The defining image in the history of the Colorado Rockies. (David Zalubowski /AP Photo)
This isn’t a post to debate Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame credentials. We have five years to discuss his home and road splits and park adjusted OPS and career on base percentage and how he is the only player in the history of the game with this high of something and this many of something else and this many of those other things.
I’m writing this because Todd Helton is my all-time favorite athlete. He always will be. He is one of the few athletes I’m not ashamed to say that I truly admire. Lots of my admiration for Todd comes from personal experiences that probably don’t mean a whole lot to most people. They sure have meant a lot to me though, so I thought I’d share before Todd plays his last game at Coors Field tomorrow night after 17 (seventeen!) seasons.
Then there are three meaningless games in Los Angeles. Then his career is over.
My childhood largely revolved around baseball and the Colorado Rockies. I lived for the summers. And I lived for baseball. I was five when the Rockies played their first game in April of 1993. It was the beginning of beautiful friendship.
I got Todd’s autograph a couple times. The signed items are sitting in a giant box with binders full of old baseball cards and countless marked-up scorecards and posters and sentimental shirts and newspapers. It was pretty easy to get Todd’s autograph because he signed them before most games in those years. Even in his prime. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
My birthday is in June, so it was pretty standard for me to go to the Rockies game to celebrate. On my 11th birthday, June 19 of 1999, Todd Helton hit for the cycle. I actually remember that moment pretty vividly. I was keeping score (always did), so I knew he needed a triple to complete the feat. I didn’t need Twitter to tell me. There was no message on the videoboard. I looked at my scorecard and thought He has a single, a double and a home run. Todd was quite a bit quicker back then but he wasn’t exactly a triples artist, so the cycle still seemed unlikely. My dad was in the beer line or bathroom at the time. (It was the bottom of the 7th– last call– so the beer line is a pretty safe bet.) Anyway it was just me sitting in our old season ticket seats, Section 117, Row 20, Seats 7 and 8. He hit a line drive in the gap and I jumped out of my seat right away and threw three little fingers up. Go three! Go three! Naturally I was applauding the cycle like crazy while most of the stadium had no idea what was going on. You think all that might endear an athlete to a wide-eyed kid scarfing down peanuts and spilling Squishies on his 11th birthday?
As his career blossomed he became the best player in the game for a few years. He hit for power. He hit for average. He hit on the road. He hit at home. He hit righthanders. He hit lefthanders. He hit starters. He hit relievers. He hit to right field. He hit to center field. He hit to left field. He hit in the clutch. He hit when it didn’t matter. He just hit. He hit everybody. He hit all the time. He was the best hitter in the world.
Speaking of hitting, have you ever watched Todd Helton foul off pitches with two strikes? It’s one of the most beautiful arts in the game of baseball. Todd could control his hands and fight off pitches better than any player of his generation. He extended at-bats and flicked balls into the stands like the little pieces of tobacco flying from that manly goatee. I hope over the course of the last 17 years, you were able to take in one of those classic at-bats.
He also played the best first base in the game. This is one trait that would never leave him. Even as his offensive numbers declined, he was always the best defensive first baseman in the game. Scooping a countless– truly countless– number of low throws like a magician. We watched that kind of excellence for 17 freaking years. He also has a plus arm for a first baseman. He can throw home on a contact play or to third after a putout much more effectively than most first basemen I’ve seen.
The other aspect of Todd’s defense that doesn’t get talked about much is the way he defended bunts. I’ll never forget the way he defended bunts. In a clear sacrifice situation he would do everything in his power to prevent that sacrifice from happening. Creeping forward… Creeping forward… All-out dead sprint 25 yards towards home plate… Scoop up the ball… Fire a bullet to second. I’ve never, ever seen a first baseman that aggressive when charging bunts.
My 21st birthday was a pretty huge success, aided by Helton’s three hits. Yes, I’m wearing a “Helton For President” shirt.
