Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Todd Helton Clubs 500th Career Double; Time To Appreciate One Of The Greats

The greater Denver community has no clue what they have been fortunate enough to watch for the last 11 years.

Todd Helton roped a pitch in the third inning down the right field line. He thought he had hit it well enough to leave the park and tie up the game. The ball ended up hitting the top of the out of town scoreboard at Coors Field, holding Helton to a double. It got the Rockies within a run after scoring Seth Smith.

It was Helton’s team leading 29th double of the season, but more importantly it was the 500th of his career. It was a milestone that only 49 other players in the history of the game. It was a moment that most players would have relished. The grizzly-bearded first baseman just etched out another bullet on his Hall-of-Fame resume.

For Helton, however, the moment was more embarrassing than anything.

The 30,451 fans immediately stood to their feet and recognized Helton’s accomplishment. While most players of Helton’s ilk would get emotional, realizing that they had accomplished a huge personal achievement, Helton tried to end the ovation as quickly as possible.

Helton quickly acknowledged the crowd, clearly hoping that the cheering would stop and Brad Hawpe could take his spot in the batter’s box. The crowd, however, would not give Helton what he wanted. With the scoreboard acknowledging the accomplishment, the cheers grew louder. The field crew came out and replaced second base, saving the base for Helton’s collection. Helton, without cracking a smile, tipped his hat to the crowd and focused once again on the game.

While the fans gave Helton what he deserved, most have no idea what kind of player Helton really is.

The Rockies first baseman has statistics that put him among the best of the best. In fact, there are plenty of players whose numbers never came close to Helton’s who have a bronze statue of themselves in Cooperstown.

Yet Helton’s reputation around the league is not fitting for the kind of numbers that he has produced. For the better part of the last three seasons, even the biggest Rockies fans were calling for Helton to be traded, or simply retire. They said that his $16.6 million contract was so outrageous that he should be giving some money back.

Earlier in the year after Helton got his 2000th hit. When the analysts on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight were asked if Helton was a hall-of-famer, the response was that of disgust. They all felt that Helton is a product of Coors Field and that he is a good hitter, but not great.

In a recent article published on SportsIllustrated.com that ranks the top 100 players in the game, Helton barely made the list, coming in at no. 76, behind players such as Mark Reynolds, and just in front of Brandon Inge.

The national recognition for Helton on the day he made history was minimal. All of the national shows made mention of the accomplishment, but never really expounded on how big of a deal it actually is. It is something that Helton has become accustomed to in his record-setting career.

While fans may be disappointed with the lack of attention that Helton has received in his illustrious career, Helton actually probably prefers being ignored.

In a day and age where professional athletes are worshiped as gods, where the love lives of some of the greatest stars are front page headlines, and where for two off seasons a fan cannot watch SportsCenter without hearing a soap opera story about a self indulging washed up quarterback can go back and forth between whether he will ride into the sunset or come back for one more season and disappoint another fan base.

Teammates will never have to explain Helton’s actions on or off the field by saying “Helton being Helton.”

When Clint Hurdle was fired on May 29th as Rockies manager, Helton was quoted as saying that he felt a personal responsibility for his manager of seven years losing his job. At that point Helton was hitting .328 and was on pace for over 20 home runs and 100 RBI’s.

There is not a selfish bone in Helton’s body. He is not concerned about anything but winning. He works harder than anyone in the game and has expectations that will not allow himself to settle for second best. Those qualities all combine to create Helton’s greatest quality. Loyalty.

When Helton was playing like a Hall-of-Famer, his numbers could not have been more opposite of his teammates. Three times in the early part of the decade, Helton was on teams that lost 90 or more games. In those seasons, Helton hit no less than .329.

After the failed signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle the Rockies front office decided to take a whole new approach at how they ran the club. Instead of going for high priced free agents, the team was going to switch gears and build from within. The process would be painful and long.

At that point, Helton could easily have asked for a trade. He was one of the premier left handed power hitters in the league who was also a Gold Glove first baseman. Instead, Helton, who had fallen in love with Colorado, told the front office that he was on board for the process.

What that meant for the slugger is that he would have to endure being the only good hitter in the lineup for several years as the future stars learned the game in places like Asheville, North Carolina and Visalia, California. Instead of complaining, Helton continued to plug away at his game, getting better despite being in a lineup with names like Jose Hernandez, Jeromy Burnitz, and Chris Stynes as the big-name hitters surrounding him.

Matt Holliday would often talk about his days in the farm system. It never failed that when the future slugger was tired of long bus rides and struggling to hit in the minors, he would get a call from Helton, encouraging him to keep working hard because someday they would have a good squad in the big leagues.

While Helton was patient with the team, the fans were not. Attendance dwindled at a once robust Coors Field and the Denver faithful continued their love affair with the Broncos. While they did not miss many well-played baseball games, what they did miss was watching Helton in the middle of his assault on the record books.

Despite Helton’s loyalty, the franchise did not return the favor. Before the 2007 season, the Rockies were looking to unload salary and saw an opportunity to put $16.6 million back in their pockets when the Boston Red Sox came calling. Helton, being the ultimate team player, said he would not reject a trade in the best interest of the squad. After nearly a week of back and forth, Helton told the team he had had enough and would not accept a trade.

The majority of fans did not come back to the team until the famous 2007 run that put the Rockies in the World Series. Helton at that point was 34 years old and watching his power slip away from him due to a deteriorating back.

In the failed attempt to defend the NL crown in 2008, Helton finally succumbed to the pain in his back that was causing numbness in his legs. It was not before fans were calling him a has-been, and even going to the point of saying that Helton was using performance enhancing drugs during his prime.

It is a shame because while Helton was doing everything that he could to be a winner, fans had quit paying attention.

Hopefully with Helton’s play in ‘09, plus the fact that the team is in contention, will open up both the national media’s eyes, as well as fans in Denver, to the type of player that Helton is.

The fact is, fans should appreciate a player like Helton. There are very few star athletes like him anymore. He is dedicated to his team, his teammates and his fans. He acts with class in every situation and never feels that he is better than anyone else. More players should follow his example.

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