Coors Field will never be the same.
Next season when the Colorado Rockies take the field for their home opener there will be nine players running out of the dugout. The air will be filled with the smell of spring blossoming throughout Denver. There will be a feeling of excitement and anticipation, for with the return of baseball comes the knowledge of summer just on the horizon. The crowd will roar and anxiously watch the starting pitcher warm up. Yes, nine guys will be out in the field and yet it’ll feel like there is a hole in the lineup. Something will be missing. Colorado Rockies baseball will never be the same.
Tom Van Ripper, a sports business writer for Forbes said it best, “Todd Helton, a better baseball player than Mariano Rivera, heads toward retirement quietly.” In one sentence Van Ripper embodied everything that was Todd Helton’s career; a career of Hall of Fame accomplishments that went largely unnoticed by the baseball world.
It all started at Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. It has been said that the sweetest swing baseball is possessed by left-handers. Griffey, Jr. had it. Bonds had it. Gwynn had it. So too did Helton. Simply put, Helton had a swing that destined him to hitting success. As proof, he would bat .655 as a senior winning Regional Player of the Year awards.
After being drafted, Helton decided on college and joined the Volunteers at the University of Tennessee. He would fall in the shadow of a guy who has made a pretty good career out of football and yet would quietly continue to succeed on the diamond. His junior year, Helton won the Dick Howser Trophy as the National Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year. It may surprise you to know that Helton also pitched as Tennessee’s closer, a role the Rockies could have used him in this year. As a closer, he pitched 47 consecutive scoreless innings and posted a 0.89 ERA.
After spending 1994 playing for the Orleans Cardinals, Helton was drafted eighth overall by the Colorado Rockies. Denver would never be the same. Although he spent his first few seasons in the Majors behind Andres Galarraga, Helton would get his chance to be the full-time starter at first base for Colorado in 1998. He has started there every year since. In his first full rookie season, Helton posted a .315/.380/.530 line with 25 dingers and 97 RBI. Monumental numbers that fell silent and under the headlines surrounding the emergence of Kerry Wood, who would win the National League Rookie of the Year award.
What Helton would go on to accomplish as a hitter in Denver is largely unknown. He would win a percentage triple crown, which is based on on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and batting average. He would become the first player in National League history to have at least 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 extra base hits and 100 walks in a season. He joined a club that houses only Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Greenberg.
Helton would boast numbers that should have earned him National League MVP honors, but he was frequently overshadowed by the likes of McGwire vs. Sosa in the great race for Maris, the arrival of Albert Pujols and by Bonds during his historical and questionable conquest for Mark McGwire’s home run record. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Todd Helton consistently was atop the National League’s batting stats. Yet in the shadows cast by the Rockies, Helton succeeded in silence.
Despite a degenerative back condition diagnosed in 2008, Helton continued to produce for the Rockies. His numbers began to decline, yet they were still comparatively solid numbers for a Major League hitter. Ironically, the historic numbers he remains unheralded for became the measuring stick to which he was torn down by.
Helton has some two weeks and change left in a Rockies uniform. His 17 seasons with Colorado are unappreciated and unrecognized. Pull up a list of his accomplishments and one would be wondering just how in the world this guy hasn’t become a household name or a publicly defended future first-ballot Hall of Famer. And yet he is only quietly celebrated in Denver. The media refuses to proclaim his career as prolific as they bumble around the notion that a thin atmosphere ballooned the numbers of a somewhat better than average hitter.
Helton has spent his life in the shadows of giants. In college he once was higher on the depth chart than Peyton Manning. Sadly, many know of Todd Helton because he was on the same team as Peyton Manning. As a professional baseball player he never escaped the shadows of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, or Pujols. He quietly put together a 17 career that very few Major League Baseball players can even fathom. Look at his numbers and his name falls next to Gehrig, Ruth, Foxx, Hornsby, Klein and Greenberg. Historical giants of the game of baseball to whom every potential Hall of Famer is compared.
As Van Ripper said, Todd Helton has been one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Yet playing in Denver for a young franchise, his career has not received the attention or accolades it deserves. In a couple weeks, Todd Helton will say goodbye to the game he loves. Coors Field and the city of Denver will send him off to an ovation that he deserves. And though ESPN won’t be putting together any “Best of Todd Helton” segments, or a Baseball Tonight tribute, Todd Helton will be missed. It may not sink in that he is gone until next April. But when next April comes around, something about Colorado Rockies baseball will seem out of place. That is when the magnitude of Todd Helton will be realized.