One day I went to a game by myself. My friends think this is weird, but to me it’s no big deal, especially if it’s a weekday day game. So I bought a cheap ticket, snuck into a great seat and watched Todd tie Larry Walker for the Rockies’ all-time home run record. A couple innings later, he put one in the third deck to make the record his own. That was 109 homers ago. Can’t say it with absolute certainty, but I’m pretty sure Todd did that because he knew I was sitting there by myself like a loser.
In the summer of ’09 I went to another weekday day game with some friends and saw Todd hit his 500th career double. He added a game-winning 8th-inning homer just for fun. For me, that’s about as good as it gets.
I went to the game with a huge group for my 21st birthday (before hitting the Denver bars of course). Exactly ten years after hitting for the cycle as my 11th birthday present, the Rockies won big and Todd had three hits because it’s not like I’m going to go to a Rockies game on my birthday and watch Todd do anything less. He hit this walk-off the next night which would have been pretty epic had it been one night earlier, but I’m not complaining.
Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the DUI arrest from February. He made a mistake. A big mistake. A bizarre mistake, really. Driving to the gas station at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday night in February? What? Todd Helton got arrested? For that? It was very odd. The mugshot couldn’t have been much worse.
This was unfortunate, but I’m still a Todd Helton fan.
However, this didn’t really affect my fandom and admiration much. I’m not defending drinking and driving. And I’m old enough now that I don’t see the world with a starry-eyed wonder thinking my favorite athletes can do no wrong. Far from it. I honestly think a whole bunch of my favorite athletes are pretty huge idiots. The Helton DUI (later changed to a DWAI; he blew a .102) was a very unfortunate situation because all DUIs are unfortunate situations. A handful of my friends or coworkers have gotten deweys and gosh darnit if I don’t still talk to them and value my relationship with them. Things happen. It’s a dangerous and reckless mistake. But mistakes happen. Helton’s mistake brought him down to earth and changed the way many, many people think of him. For me, it humanized him. We’re all human. Even the people we grew up admiring.
When I was writing this I texted some of my more hardcore Rockies fan friends and asked about their favorite Helton memories. One girl, who is the only person I know that was more obsessed with Todd Helton than me, texted a very long response. She’s the kind of person who brings signs and customized Helton shirts and things of that nature to games. Here is an unedited excerpt from that message, which was written informally and off the cuff. Anyway, this is the kind of guy Todd Helton is:
“When I was 16, we got to go on the field before the game because my dad is a season ticket holder. We weren’t allowed to initiate conversation with the players but we were only allowed to interact with them if they came over to us. We were standing right behind the plate, watching Todd take BP. After he is done, he glances our way and does a double take in our direction. Years and years of devotion/stalking finally paid off. He started in our direction and I was literally in tears being so overwhelmed with emotion. There are many details about our conversation, but to make it short he gave me his batting gloves and a bat that says, “To Jenna, all my love.” He sent a bunch of other players over to talk to us, like Clint Hurdle and even Jeff Cirillo (they were playing the Brewers.)
Pretty good dude right there. (I also encourage you to watch the “My Wish” segment from 2006 at the bottom of this post).
I always loved the way Todd carried himself. On the field he wants the big at-bat and the walk-off homer. Off the field, he would rather you just interview someone else. He’s the anti-Bonds and the anti-A-roid. Shut up and play. Let his talent do the talking. All those cliches truly apply. Todd Helton was never about Todd Helton, always about the Rockies. In an era of free agency, Todd played his entire career with the Rox. That just doesn’t happen anymore. The way he chose to retire was classic Helton. He intentionally avoided the Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones-style farewell tours. He just doesn’t need or crave that attention.
It is important not to mistake his team-first outlook and humble demeanor as a lack of competitive fire. One recent moment helps illustrate this. Wednesday night, Todd came up to bat with the Rockies down one in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Cardinals closer Edward Mujica struck him out. It was deflating and a pretty huge bummer. The next day, Todd came up to bat with the Rockies down one in the bottom of the ninth to face Mujica again:
I put that video in there because I want you to look at his face after he crosses the plate. He is pissed. He just hit a game-tying homer, and he is pissed. And you know all he’s thinking about is the strikeout from last night. Todd hates losing and hates personal failure. The great ones are all wired a little differently.
