It required one at-bat — first pitch, actually — on Monday night for Ben Paulsen to complete a nine-year baseball odyssey that, frankly, seemed at times to be one long minor league bus ride to nowhere.
From Kell High School (Class of ’06), Paulsen endured over 700 games in the minors before he became a regular first baseman earlier this summer for the Colorado Rockies. In his first visit to Turner Field, he went after the first pitch Julio Teheran threw him in the second inning and sent it over the right-field fence.
A 27-year-old rookie, an overnight sensation, finally came home.
“It’s a really a great feeling,” he said Tuesday. “I want to feel that way longer.”
His is not an unusual baseball story. There was nothing not to like about Paulsen’s tools. The Rockies picked him from Clemson in the third round of the 2009 draft: a tall first baseman, 6-foot-4, with a sweet left-handed swing that seemed to stay in the strike zone forever. Paulsen entered Colorado’s system at Single-A Modesto that summer. From there, the summers seemed to blend together.
“I enjoy playing the game,” he said. “I never really left it. There were points in my career where when it was time for the club to make decisions, and I didn’t deserve to get promoted.”
By 2013, there was a question over whether he would remain in Double-A for a third consecutive season, akin to flunking third grade twice. He had been a Texas League All-Star the year before, but nothing in his resume spoke to the team offices in Denver.
“I think he’s actually performed better at the major league level than he has in the minor leagues,” said Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon, another metro Atlanta kid who befriended Paulsen during spring camps. “He’s a guy who’d do amazing in spring training and they’d send him out. I remember his first big-league camp and they sent him to Double-A, and he was very, very upset.”
A turning point came when Paulsen spoke with Andy McKay, whom the Rockies call their coordinator of mental skills, and quickly Paulsen was promoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, a fourth-year prospect one step away.
“He kind of challenged my commitment, he challenged by work ethic, he challenged my game mentally,” Paulson said. “And I think that is kind of when I turned it around.”
His break came last year when the Rockies finally called him up in July. All he did was hit .317. But he did so in 31 games that were spread over four different stints with the big-league club. He was riding a yo-yo.
“But he put himself on the map,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. “He had a difficult year, no doubt about it. He got left off the roster a couple times. He was tested mentally, emotionally. But he stayed the course, put his head down and kept plodding away.”
Just as it appeared a place was waiting for him this season, Paulsen had a miserable spring training, batting .143. The club broke camp without him — again — and he was back in Triple-A, a six-year pro back in limbo.
“I don’t know if it was the (new outsized) moustache,” he said. “Things were a little off. I might have put too much pressure on myself.”
This time, it was someone else’s turn for a bad break. Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau, the reigning National League batting champion who was Paulsen’s biggest obstacle, dove for a ball against the Angels on May 13, hit his head and hasn’t played since because of concussion-like symptoms. Paulsen took his spot.
“The future didn’t look too bright, but we never know in this game,” Weiss said. “It’s tough to predict a week out what’s going to happen a week out. Next thing you know, he’s playing first base in the big leagues and making the most of it.”
Between 40 and 50 of his friends and family members were at Turner Field on Tuesday night, and they saw a player who finally belongs. In just 255 at-bats, Paulsen has 10 homers with 39 RBIs. His .482 slugging percentage is fourth-highest on the team. Said Blackmon: “He’s been great for us. We’d be much worse off without him.”
“It’s unfortunate the way I got called up with Morneau getting hurt,” Paulsen said. “It’s weird how things do work out.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.