Playing major league baseball has been Josh Rutledge’s dream his entire life.
It’s what inspired him to soak up the game like a sponge at the youth level and later during an illustrious prep career at Cullman High. It’s what led him to Tuscaloosa, where he continued to develop and showcase his potential throughout a three-year run at the University of Alabama. It’s the reason he’s never once stopped hustling, even after being drafted and landing in the minor leagues.
But after debuting with the Colorado Rockies Friday night and completing his first series as a professional over the weekend, playing big league ball is no longer Rutledge’s dream.
It’s his reality.
And he still can’t believe it.
“Honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in,” Rutledge said during a phone interview with The Times Sunday evening. “It’s still a dream. It’s hard to believe that it happened. I’m still really excited about it.”
Although he’s able to enjoy the experience now, there was a 24-hour span last week where Rutledge didn’t even have time to think, much less reflect on his emotions.
At one point Thursday night, he was on the field in Tulsa, where he’d been enjoying an All-Star season with the Double-A Drillers. The next, he was on a plane to Denver after being pulled in the fourth inning in anticipation of his promotion.
But all Rutledge could do once he arrived in the Mile High City was wait. At that time, no one in the organization could tell him with 100 percent certainty he was going to be called up.
“I waited in the hotel for most of the day, not knowing what was going to happen,” Rutledge said.
Then, on late Friday afternoon, the top middle infield prospect received the phone call he had long awaited.
“I got a call saying I was activated,” Rutledge said. “But I had no idea I was going to start. When I got to the field, one of the coaches showed me the lineup with my name on it. That was pretty exciting.”
Because he had been rushed from Tulsa to Denver, Rutledge’s equipment didn’t make it to Coor’s Field in time for the Rockies’ game against the Phillies that night. Instead, he had to borrow what he could from his new teammates — batting gloves and shoes from injured superstar Troy Tulowitzki, a spare glove from Jordan Pacheco and leftover bats from DJ LeMahieu, who had been sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
All the gear he wound up using had seen time in the major leagues, but Rutledge had not.
That was about to change.
Rutledge roped an RBI double to center field in his very first big league at-bat, followed by a single his next time at the plate. Both hits came off Phillies’ seasoned lefty Cliff Lee.
“I’ve been watching him pitch for years,” Rutledge said. “It was awesome to be able to have a first game against a veteran like that.”
Rutledge went on to add a sac fly, walk and stolen base before the night ended with a 6-2 victory for Colorado.
But the fun didn’t end there.
During an on-field interview shortly after the game, Tyler Colvin snuck up and plastered his newest teammate with a shaving cream pie to the face, unofficially welcoming Rutledge to the major leagues.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better first game,” Rutledge said. “You’re out there playing the game you’ve always loved. You can’t ask for more than that. It was really special.”
The local buzz before, during and after Rutledge’s debut was insane. Past teammates, old coaches, friends and complete strangers alike rushed to Twitter and Facebook to show their support for the Cullman native.
“Before the game, I had a pretty full cell phone battery,” Rutledge said. “By the time I got done and back to the clubhouse, it had almost died. It was overwhelming how many people were congratulating me for making it and telling me how excited they were to watch me.”
There aren’t too many familiar faces for Rutledge to see in Denver yet, but there was one in the stands on Saturday that he was very familiar with — Bryan Bowen, his former coach at Cullman High.
“I hadn’t seen him in awhile,” Rutledge said. “It meant a lot knowing he dropped what he was doing to come see my first series in the big leagues.”
Rutledge is expected to be a fixture at shortstop while Tulowitzki continues to recover from a groin injury. However, he’ll most likely spend more time at second base when the Colorado superstar returns from the disabled list in about five weeks.
Now that he’s made it to the major leagues, Rutledge is prepared to work harder than ever to stay there.
“I’m trying to not put added pressure on myself because there’s already enough as it is,” he said. “I can’t go out there and think about making mistakes or not swinging the bat well. I have to work hard at all aspects of the game and trust that it’s going to carry over to the field.”
Rutledge’s promotion was the cherry on top of what had already shaped up to be a “pretty crazy week.” His girlfriend, Laura McKeeman, was named this year’s Miss Florida on July 7.
Between their busy schedules, he’s beginning to wonder when they’ll get an opportunity to get away and spend time together.
“Hopefully one of these days we’ll get to see each other again,” Rutledge joked.
But don’t think he’s complaining.
“We’ve been really blessed,” he added.
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.