Spilborghs a winning act
Outfielder gains notice with his play, personality
TUCSON, Ariz. -- One play last April 19 summed up the different layers to the offbeat personality of Rockies center fielder Ryan Spilborghs.
Spilborghs dove for a line drive from the Astros' Geoff Blum, but the ball fell out of his glove as it hit the ground. Spilborghs grabbed it and held it aloft so convincingly that umpires ruled it a catch. Spilborghs never stopped smiling, even when he came to bat later to chants of "cheater" from the Minute Maid Park crowd.
Folks in Denver appreciate Spilborghs a little more than those in Texas, whose team lost, 3-2, that night in part because of Spilborghs' acting job. From doing commercials for charity, to wearing a microphone for telecasts, to picking quirky songs for his at-bat music (Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape," for the catchy, "Woo-hoos," and Michael Jackson's "Thriller"), it's clear that Spilborghs is willing to do whatever it takes to bring a smile.
But don't let that obscure his willingness to do what's necessary to win.
Spilborghs is entering Spring Training with his best shot yet to entertain folks as a member of the Rockies' regular lineup for what he hopes is a year of fun and production.
"I have a great time," Spilborghs said Wednesday, the day before the Rockies' first full-squad workout at Hi Corbett Field. "I'm doing the thing I love most. I think that's the part that people enjoy. It's enjoyable when people see someone who enjoys his work and takes the time to do little things, like saying hi to people and just being happy with it."
Last season marked the first time in his career he spent a full season on the official Major League roster, even though it included an injury rehab stint at Triple-A Colorado Springs for an oblique strain. He was active for 89 games and had extended duty as a starter in center when the Rockies became disenchanted with Willy Taveras.
Spilborghs' .313 batting average, with six home runs and 36 RBIs, was good enough that the Rockies non-tendered Taveras, who signed with the Reds. The Rockies have a couple of prospects also bucking for time -- Carlos Gonzalez, who came from the Athletics in the deal that sent away former All-Star left fielder Matt Holliday, and Dexter Fowler, who is an immense talent even though he is likely to need time in Triple-A. But Spilborghs has shown plenty of talent in stints with the Rockies over the last three seasons.
Spilborghs posted a .407 on-base percentage last year, and is being looked at to replace Taveras as leadoff man. Spilborghs also has shown enough pop, with 17 home runs in 186 games over the last two years, to offer an added top-of-the-order dimension.
"You've got a guy who is able to hit a ball in a gap and you've got a guy that's actually able to click a ball," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said.
Spilborghs, 29, a seventh-round choice in 2002, entered pro ball as a center fielder, but has played more in the corners in the Majors. So he took part of this winter to play 16 games in Mexico, where he'd played while in the Minors to better prepare for his big chance.
"I got a whole bunch of innings in," Spilborghs said. "There were guys who were not taking fly balls during the offseason and I was playing meaningful games -- according to Mexico they were meaningful games -- and I was working on things.
"Obviously, I didn't hit well (.203) so I'm not going to say I worked on hitting down there. But I think it was just getting extra at-bats, playing some outfield and getting back to good training."
Spilborghs is a testament to players keeping a good attitude and positive approach, even when that's tested.
The Rockies' system has been crowded with outfielders during Spilborghs' career, but he earned notice in 2005 by hitting .341 in 71 games at Double-A Tulsa and .339 in 60 games at Colorado Springs. Since then, though, he has been waiting his turn.
Spilborghs actually was making the most of his chance last year, until he suffered the oblique injury running the bases on July 8 at Milwaukee and missed 47 games. But Spilborghs never lost his positive approach.
His sunny outlook has been around for a long time. Growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif., Spilborghs was the type who would wear an unusual outfit or color combination to school just because, and his parents encouraged him to be himself. In a game populated by muted personalities, Spilborghs has brought color without shame, whether it was in college at Cal-Santa Barbara, in the Minors or at the highest level.
"I'm not acting," he said. "I'm not putting on a front. Anybody that knows me or that's played with me knows I haven't changed. I'm still the same guy. It's not like all of a sudden I showed up in a big league clubhouse and I'm a totally different person.
"I feel really fortunate that I am a Major League Baseball player, and I feel fortunate for the fans we have in Denver. We have awesome fans. Two years into my career and we've made it to the World Series. And to be a part of a team like we have, where the guys are so close, I'm just happy. I'm happy where I'm at right now."
He hopes to spread that happiness from the top of the Rockies' lineup.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.