roamed the halls of Cullman High with thoughts of prom and graduation on his mind.
So, when the former Bearcat finished his first major-league season with the Colorado Rockies in September, it was no wonder he said the experience was one he’ll never forget.
“You know, I always thought I had the ability and the work ethic to make it this far,” Rutledge said. “But, it was just so surreal when it actually happened. When it all hit me, it was pretty cool.”
Rutledge made his debut for the Rockies on July 14 against the Philadelphia Phillies and promptly hit an RBI double off former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee in his first big league at-bat.
“That’s probably the game that stood out for me most this year,” he said. “To get my first hit off a pitcher like Cliff Lee, and then to be congratulated at second base by (Phillies’ shortstop) Jimmy Rollins, a guy I’ve looked up to my entire career, was something special.”
Taking the field at Turner Field was another highlight for the Cullman native.
“It was also great to play in Atlanta because so many of my family and friends came out to support me, and I got to play against Chipper (Jones), who was someone that I had watched growing up for almost 20 years.”
All in all, Rutledge suited up for 73 big-league ballgames this past season with Colorado, hitting .274 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs. At one point in the year, he became the first Rockie rookie to ever hit a home run in four straight games.
Called up to replace injured All-Star Troy Tulowitski, Rutledge spent most of his time at shortshop, where he played solid defense for the Rockies.
However, with Tulo back healthy for 2013, Rutledge said he’ll most likely battle for a starting spot at second base entering spring training in February.
“I’m just working as hard as I can in the offseason,” he said. “Looking forward to getting back out there and competing for that starting role.”
His position on the diamond won’t be the only change facing Rutledge in the upcoming season.
The Rockies promptly fired manager Jim Tracy after the season, replacing him with former Mile High favorite Walt Weiss.
Although Rutledge was initially sad about Tracy’s departure, he has since warmed to the prospect of having Weiss as his new skipper.
“It was tough hearing about Jim,” he said. “But I also understand that it’s a business and they have to do what’s best for the organization.”
One of the reasons Rutledge is excited about Weiss is his new coach’s experience as a second baseman and shortstop during his playing days with the Athletics, Marlins, Rockies and Braves.
“I like the fact he’s played my position,” Rutledge said of the former AL Rookie of the Year. “It will be nice to have a hands-on manager that I can go to and ask for advice on things like that.”
Rutledge was a well-known standout during his days with Cullman and his three-year college stint at the University of Alabama.
He acknowledged those experiences as “extremely beneficial to him as a player and a person.”
“Being at Cullman and then Alabama, it really got me ready,” Rutledge said. “The coaches at each place make you work hard every day. I think Cullman got me ready for Alabama and both of them got me ready for where I am today.”
And where he is today is a long way from his days as a Cullman Bearcat. In fact, Denver, Colo. is 1,300 miles away from where his journey to the major leagues began.
“Going to Bama helped me get ready for living by myself,” Rutledge said. “That’s also one of the toughest parts of this job, the grind, the going and getting yourself up for each game every day and not burning yourself out by the end of the year.”
He also added you can’t lose yourself as a player when things aren’t going your way.
“As a player, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself every day you go out there,” he said. “I know I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, so I don’t ever second guess myself or my abilities.”
Despite a very hectic year and an overall long journey for Rutledge, he’s content with where he’s landed.
“I am just going to keep working as hard as I can to get better as a player,” he said. “Looking back five years ago, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.