DENVER – Eye-bulging numbers, scowls, teddy bears and shaven facial hair.
That is how those who managed and played with Todd Helton remember the Rockies iconic first baseman. Helton sits on history’s doorstep, awaiting Tuesday’s Hall of Fame announcement after missing by 11 votes last January in his fifth year on the ballot.
There is no blueprint for flirting with immortality. When Helton first became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he treated it like the discussion of an August game in April – too far away to worry about. However, as his support climbed, as former teammate Larry Walker was enshrined in 2020, it became difficult to ignore the possibility this week.
“The significance is not overlooked by me. My dad (Jerry) talked. …” said Helton, halting as he spoke to Denver7 from his Knoxville, Tenn., home. “I don’t want to get too much into talking about the Hall. But. … growing up I would go 1-for-3 and I would be down on myself, and my dad would say, ‘You go 1-for-3 you will make the Hall of Fame.’ I was told that as a 10-year-old. It’s not the reason I played by any stretch of the imagination, but it was something my dad talked about it.”
For 17 years in Colorado, spending his entire career with one team like Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Al Kaline, Helton wrote a resume worthy of Cooperstown. He finished with a .316 average, 369 home runs and three Gold Gloves. By any metric, he ranks among the game’s greatest at first base, his candidacy to date undermined by playing at Coors Field, baseball’s most favorable offensive park, though the advent of the humidor in 2001 helped create a sense of normalcy.
What gets lost is that Helton was a Hall of Famer on the road. He boasted a .296 average with a .395 on-base percentage with more walks than strikeouts during his 10-year peak.
“You want to say we are playing at Disneyland. Do you want to penalize the kid for playing at Coors Field? Well, his road numbers compare to all the other first basemen who are in the Hall of Fame,” former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said of Helton, who needs 75 percent of the approximately 400 votes for election.
“Then after that, let’s revisit some of the numbers he had over six years, eight years and 10 years. And people say it’s easy to play at Coors Field. Truthfully, it’s harder to play at Coors Field as a position player playing the number of games he played (because of the length of games and altitude’s impact on the body). This man is Hall of Fame worthy.”
Helton was happy when he was comfortably miserable. It defined his love-hate relationship with hitting.
“You see that face, the scowl. He played with a scowl,” Hurdle said.
It was ironic given his statistics. Helton delivered two seasons with 100 extra-base hits. In 2000, he batted .372 with 49 home runs and 405 total bases. Helton made the game so important, the matchup with the pitcher so personal, we rarely saw his teeth.
“I wished I could have had a smile on my face and played well. But I knew what worked for me and I had to focus 100 percent and bear down and that didn’t include smiling and looking like I was on a Sunday stroll,” Helton said. “But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I did.”
Former Rockies Rookie of the Year pitcher Jason Jennings remembers Helton with gratitude and admiration. He watched how Helton prepared for games, how he interacted with the fans and spoke to the media. What Would Todd Do? was a common question asked as young players reached the big leagues. Helton, as Hurdle explained, played baseball with a football mentality, an ode to his time as the starting quarterback at Tennessee before being replaced by Peyton Manning.
“What people didn’t see is the off-field stuff. The leader he was. The way he would challenge guys. Not only myself as a young player, but even some of our veterans. There was one way to do things in Todd’s eyes. And it was do it the right way or do it over. And that is what he demanded of his teammates,” Jennings said last week. “I truly respect that. There were some days I was borderline scared of Todd. I didn’t want to screw up because this guy was going to get on me but in a good way. In a leader-type way. He was that way from Day One.”
Helton burst onto the scene in 1998, batting .315 with 25 home runs and 97 RBIs, finishing second to Chicago Cubs right-hander Kerry Wood for Rookie of the Year honors. During his prime, from 1998 to 2005, Helton averaged 33 and 114 RBIs, far exceeding minor league projections as a slap hitter with modest power.
