Fairytale endings in professional sports are hard to come by. It’s a bittersweet time for baseball fans in Colorado Rockies country.
Bitter because the Rockies, with a 74-88 record, finished the season at the bottom of the National League West Division. Bitter because the Rockies have once again failed to make a postseason run and make October baseball a reality.
Sweet, however, because we get to look back at the 17 years Todd Helton played as, perhaps, the best Colorado Rockie of all time.
Colorado’s final game of the 2013 season was played in Los Angeles against their division rival Dodgers on Sunday. It was the sad day on which Todd Helton would play his last innings of professional baseball. Fans, like players, dream of going out on top. Sunday’s 2-1 Rockies victory wasn’t a World Series victory by any means, but Helton went out on top nonetheless.
Walking up to the plate for his first at-bat, the first-baseman was given long and loud standing ovation by Dodger fans and players. It was a classy scene. Of course, Todd had already received an emotional send-off when he played his final home game at Coors Field last week (where he drilled a homerun). While playing in front of the home crowd for the last time was probably more meaningful, I found the ovation Dodgers fans gave on Sunday more memorable. It showed the respect they have for a guy who has done some damage to the Dodgers over the years with his bat. His farewell in Los Angeles also included a two-and-a-half minute tribute by none other than the legendary Vin Scully.
“Todd, I know I am a bit presumptuous when I speak for the Dodger organization, for all of the fans in Southern California, and for that matter, all the fans who love baseball, to wish you well,” Scully said in a video played on the outfield scoreboards on Sunday. “On behalf of all of those Dodger pitchers who you mistreated for so many years, have a wonderful life after baseball.”
At the age of 40, Helton is retiring as the record-holder for almost every offensive category in baseball. Helton’s career on base percentage is .414 (26th all time). According to The Denver Post, in the eight-year period between 2000 and 2007, Helton’s on-base percentage was .442, second only to asterisks Barry Bonds. Helton’s career batting average is .316, with his best year coming in 2000 when he hit .372 and won the league batting title.
Helton’s fielding percentage is .996, which is good for sixth of all time among qualified first baseman; he was a Gold Glove winner three times in his 17-year career, and he was the 96th player in Major League Baseball history to reach 2,500 hits. Alongside baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, Helton is the only other player to smack 2,500 hits, 550 doubles, 350 home runs, and a career batting average of .310 or higher.
With career numbers like that, who knows when it will happen, but Todd Helton deserves a spot in Cooperstown as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There’s no argument there.
For me, I’ll always remember Helton as being tough as nails at the plate. Sure, the guy could whack a first-pitch home run at any given time, but I always liked the way he would stay alive when he was behind in the count. Helton could easily get into a 1-2 count and then simply defend the plate for another 15 pitches. He made pitchers work hard, and sometimes the pitchers would eventually win. But they didn’t often win without throwing Todd a hell of a lot of pitches. He could wear pitchers down.
Besides Sunday’s Dodgers ovation, I’ll always remember the walk-off homerun Helton hit against the Dodgers back in 2007 before they went on their historic run to the World Series. There’s nothing like seeing the seasoned veteran swan dive into a team of youthful players ready to party with him at home plate.
We all know there is no better fairytale ending than going out on top the way John Elway did when he retired as a player. Opportunities are few and far between for what Elway did. He won one Super Bowl. Won a second. Retired (as a player) on top of the world. Rockies Fans wanted the same for Todd Helton. He deserves such an ending to his career, too.
There is an interesting arc to Helton’s career that should be noted: Helton once played quarterback for the University of Tennessee. After hurting his knee in a game and being replaced by Peyton Manning, Helton went to baseball forever. While his career as a quarterback was short-lived, Helton and Manning’s friendship was not.
As the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning move forward in an already historic start to their season, it’s hard not to think the impact Helton had on Manning in his decision to come and be a Bronco after undergoing neck surgery. We all know Elway had a lot to do with it, but I’m sure Helton, living in Denver, had a lot to do with it, too. It was, after all, Helton who invited Manning to Denver in the summer of 2011, offering up the Rockies’ clubhouse and trainers for recovery after his surgery (because he couldn’t use the Colts facilities with the NFL lockout ongoing).
“For him to get on the phone and call me and invite me out here to work out with the Rockies, in private, and use the Rockies trainers, I’ll always be indebted to him," Manning said on DenverBroncos.com. “I was in a kind of a weird place, an unknown. I had really nobody to turn to medically because of the lockout. What Todd did, that really kind of gave me some good direction. I’ll always be indebted to him for that.”
I’d say a Denver Broncos Super Bowl XLVIII championship ring with a No. 17 studded in diamonds would be just about the right payback.
Thanks for all the years, Todd. And thanks for Peyton Manning.