Something was missing from the All-Star break this past week.
It wasn’t a lack of home runs. David Ortiz and others provided plenty of those in one of the more intriguing Home Run Derbys to date.
It wasn’t a lack of star power. Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Ubaldo Jiminez, Josh Hamilton and others were all on hand for the National League’s first win in the All-Star game since 1996.
It wasn't even the omission of Carlos Gonzalez and Miguel Olivo from the NL All-Star roster, even though that was completely ludicrous. What's missing is the absence of a solid and reliable Todd Helton.
The 36-year old first baseman who has been the face of the Rockies over the past 13 years is battling poor health and the worst season of his career. He is batting a disturbingly low .246 with only two home runs and 16 RBI while the Rockies have been on a roll recently with more at-bats going to Jason Giambi.
These kinds of things are never easy to admit, and in a town where we have not had too many sports icons to call our own, I think it’s even harder. The truth is that I don’t know that Helton has much of anything left to give in the twilight of his career.
The Rockies are contenders for the National League West division title and maybe even for the World Series again, so it’s not like Helton’s poor play has had a LeBron James-like impact on Colorado. With or without Helton, the Rockies have kept their status as one of the better teams in baseball.
However, I cringe a little when I imagine just how good this team would be if Helton weren’t struggling so much. The truth is that he wasted the prime of his career playing for mediocre Rockies teams with poor pitching and poor attendance. Helton never complained and remained loyal, but it cost him the national recognition that he so rightfully deserved.
Just in case you have forgotten how good he was during those years, let’s take a little trip down memory lane.
When he replaced Andres Galarraga as the starting first basemen after the 1997 season, the Rockies thought so highly of him that they made Helton their club representative. It was the first time a rookie had ever been given that role.
Since then Helton has been to five All-Star games, won four Silver Slugger awards, three Gold Gloves, and the National League batting title in 2000. During that special 2000 season, Helton had a .372 batting average, 42 home runs, 147 RBI, 59 doubles, 103 extra base hits, a .698 slugging percentage, and an on-base percentage of .463.
The stats were great on their own, but Helton became one of only five players in MLB history to have at least 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 extra-base hits and 100 walks in one season. The other four players? Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg.
Helton is also one of only five players (Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Ruth, and Gehrig are the others) to have at least 500 doubles, 320 home runs, and a .325 career batting average. He is the Rockies all-time leader in career on-base percentage (.424), hits (2,195), doubles (519), home runs (327), and RBI (1,218). Helton is the only player in MLB history to hit 35 or more doubles in 10 consecutive seasons.
The Rockies don’t have their own hall of fame yet, but I would imagine that when Helton hangs up his cleats he will be the first inductee and will have his number 17 retired next to Jackie Robinson and Darryl Kile on the wall at Coors Field. He deserves to be in the MLB Hall of Fame as well next to the players I mentioned above, but that will take time.
Most importantly, Helton has always been a consummate professional and an ideal leader. Never has he been involved in any kind of trouble on or off the field, and he has always been soft-spoken and considerate when discussing his contract or his teammates. He is as important to the Rockies as John Elway was to the Broncos or as Joe Sakic was to the Avalanche.
My favorite thing about Todd Helton is his rare ability to work an at-bat tirelessly until he gets a good pitch to hit. His plate discipline was second to none in his generation and pitchers always feared to face him because they didn’t know how to get him out. In a time where the Rockies were hopelessly irrelevant, Helton kept them from fading away in the Rocky Mountain sunset.
Helton never got to play in a World Series until the Rockies’ dramatic 2007 playoff run, but took full advantage of his first chance. He hit a walk-off home run against the Dodgers to keep the Rockies playoff hopes alive in the waning days of the season and hit a triple in his first post-season at-bat in the NLDS against the Phillies.
As he recorded the final out of the NLCS, Helton’s face lit up with all the joy of a young boy and raised his arms in the air as if he was thanking the heavens. Although the Rockies were swept in the World Series against the Red Sox, my greatest regret is not that they lost the series, but that Helton was denied the championship he had been craving his entire career.
Three years later we are witnessing the end of that wonderful career, if we are not there already. Jim Tracy has taken the high road thus far when asked about his most respected player’s decline, but I think he and Helton both know that sooner or later something has to give.
I pray that Helton can find a way to bounce back and show us signs that he can be a force in the lineup. I am prepared to accept that that may never happen. Either way, here’s one writer who hopes that the Rockies can find a way to give him one more shot at the World Series. It’s the only thing missing on the checklist for the greatest Rocky of all-time.