Helton expects another glorious home opener
Rockies icon is in final year of contract, and his future status with Colorado is uncertain
DENVER -- The forecast calls for 69 degrees at Coors Field on Friday afternoon. But Todd Helton could have told you that long before the 24-hour, five-day or 300-day forecast was posted.
Helton and the Rockies open their home schedule Friday against the Padres at 2:10 p.m. MT. For most of his 16 home openers, the weather was similarly gorgeous. Many of the details of various first games -- home and road -- have faded. His performances and even the results, good or bad, can't push aside the visceral sense of the warmth and color and new hope at Coors Field.
"For whatever reason, we've had the best weather on Opening Day," said Helton, who made his debut on Aug. 2, 1997, and the next season started his streak of Opening Day starts, both overall and in home openers.
"It's sunny. Spring's in the air. It's crazy, but it always works out that way. After that, usually the weather usually goes south again -- or north, I guess, since it gets cold. But I look forward to that Opening Day. It's one of those days.
"Every Opening Day at Coors Field is awesome. Well, not awesome. A teenager would use the word awesome. But it truly is spectacular. The pageantry. It's better than a football game. A crisp baseball game, especially at Coors, it symbolizes spring. Everybody's spirits are up. It's a good time."
Coming off major right hip surgery and a less-extensive left knee surgery, and five years removed from back surgery, Helton is in the last year of his contract. The power that helped him to 42 home runs in 2000 and 49 in '01 is gone and his mobility is limited. Yet he has held onto a hitting stroke capable of a .300 average and high doubles totals when healthy, and he went into the season on the strength of a Spring Training performance that surprised him in terms of his hitting and how his body felt.
The anticipation and smoothness around the bag that helped Helton earn three Rawlings Gold Glove Awards -- many locally say he deserved more -- is present as long as he doesn't do damage making instinctive dives for hard-hit balls.
|"A crisp baseball game, especially at Coors, it symbolizes spring. Everybody's spirits are up. It's a good time."|
|-- Todd Helton|
So, after Helton soaks in all the wonder of the first game at Coors, he'll resume squeezing out all the baseball his body possesses.
What has developed around him is a club hoping to make Helton's year a special one. Player after player prefaces his statements by leaving open the possibility that Helton will just keep playing. But part of what's driving a club that believes it can make the postseason after losing 98 games last year is the spirit of sending Helton out on a winning note.
"Everything that we've done this year, that we possibly won't do again, it comes into mind," said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, 28, who has succeeded Helton as the face of the franchise and has spent the last several years trying to grow as the next Helton in terms of team leadership. "Who's to say that he won't be back? Maybe if he comes out and has a great year, he will be back.
"But you do also keep in mind that it could be his last. I think we can build off that as a team as well. No doubt it's in the back of your mind."
The prospect of saying goodbye to Helton as a player also will heighten the senses of his teammates Friday. They'll reserve the moment that No. 17 is introduced as the time they'll allow themselves to break the concentration of preparing for the game.
"I know people will cheer really loudly for him, and rightly so," said Jeff Francis, Friday's starting pitcher. "He's given Rockies fans a lot to cheer for, for a long time.
"I pay attention to guys who have made their impacts on this game," he said. "I was fortunate to be there for Jim Thome's 600th home run. Things of that magnitude are pretty special. I'm sure I'll be paying a little extra notice to that Opening Day for Todd. At the same time, I pay extra notice to him all the time."
The use of the kid's word "awesome" aside, Helton's poetic ode to the new season at Coors highlights what teammates say is a complicated persona.
Many are gone from the group of players that know Helton best, those who went to the World Series in 2007 and the postseason in '09. They were prospects or young Major Leaguers when Helton was in his prime, and they never forgot picking up the phone in a Minor League outpost and hearing Helton's voice talking them through slumps. Their girlfriends became wives, children entered the world and Helton was right there with them as they raised their new families. The teammates understood the man behind the intensity that can make him impossible even for teammates to talk to when game time approaches. They knew the relentless, youthful, sometimes biting sense of humor was rooted in caring.
|"Who's to say that he won't be back? Maybe if he comes out and has a great year, he will be back."|
|-- Troy Tulowitzki|
"He has that knack of touching guys in different ways," said relief pitcher Matt Belisle, who has developed a deep friendship with Helton since joining the team in 2009. "The jokes, the pranks, giving credit when credit is due when you wouldn't expect it from him. ... That pat on the back comes out of right field, and it really makes you feel tremendous.
"He can keep it loose as well as anybody in the clubhouse that I've ever been with. He's been doing this for a good spell now. He's one of those guys that has it in all areas of the game."
It's an interesting moment when newer players learn that Helton is more than the fellow who alternately is the class clown and the gruff "get-off-my-lawn" guy in the neighborhood.
"A couple of years ago, he was going through a little rut swinging the bat," said Eric Young Jr., who was a bat boy for the Cubs when he met Helton and admits to being somewhat awed by him when he made it to the Majors. "He came up to me and asked me what did I see in regards to him.
"My initial reaction was, 'You're a future Hall of Famer.' But a statement like that lets me know he's just another guy who takes pride in his work, just like I do. Sometimes the sense of humor, a regular person may not understand it, but I know it all comes from a good place. He wants the best for you."
Helton seems poised to contribute as long as his health holds. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in the opener in Milwaukee, ending his Opening Day hit streak at 13. He came back for a 2-for-5 performance with an RBI in the second game before sitting out Wednesday.
"I've never really come into the season swinging the bat as well as I have this year," Helton said. "It was kind of a weird feeling that first day. I didn't really feel it for whatever reason, maybe because they mattered.
"Tuesday I felt good again. I still didn't swing the bat well. I had some good pitches to hit and didn't do what I should have done with them. But for me, I just care if I'm in a good position to hit. That's going to mean that I'm going to hit balls hard. I go by how my body feels, and my body feels pretty good. If I hadn't gotten a hit by now, I still wouldn't be worried."
Denver fans tend to take in their stars as their own and shower them with enough devotion to make up for the national publicity that often passes them over. Despite a DUI arrest during the offseason and a pending hearing next month -- a situation for which Helton has apologized to fans, teammates and the organization -- the fans cheered Helton warmly at Spring Training.
Fans are expected to welcome him wildly and without condition Friday.
"I hope they give him an ovation that's extremely loud and it lasts an extremely long time," Belisle said. "It's just so special that he's done it with one team. Whether this is his last or whether he keeps playing, every one henceforth is pretty special."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.