“He is the best pure hitter the Rockies have ever had, the face of the franchise,” said former Rockies outfielder Cory Sullivan. “His peak six years (2000-2005) were ridiculous. His bWar (wins against replacement) was third during that time frame to only A- Roid and Barry Bonds. His .855 road OPS is better than current Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, and Rickey Henderson.”
Helton, 50, spent his entire career with the Rockies. His at-bats – no one spoiled more tough pitches – were a combination of finesse and fury.
“Every time he hit a single, I would imagine it was an accident. He wasn’t trying to hit singles. He was trying to punish the ball,” Jennings said. “He was really trying to hurt somebody’s feelings as a hitter. I loved that about him.”
Helton reached the playoffs twice, igniting the 2007 magical run to the World Series with a walk-off home run against previously stone-cold Dodgers closer Takashi Saito.
“The Rockies didn’t have a hit against him that season, and I don’t know if they had a hard out. Then Matt Holliday gets a single, and Helton fouls off pitches and hits one into the night,” Rockies broadcaster Drew Goodman said. “His celebration was so out of character, his exhilaration, it will always be one of my favorite memories of Todd.”
Rockies fans could live forever in the snapshot of Helton after the last out of the National League Championship Series. It is a photo that adorned a book cover by The Denver Post and walls across the state.
“Us going to the World Series and him putting his hands in the air and jumping up and down like a little kid, I will always remember that,” former star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said.
The 2009 playoffs ended with a first-round loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Helton never angled to leave despite the team’s struggles to contend throughout most of his career. He reluctantly agreed to one trade, a deal to the Boston Red Sox in the winter of 2007 involving third baseman Mike Lowell that fell through. By playing for only Colorado, he became the leader of “Todd and the Toddlers,” a young group that blossomed and brought unmatched glory to the franchise. Helton took care of them, a battery of prospects that included Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, Sullivan, and Ryan Spilborghs.
Helton and his wife Christy, turns out, would gift teddy bears to young Rockies’ couples after the birth of children.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about Todd getting into the Hall of Fame. I know Todd as Todd. My wife Stacey knows him as Todd. We have a giant teddy bear that is like the size of a human that Todd and Christy gave to first-time parents. It was kind of a running gag. The thing was like 200 pounds, and it took like an RV to get it home. That bear we know as Todd,” Spilborghs said. “Todd to us, he’s everything. He’s a great friend.”
Denver Post Rockies beat writer Patrick Saunders thinks of Helton as a blend of statistics and kindness. Saunders enjoyed chronicling Helton’s breathtaking accomplishments, but also remembers how accommodating he was to his father before a game in St. Louis and his nephew during batting practice in San Diego. MLB.com’s Thomas Harding has written about Helton since his high school days in Tennessee, recalling, “he was one of the top football recruits and he would be in the end zone in full pads practicing his (baseball) swing. Baseball was never far from him.”
Winning drove Helton. But he was maniacal about hitting. There are countless stories of him trying to change his luck when he slumped from not eating to grabbing random bats from the rack to wearing high socks. Nothing will compare to what played out one day at Dodger Stadium, illustrating his desperation and dry wit. Helton began the game with a full beard. He got out. In his second at-bat, he had a Fu Manchu. Another out. The third at-bat, he sported a mustache. By his fourth time at the plate, he was clean-shaven.
“He has four at-bats and four different facial expressions, grooming manifestations,” Hurdle said with a laugh.
Helton, who works with the Rockies, touring the minor leagues with Hurdle to help prospects, belted out a laugh when asked about the game.
“I was struggling. I was trying anything to get a different feel when I went to the plate. If I could trick myself into thinking that shaving has anything to do with hitting, and it worked, I would do it,” Helton said, pausing and adding with emphasis, “I know I got two hits that day, including a walk-off.”
It was one of 2,519 hits in his career. Tuesday afternoon, he hopes for a final home run, the call to Cooperstown.