Todd Helton: A finish without fanfare
The Rockies' first baseman is quietly winding down a remarkable career
Farewell tours are strictly a matter of personal taste. Chipper Jones announced in March of 2012 that he would retire at the end of last season, setting the stage for several months of standing ovations and lovely parting gifts. One of the peaks of Mariano Rivera's final season as a Yankee was an eye-watering tribute from his fellow All-Stars at Citi Field in July, but his impact on the game has been just as apparent in his personal encounters with stadium workers and all the "little people" he's reached out and touched this summer.
Scott Rolen, in contrast, chose to hem, haw and vacillate over his future, even though the Cincinnati Reds wanted him back this season for one more go-round. In February, Rolen declined an invitation from general manager Walt Jocketty to come to spring training in Arizona, officially his step off the baseball treadmill and out of the limelight.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, one of the best hitters of his generation, subscribes to the Rolen approach of gracefully fading into oblivion. His heart tells him it would be nice to stand in the infield and wave to the crowd, but his aversion to all things touchy-feely makes the prospect difficult to abide while he's still in uniform. Helton can be self-deprecating, sarcastic, disarmingly candid and loveably gruff, but he'd rather wear a Golden Sombrero than become the focus of a public display of affection.
After 17 seasons and nearly 2,500 hits, Helton is virtually certain he's done when the 2013 season ends. But thinking about retirement and saying the words for public consumption are completely different propositions.
"That would be a pretty good guess," Helton said this week, when asked if this is his final season. "But if I'm 99 percent sure, I'm going to make sure I'm 100 percent sure. If I get a wild hair in the offseason and want to play, I'm going to be able to go play."
A TALE OF TWO TODDS
Todd Helton was a baseball force for the first half of his career in Colorado, but his numbers have declined markedly since 2006:
|Source: Baseball-Reference.com. (Statistics through Friday)|
In the interim, Helton travels a road marked by personal and professional milestones. He recently hit his 362nd home run to pass Joe DiMaggio and move into 76th place on baseball's career list. On Tuesday in Philadelphia, he celebrated his 40th birthday and went 0-for-4 against Tyler Cloyd and the Phillies' bullpen.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss has taken pains to rest Helton against Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee and other elite left-handers and sit him in day games after night games, but a team can do only so much to protect a fading star from the ravages of age. Helton is hitting .250 with a career-low .699 OPS, and he's keenly aware that he has to start the bat earlier to have a chance against fastballs he used to crush.
Nevertheless, his more discerning teammates watch him every day and realize they're privy to something special -- a star player with an old-school mentality who is finishing out a run of more than 2,200 games with the same franchise.
"The thing is, he won't come out and say it's his last year," Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "It's almost like Jim Thome a year ago. Even if in their heart they believe it, they don't want that fanfare. If this is his last year, everyone in this clubhouse should count themselves lucky that they got to watch one of the all-time greats. I was very fortunate that I got to hit in front of Todd Helton and Jim Thome in their careers."
A tall Hall order
Once Helton retires, his legacy will have a tinge of "what might have been" to it. By age 30, he had five All-Star Game appearances, four Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves on his résumé. Hank Greenberg was his closest career comparable on Baseball-reference.com, and he looked like a cinch Hall of Famer and potential first-ballot guy.
But the second half of Helton's career has brought noticeable drop-offs in production. He averaged nearly 37 homers a season from 1999 through 2004 but hasn't hit 20 in a season since 2005. He's missed time because of chronic back problems, a severe intestinal ailment and a hip injury that required surgery last year.
Even though Helton ranks 24th in baseball history with a .415 on base percentage and 17th in doubles with 583, it's going to be a challenge for him to make it to Cooperstown. The Hall electorate hasn't been kind to outfielder Larry Walker, who won an MVP award and three batting titles in Colorado but has topped out at 22.9 percent in three appearances on the ballot. Helton, who has a career 1.049 OPS and 221 homers in Denver compared to .857 and 141 everywhere else, is likely to encounter a similar Coors Field-related backlash.