Earlier I mentioned Todd’s declining offensive numbers. It’s no secret that the past eight or so years, Todd hasn’t been the same player he was during the first half of his career. I heard somebody say, “That’s not what they’ll remember about Todd Helton,” referring to his down years. I respect the sentiment, but I disagree. I will absolutely remember the drop off in power and the lower batting averages. I will remember the whole career because I think there’s a lesson in watching someone so great go through personal struggles. Greatness is fleeting. We all get old. Father Time is undefeated.
But we’ll always have the moments. There are two obvious ones that stand out as everybody’s favorites.
The first came just over six years ago (hard to believe) on September 18, 2007. A bottom of the ninth walk-off home run off of Dodgers closer Takashi Saito. If you don’t know that trivia answer, you ain’t much of a fan. Anyway, the Rockies were on the brink of irrelevance and needed to win pretty much every game left on the schedule to even have a chance of making the playoffs. They were down a run with two outs and two strikes. Helton pulled a no-doubter with that picture-perfect left-handed swing. He raised his finger as he rounded first base and let out a serious fist pump and a yell. The team went nuts. The stadium went nuts.
Then it was Helton’s turn.
As he approached home plate he flung his helmet high in the air behind him and dove into a mosh pit of teammates with a primal roar, his long hair flinging behind his head. Nobody, nobody had seen that kind of reaction from the usually reserved Helton. I distinctly remember where I was when that all took place. I remember just having this feeling that we just witnessed something very, very special. It turned out to be just that, of course. The Rox won their next 97 games in a row and swept their way to the World Series. Helton hit .377 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in the last 15 regular season games. But none of that happens without that swing.
That swing, that reaction, that scene is the single coolest moment of Todd’s career, without a doubt. Watch the video here and try not to get goosebumps. One of my favorite moments in the video is watching the reaction of Matt Holliday as he rounds second base. You can truly tell that Todd’s teammates are thrilled that they won the game and remained in the playoff race. But they’re even more thrilled that Todd Helton was the reason for that.
The other greatest moment of Todd’s career is another obvious one, even if it isn’t really a “Todd Helton” moment. All he did was catch a ball just like he had done thousands of times in his career. Any first baseman ever could have made the play. But it’s still Todd Helton’s greatest moment. Grounder to Tulo. Tough play. The Rockies are going to the World Series. Quite fittingly, it was Todd Helton who made the final putout.
Then came Todd’s picturesque reaction. It’s all about the reaction. With Eric Byrnes laying on his face behind him, Todd raised both fists to the sky and let out a loud scream along with the frustration from an entire career of losing. It’s the single greatest image in the history of the Colroado Rockies and one of a handful of the best in the storied history of Colorado sports.
This where I was (left) shortly after the happiest moment of Helton’s career. I was pretty happy too.
I feel obliged to include this quote from Troy Renck’s article in the Denver Post: “Going to the World Series with the Rockies was better than winning it with the Red Sox,” Helton said. “I just feel like I have so much invested here in this franchise. Sure, I would have liked to have won a ring. But I am not going to lose sleep over it. My favorite moment is still that last out of the National League championship, knowing we were going to the World Series.”
Next year, he’ll be gone. It will be strange, won’t it? Not having that familiar number 17 with a wooden cross around his neck jogging towards the dugout, flipping the ball into the crowd and catching another one to keep in his glove while the Rockies hit. There won’t be the prolonged at-bats. There won’t be the run-saving scoops. There won’t be the ladies on the centerfield concourse. The face of the Colorado Rockies will be elsewhere for the first time since August 2nd, 1997.
But damn, it was sure a pleasure to watch Todd Helton for the last 17 years.
Here’s the video of his heartfelt retirement press conference.