It’s Spring Training in March, 1998. Tucson, Arizona, the heart of the Cactus League, is a baseball junkie’s dream and a grade school kid’s paradise. The setting holds the same aura as the Field of Dreams; just a couple thousand fans are in attendance as the world’s greatest professional ball players take part in America’s pastime.
As a 12-year-old at the time, receiving souvenirs was routine, and getting autographs was easier than ordering a box of Cracker Jacks.
At a meet-and-greet with the players, I stood on the grass outfield at High Corbett Field along with my two younger brothers. We were on the lookout for one of the fearsome Blake Street Bombers, and our eyes anxiously scanned each and every player who strolled onto the field.
While we waited, a polite, clean-cut, 25-year-old rookie walked up to my family and offered an autograph. My dad casually conversed with the player and asked if he would pose for a picture with his three sons.
The player of course accepted, mentioned my Texas Longhorns hat was the wrong shade of orange, posed for the photo as he exchanged more pleasantries, and moved on to the next group. After catching a glimpse of his number as he walked off, I glanced at my roster cheat sheet: No. 17, Todd Helton from the University of Tennessee.
Helton, at the time, was a highly regarded prospect. No more, no less.
He was so regarded the Rockies parted ways with Andres Galarraga over the winter in order to give Helton a starting spot. But his stardom in 1998 was far from established, especially considering he was toiling in the shadow of Larry Walker, the reigning National League MVP.
Helton’s humble approach increased when we spotted him the following day, pulling up to the players entrance in a sputtering white Jetta. The same, gracious player climbed out of a vehicle more fit for a ball-boy than an eighth overall pick, and signed autographs for a couple of senior citizens.
After patiently posing for more pictures, Helton gazed over the remainder of the autograph hounds standing near the lot, seemingly eager to sign more items. A few fans obliged, and Helton crawled back into his Volkswagen, rolled it through the automated gates, and parked it next to Vinny Castilla’s Ferrari.
Ask anybody in the area who Helton was at the time, and few would be able to give you an answer.
In country star terms (since No. 17 is such a country fan), Walker was the Kenny Chesney of 1998 Spring Training. Helton was more Scotty McCreery.
However, his stealth to the game was short-lived. Helton's impressive rookie campaign, included batting in 97 runs to complement a .315 average. Next year, he racked up 113 RBIs while batting .320.
The next? A .372 average and 42 homers. In addition, his 59 doubles and 147 RBIs were tops in the National League.
Since his professional debut, Helton’s prowess has risen exponentially, but his low-key demeanor has never wavered. Helton’s genuine, heartfelt dedication to the Rockies organization will no doubt make his final home game a very emotional one for the purple-clad fans of 20th and Blake.
Helton’s walk-up song is the spirited “Springsteen,” by Eric Church. However, many fans will likely react to “Springsteen” as if they’re listening to a heartbreaking tune about a cowboy losing everything he loved.
The Colorado Rockies have had the E-Train and the Blake Street Bombers. They’ve had Rocktober and record-setting homestand attendance. The fanbase has crooned along to Dante Bichette’s “Sledgehammer” walk-up, and anxiously rubbed their hands when hearing Ozzy Osbourne scream as Larry Walker dug into the box.
But Todd Helton is above and beyond the Rockies past. He is the face of the franchise and the player every team prays to list on its roster. Todd Helton is everything to baseball in the Rocky Mountain region. He is appropriately nicknamed the Toddfather. And, in an appropriate reference to his “Springsteen” walk-up song, Todd Helton is The Boss.
His accomplishments are simply staggering. He is the franchise leader in scores of categories and recently reached the 2,500 hit milestone. He retires as 16th all-time in career doubles, and is the only player in history to slug 30-plus doubles in 10 straight seasons.
The trophy case at Helton’s home holds four Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves. The five-time All Star is 10th all-time in on-base percentage. Helton’s repeat 100-plus extra base hit campaigns in 2000 and 2001 has never been matched.
And Helton’s 2000 season, possibly lost in the glamour of multiple title runs by the Denver Broncos and the Colorado Avalanche, is one of the greatest campaigns in modern history. Helton is the only National League player to amass more than 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 extra-base hits and 100 walks in a single season. The others, all accomplished prior to 1937, are Hank Greenberg, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth.
Helton’s name is surrounded by those of immortals, but the Toddfather’s ticket for the Hall of Fame is far from a guarantee. Just Google the topic "Helton Hall of Fame" and browse through baseball message boards. The general consensus is we watched a good, but not great player toil away for a generally mediocre team at the base of a massive mountain range.
Now, Google “David Ortiz Hall of Fame,” and look at the glowing reviews. Ortiz, who began his career the same year as Helton, has the Rockies icon beat in All-Star appearances, World Series rings, homers (429 to 368) and a slight edge in RBIs, slugging percentage and OPS.
Helton has the upper hand in nearly everything else, including substantial differences in batting average (.316 to .287), runs scored (1398 to 1202), on-base percentage (.414 to .381), and hits (2,510 to 2,015). Don’t forget Ortiz is a designated hitter and spent only a handful of games out in the field, while Helton established himself as one of the most sure-handed defenders in all of baseball.
Now Coors Field is statistically proven as the most hitter friendly park in the majors, and many critics attribute Helton’s career stats to his home park. Ortiz also peaked later in his career. His game didn’t take off until he joined the Red Sox in the 2003 season, while Helton has slowly trended downward over the past five seasons.
I hate using the terms "east coast bias" or "west coast bias,"but it's hard to argue that Helton is overlooked and underappreciated by the national media.
Despite the disappointing possibility of not making it to Cooperstown, Rockies fans won’t need a bronze bust of their revered son to remind them of the greatness the Toddfather brought to the franchise.
His iconic beard will never be replicated, the Helton banner-holders in left-center field will not be forgotten, and his exhilarating photo of registering the final out in the 2007 NLCS may very well be the greatest picture ever taken at Coors Field. And yet, Todd Helton today is the same Todd Helton we saw his rookie season.
Step back a few years to June 19, 2011. It’s a Father’s Day game, and my dad and youngest brother—who was 19 at the time—stand on the field preparing to sing the National Anthem. Before the rendition, No. 17 walks out of the dugout with the sole intention of offering a handshake and gratitude to the pair, all while sporting the exact same “nice to meet you” look he had at Spring Training more than a decade ago.
My dad, often a man of many words, was surprised beyond belief. Out of a simple act of kindness, Todd Helton performed a miracle. The humble superstar had rendered my dad speechless.
As Todd takes the field for the last time on September 25, he leaves behind a timeless legacy. No. 17 may never receive the credit he rightfully deserves, and he may not realize how greatly he is appreciated in the Mile High City. The only thing the fans can do is cheer and hold back tears through his final game until his number adorns a section of the lengthy outfield walls.
Maybe Todd's tribute can be placed on the wall in left-center field, since the location was on the receiving end of so many of Helton’s doubles. Yes, he may not make the Hall, but Helton’s contributions will never be underappreciated in Denver, Colorado.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you, Todd.