- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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When Todd Helton sees Rockies teammate Dexter Fowler gliding effortlessly into the gap for a fly ball or Troy Tulowitzki loading up for a Shawon Dunston-like cannon shot from shortstop, a little piece of him reflects upon his early apprenticeship in Colorado -- when the vast expanse of green at Coors Field beckoned and the world was filled with promise.
Back in his University of Tennessee days, Helton was a classic triple threat: football quarterback in the fall and hitting and pitching star in the spring. He signed with Colorado as the eighth pick in the June 1995 draft, and it wasn't long before manager Don Baylor was making Don Mattingly comparisons and throwing him in the cage with Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla.
At the tender age of 23, Helton was an honorary pledge at the fraternity Phi Kappa Bomber.
So now that he's the grizzled clubhouse elder with the creaky bones and abundant beard, it's time for a little perspective. As Helton watches Tulowitzki, Fowler, Ian Stewart and Chris Iannetta mature and grow as major leaguers, he appreciates that they're respectful of the game without being in awe of it. There's a difference, he knows.
"It took me a whole year,'' Helton says. "Every time I walked up to bat and saw my face on the scoreboard up there, I remember thinking, 'Holy crap, I'm in the big leagues.'"
Thirteen years with the same organization provide lots of time for identity shifts. Early in his Colorado tenure, Helton evolved from hotshot prospect to batting champion and franchise mainstay. He signed a nine-year, $141.5 million contract extension in 2001, and it was cause for celebration until his production began to slip and the investment was perceived as an organizational albatross.
Helton survived the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle experiments and the arrival of the humidor. He endured a severe intestinal ailment in 2006, played in the World Series in 2007, suffered through back problems that necessitated surgery in September 2008 and recovered this year to record the 2,000th hit and 500th double of his career.
His teammates knew all was right with the world after his first at-bat of spring training, when Helton hit the fourth pitch from San Diego's Chris Young an estimated 450 feet to center field for a home run.
"We said, 'This is the old Todd, before his back started bothering him,''' said Colorado second baseman Clint Barmes. "He never looks for the attention, but he's always been motivated and plays the game the right way. He's put his body through a lot because he loves the game so much. That says a lot for who he is as a ballplayer.''
A week away from turning 36, Helton apparently doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "career twilight.''
The Rockies have posted a 44-22 record since Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager in May, and no one seems more invigorated by the prospect of a postseason run than Helton, who is riding a 15-game hitting streak.
Helton ranks third in the National League batting race at .327, is tied for first with 33 doubles, and has revived his case for Cooperstown. After Helton banged out his 500th double three weeks ago, Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote a piece championing his Hall of Fame candidacy. Among other things, Kiszla took note that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Helton are the only players in the modern era with 500 doubles, 320 home runs and a .325 career batting average.
Helton wasn't quoted in the column, which was no surprise given his almost pathological distaste for self-promotion. He'll wax eloquent about Tulowitzki's range at short and Barmes' work ethic, but hits the mute button when asked to assess his own achievements.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Helton assumed his best "What, are you kidding?'' look and said he had "zero'' comment on his Hall of Fame chances.
Indeed, Helton is so ill at ease talking about himself that Tracy couldn't resist having a little fun after double No. 500. Colorado's manager escorted his star first baseman to the media room, sat him down and told reporters, "This guy here will answer all your questions today. But make sure you ask him some pitching questions, because I want to see how smart he is.''
Helton proceeded to spend several minutes squirming in his seat.
"He hated it,'' Tracy said. "So when he got up to leave, I said, 'Hey, you got a future, kid.'''
Inevitably, Helton's status as a Rockie will play a role in how he's perceived as a Hall candidate. Helton has a 1.106 career on-base/slugging percentage at Coors Field compared to an .886 OPS on the road. That sounds like a big divide, but consider this: If you just ignored Helton's Denver numbers and went strictly by his road production, that .886 OPS would put him ahead of Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, to name a few.
Helton is also bound to be judged harshly by a lack of home run power late in his career, which he freely concedes.
"Obviously I don't have the power I had,'' Helton said. "On certain days I think I do, then I'll lose it for long periods of time. That's just the way your body feels when you get older.
"You have to know your limitations. And when you don't -- at least, when I don't -- I know I'm going to hit a really nice 13-hopper to the second baseman.''
Of course, in this day and age, any decline in power is bound to lead to uninformed and perhaps dangerous speculation. Helton has consistently denied any connection with performance-enhancing drugs, but otherwise politely declines to address the topic, perhaps because he knows it's a no-win proposition.
If he were hitting 50 homers now, people would question whether he's getting help from the chemistry lab. Because he hit 49 homers at age 27 and hasn't surpassed 30 in a season since 2004, amateur steroid sleuths will assume he stopped doing something fishy several years ago. Helton stopped paying attention to baseball's newest parlor game a long time ago, and refuses to get sucked into the debate.
Even if Helton fails to hit 500 homers, or even 400 (he's currently at 321), he's traveling in some elite company. He will probably pass Ruth and Rickey Henderson on the career doubles list this season, and has a better career batting average (.328) than Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx and Joe DiMaggio.
Helton has always prided himself on professional at-bats, and this year he ranks sixth in the majors with 4.27 pitches per plate appearance.
"He fouls off more balls than anybody on our team, and probably anybody in the league per at-bat,'' said Baylor, who rejoined the Rockies as hitting coach in November. "The only guys I played with who could do it like him were Rod Carew and Wade Boggs.''
Helton has always been content to lead by example -- by playing hard and hurt and holding himself accountable on good days and bad. But he's assumed a more expansive leadership role in 2009.
After Tracy took over for Hurdle in May, he called Helton and right fielder Brad Hawpe into his office for a chat and said he would like to see them be more vocal with the kids if they saw a transgression worth correcting. They had clearly earned the right.
"I told them, 'Every once in a while, I need you to walk over by a young kid and whisper in his ear if there's something that needs to be addressed, before I have to get into the middle of it,''' Tracy said. "Basically just a, 'Hey, that's not how we're gonna do things here.' If you're a young guy and you're not listening to Todd Helton, I feel sorry for you.''
When pressed to identify another player he's managed whose temperament and approach resembled Helton's, Tracy mentions Robin Ventura, who played for him in Los Angeles in 2003 and 2004.
"They're two peas in a pod for me, and two of the best I've ever been around,'' Tracy said. "They are so similar, it's ridiculous.''
When Helton's teammates talk about his "presence'' in the clubhouse, it's as much about banter as laying down the law. Helton likes to needle the kids about a multitude of things, and they'll reciprocate by tormenting him about his lack of speed and ability to turn triples into doubles and doubles into singles.
"They should give me grief,'' Helton said. "I give them hell about any flaw that they have.''
There's a certain comfort level that develops with familiarity and time. Helton is on a first-name basis with the parking attendants, security people and ushers at Coors Field. His high-pitched cackle is a staple in the clubhouse. And when the coaches look out from the dugout during games, they know his uniform will inevitably be caked with dirt and sweat by the fourth or fifth inning.
In retrospect, it's funny how Baylor's Mattingly comparison played out. Like Mattingly, Helton arrived in the majors as a skilled all-fields hitter who quickly developed power. Like Mattingly, Helton won a batting title before age 27. And like Mattingly, Helton suffered from back problems that threatened to derail his career before its rightful end.
Unlike Mattingly, Colorado's Toddy Ballgame found a way to stick around and remain productive into his late 30s. Helton is living proof that second acts -- and second winds -- are as much fun as they're cracked up to be.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg