|Todd Helton is the first Colorado Rockies legend.|
The face of the Colorado Rockies franchise let the public know that he would retire at about 11 pm on Saturday night. The announcement came when the state of Colorado was focused on torrential rains that left much of the previously-drought ridden land a flowing river. It also came as those fixed on the floods finally had something else to pay attention to, Helton's friend Peyton Manning had taken his team into New York to take on his brother Eli.
The Broncos postseason odds are significantly higher than the Rockies odds were at any point in the past two seasons. Manning has his eyes set on breaking passing records and leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl. A blue and orange town doesn't need much to get excited about the Broncos, but a team primed for the Super Bowl, contrasting with a Rockies team mired deep in mediocrity make it easy for fans to move towards the boys of fall.
Helton certainly hates the spotlight. That much has been certain since he was drafted. Nothing about the Rockies greatest player has ever suggested that he wants anything more than to go get a couple of hits and head home. A player of his ilk is rarely built the way that he is. Helton is self-deprecating, unassuming, and completely unaware that he is a star. Despite his career numbers, the man never seems to be impressed or satisfied with what he has accomplished. Many players with his numbers are quick to carry themselves with a swagger that suggests they know just how good they are.
Helton comes across as a guy who doesn't understand why the media would want to cover him. He doesn't seem to know why grown men would idolize him. He is just a guy in his own mind. His attitude has certainly rubbed some the wrong way. He comes across grouchy and set in his ways. Those assessments, frankly, might be accurate. However, the Helton that those who have covered him, and those who have watched his entire career know that the grouchy side isn't from a bad attitude, it is from his complete discomfort with dealing with the media and having to come up with the right thing to say.
Everyone who has gotten to know Helton--to a man--has commented on how good of a person he is. They mention that his character goes beyond working hard to be a good baseball player, but his desire to be a good husband and father. Helton was always worth rooting for.
With that in mind, the Rockies first baseman played the majority of his career in front of empty seats, or fans that were at the ballpark to kill a summer night and drink a few beers. The nation was focused on other teams who were winning, and discounting the stats that Helton put up because of the park he played in. Those who watched him everyday, however, knew that it wasn't about the altitude, they knew Helton wasn't just another player. They knew he was not only the best Rockie ever, but one of the best players in the history of the game.
Rockies fans, many of whom were still just learning the game as a baby-faced Helton took over for Andres Galarraga, have grown up with No. 17 as the constant on their baby-faced professional baseball team. Helton represented the Rockies. He was the first hero that this town produced. The Rockies had had the Blake Street Bombers, but those guys were inherited, all developed by someone else. Helton was Colorado's first hero.
Rockies fans are in a rare boat. Many fans of other teams hear stories from their fathers and grandfathers about the legends of their favorite teams. Rockies fans, even 20 years in, are experiencing the stories that they will tell their children and grandchildren. Helton is the guy that they will be telling stories about.
Of course, as Helton aged, and as his back gave out and eventually as his bat slowed down, many Rockies fans, freshly minted from a surprise World Series appearance in 2007, saw Helton as an overpaid, over-glorified relic from the past that was still hanging on. They didn't see what everyone who was there through the lean years saw.
With criticism, Helton never lashed out at the fans. In fact, many times it seemed that he agreed with them, always being his own critic.
Being a fan brings the emotions of seeing things through biased eyes. Fans saw with their eyes that Helton's bat was slowing down. Even his range at first base, something that never wavered, seemed to diminish ever-so-slightly. Those tough lefties that were always brought in to face Helton were no longer getting the Helton-esque at-bats, where even if an out was produced, it wasn't in the books until the pitcher had watched six or seven balls get fouled into the stands.
The eyes don't lie, but the heart rarely tells the truth. Every now and then, the Helton of old would show up. Every once in a while the old lefty would put a charge into a ball that jumped off of his bat the way it did in 2003. He would work a count, foul off pitches and seemingly toy with a pitcher before depositing a double into the left-center gap. Those moments would convince Helton's fans that there was still gas in the tank. With retirement looming, fans wanted to believe that he still had another year left in him.
Part of the sadness about Helton's retirement is that he is the last link to a new franchise. Helton wasn't there from the beginning, but he played with those guys. He was there for the growing pains of a new franchise. He helped establish this Rockies team. He still represents the beginning, when the Rockies could do no wrong, when losing 89 games wasn't a big deal because, well, Denver had Major League Baseball, so all was right.
Helton leaving means that those days are over. It means that the Rockies must establish a new identity and figure out who they are. Frankly, it reveals a team that has lacked an ability to create an identity that went beyond Helton.
Much like a grandparent dying, it leaves a family wondering who will take the reins. It leaves them wondering where things will go from that point. It leaves questions about what traditions will remain in place. It leaves people wondering if the identity that was established was carried by that one person, or if that torch can be carried by someone else.
Truthfully, Helton is the heart and soul of the Colorado Rockies. While the franchise had ups and downs, Helton was the constant. He is the team's first legend. There will never be another first legend. Helton gets that crown forever. Watching him walk away, whether it was his time or not, isn't easy.
Rockies fans should take the final nine home games of Helton's career and let him know how much they appreciate him. In 12 games, they won't have their first hero around anymore.
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