Craig Wright, a statistician, author and Bill James disciple who ranks players according to a measure called Win Shares Above Replacement Level, ranks Helton as the 27th-best first baseman of all time. He regards Fred McGriff, Will Clark, Norm Cash, Carlos Delgado and John Olerud as more worthy Hall of Fame candidates who will most likely never get to Cooperstown.
"Helton has had a fine career and been a great ballplayer, but clearly not great enough for the Hall of Fame unless the voters are snowed by the impact of his home park," Wright said in an email to ESPN.com.
Still, if you judge a man by the company he keeps, Helton resides on a higher plane. In 2000, he joined Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Greenberg as the only players in history to record at least 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 runs, 100 RBIs, 100 extra-base hits and 100 walks in a season. Over the past 50 seasons, only Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn reached 2,000 hits in fewer at-bats than Helton required. And the list goes on.
"He's the answer to every trivia question there is," Cuddyer said.
A Colorado fixture
Helton also belongs to a special group as a career one-team guy. Among active players, he has the third-longest tenure with a single club, behind only Derek Jeter and Rivera in New York.
When Helton joined the Rockies out of the University of Tennessee as the eighth pick in the 1995 draft, then-manager Don Baylor issued an edict to the rest of the organization not to trifle with his swing. The Rockies derived their identity from Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Walker and the Blake Street Bombers in those days, but they eventually morphed into Helton's team. With the exception of an ill-advised dip into the free-agent market with big deals for Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, Helton provided the franchise with its identity until Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez emerged as stars, and he assumed an alternate persona as the curmudgeonly "Toddfather."
"It's a relatively young organization, and he's given it credibility," said Weiss, the Rockies' shortstop in 1997, Helton's first season in the majors. "No one is going to be the same person 15-20 years later as they were when they broke into the league. But Todd's always been very driven and focused. From the day he got here, he just put his head down and went hard."
It was cause for celebration in Colorado when Helton signed a nine-year, $141.5 million extension in 2001 and consternation when his numbers dipped and the deal was suddenly perceived as an albatross. Helton was around for the advent of the humidor at Coors Field, the Rockies' exhilarating late run to the World Series in 2007 and Clint Barmes' mysterious collarbone injury while carrying a package of deer meat after an ATV excursion at Helton's ranch.
Perhaps the most-trying moment of Helton's career came in February, when he was arrested for DUI. He called the incident a "monumental mistake," and his demeanor and subsequent comments during spring training reflected his embarrassment and remorse.
Helton has always earned extra-credit points for grinding it out through his injuries. He rarely, if ever, gives away at-bats or goes less than hard down the line, even though he's learned to pick his spots to "conserve" energy, as he puts it. The old geezer still has a few tricks in his arsenal; during a 5-3 win over the Phillies on Tuesday, Helton nabbed Jimmy Rollins with a phantom swipe tag out of the Lee Strasberg School of Method Acting and Creative First Base Play.
Now that the end is near, Helton tunes out potential distractions by immersing himself in his preparation for each day's game. A more sentimental athlete might leave the dugout at Wrigley Field or Dodger Stadium, take in the sights and sounds and feel a sense of wistfulness that it's his last time passing through town. Helton doesn't collect memorabilia from milestone hits and claims to have given zero thought to coaching, broadcasting or any post-career ambitions.
"We go to Miami next, and dove-[hunting] season starts Sept. 1," Helton said this week. "That's pretty much as far as I've looked forward. Planning is not my strong suit. I go aimlessly day by day, which in baseball has helped me out a lot."
Some people who have watched Helton's career play out believe he set such extraordinarily high standards for himself that he never enjoyed the game or the triumphs as much as he could have, but Helton begs to differ. He's worn out from the travel and the constant time away from his family, but the games remain the highlight of his day.
"Even though I put a lot of pressure on myself and I'm really hard on myself, I always loved it," Helton said. "I wish I could go out there with a smile on my face and just go play and act like I was having a good time. I could do that, but I probably wouldn't be that good. It's just not who I am."
The ceremonial rocking chairs, tearful speeches and standing ovations will have to wait for the day when Helton crosses the threshold from 99 to 100 percent sure about his future. From now until late September, the quietest farewell tour in baseball will churn on with a focus on the games and nothing more. That's just the way Todd Helton prefers it.
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