Seventeen seasons in professional baseball, and Michael Cuddyer finally reached the rookie leagues.
"That's right, that's right," the 2013 National League batting champion said with a smile. "It took me a while to get here, but we finally made it."
Here was Dehler Park on Thursday night, where the Colorado Rockies star was in the early stages of a nine-game rehab stint in an effort to return to the big leagues after breaking his shoulder during a game on June 5.
Playing for the Rockies' Pioneer League affiliate from Grand Junction, Colo., Cuddyer made his return to the field Wednesday night with a three-hit, three-RBI effort, helping his new team beat the homestanding Billings Mustangs. He went 2-for-4 in Thursday's 9-5 Rockies' win, hitting another double and scoring twice.
In two games in Billings, Cuddyer went 5-for-7, hit three doubles, drove in three and scored three times.
A first-round draft pick (ninth overall) of the Minnesota Twins in 1997, Cuddyer was assigned to low Single-A to the Midwest League. Though he skipped the rookie leagues altogether, playing again in the more intimate setting of the lower-level minor-leagues caused several memories to come flooding back, he said.
"You get into a lower-level clubhouse, you realize the camaraderie that you form in the minor leagues," Cuddyer said after batting practice before his last appearance in Billings. "Those are some of the guys and some of the times I remember even more fondly than my first few years in the big leagues.
"You're going through the same grind at the same time as everybody else. You get to the big-league level and, you know, everybody had different paths to get to the big leagues. But you know, when you're in rookie ball, especially, you're starting at the ground roots and you're going to build that path with these guys."
This year's injury aside, Cuddyer has been on a pretty good path during the latter stages of his career.
A longtime Twin, Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million free-agent contract with Colorado in 2012. He batted .260 his first year with the Rockies, then ballooned to his NL-leading .331 last season.
It was looking to be another good season -- his 14th in MLB -- early in 2014. At the time of his injury, Cuddyer was batting .317 with five home runs and 16 RBIs. A career .278 hitter, Cuddyer has gone from solid offensive player to standout at the ages of 34 and 35.
"I think you continue to mature as a player," he said. "The minute you become complacent is the minute you should stop playing the game. I've never become complacent. I've always tried to learn and tried to continue to mature as a player and a hitter.
"I think that maturation process is paying off here 14 years later in the big leagues. I'm finding out who I am as a player, and it's paying off. It's a difficult game and it will continue to humble you as well as continue to make you feel you can walk on water."
After Thursday's game in Billings, Cuddyer is expected to follow the young Rockies to Great Falls for a three-game series with the Voyagers. After that, plans call for Cuddyer to join Colorado's Double-A affiliate in Tulsa, Okla., for four more games before it's back to the big-league club.
With his contract expiring following this season, Cuddyer knows these next 90 days are important for his future.
"First and foremost I want to be healthy, just to not have that cloud over my head," he said. "And then, obviously, you want to get out there and show that you are healthy, to not only the Rockies but to other teams. I hope it works out with the Rockies, but if it doesn't, you still want to show that you're healthy."
Healthy or not, there is one thing Cuddyer won't be doing during his time in the Pioneer League. Original plans called for him to ride the Grand Junction bus to Great Falls, but those plans have been nixed.
While Cuddyer's batting average might not show his age, minor-league travel will. His "old bones can't handle a bus ride in the middle of the night," he said.
So rather than depart with the Rockies after Thursday's game, Cuddyer will spend the night in Billings and drive himself to Great Falls.
"The intention's there," he said with another smile. "If we were going to leave tomorrow morning, I'd be all on it."
KEY MOMENT: Having already scored two runs, the Mustangs had runners on the corners and were within 6-5 with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Acting Grand Junction manager Lee Stephens called for reliever Taylor Black, and he got Cory Thompson to ground into an inning-ending double play.
ON THE MOUND: Mustangs reliever Jose Williams had the most impressive outing of the night. He allowed an RBI single to his first batter, Roberto Ramos, but retired the next 10 in a row.
AT THE PLATE: Grand Junction's Randy Reyes caused a kerfuffle when he pimped his three-run home run in the top of the ninth. After sending the ball down the left-field line, Reyes flipped his bat and began his home run trot by running backward a couple steps, which didn't make Mustangs catcher Garrett Boulware happy. The pair exchanged a few words after Reyes crossed home plate, but nothing more came of it.
UP NEXT: The Mustangs, who have dropped two straight, finish off the seven-game homestand by starting a three-game series with the Orem Owlz on Friday night.