COLUMN: A Wyoming thanks to Todd Helton

I don’t consider myself capable of writing something to properly demonstrate Todd Helton’s career.
But we can’t not talk about him this week.

So much has been said about him over the past few days, I’ll try to hold myself short of a vomit-inducing love song for my favorite baseball player. But that’s probably just not going to happen, and this is chock full of homerism. Two nights of the Yankees and Rockies sending off franchise players was enough to make a guy come to terms with the Lifetime channel.

From our perspective here in Wyoming Helton was our baseball player, and while that’s strange to say, sports fans in Wyoming and a few other surrounding states without pro teams have the less talked about freedom of supporting organizations hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Watching Helton’s night at Coors Field Wednesday inspired sports-love man tears. It was almost confusing, at first, when all the emotion poured out of Helton himself, a guy that simply didn’t allow feelings on the diamond during his long tenure as a Rockie. Things would have seemed more normal if that painted horse the Rockies gave Helton Wednesday before the first pitch as a retirement gift had stood up on two legs, started talking and playing catch with Troy Tulowitzki.

Familiarity settled in when Tennessee buddy Peyton Manning and Todd’s brother Rod Helton, matching goatee in tow, appeared on the field to wish him goodbye. What’s a more “Todd Helton thing” than his brother’s one-syllable rhyming name and identical expressionless beardface?

Still, not awkward but business like was Helton in his 17 years in Colorado. For those of us who grew up here, he was the closest thing we had to a star, playing for our regional professional baseball team. As a young fan, I was five when the team was formed, the Rockies were the offensive powerhouse where I found my love for the game. Sometimes I wonder if the Blake Street Bombers hadn’t been characterized by their capacity for just that, homers, if I would have liked them as much. Dull, low-scoring pitching duels don’t seem like something a young fan is drawn to. Maybe I was a weird, boring little kid. I don’t remember.

Outside the quality or characteristics of a team, the aura of a ballpark is enough to reel in a little kid, and the only one I’ve ever known is Coors Field. That’s a seven-hour drive from Sheridan. Vacations for my family were a trip to Denver to watch the Rockies play.

All the years actually making it to games, Helton was the constant in the lineup that’s seen plenty of changes, naturally, in 17 years. Lately, it was one of my favorite musicians, Eric Church, that played when Helton walked up to the plate. Hearing that was awesome. At home, I looked for Helton’s name first when I first found box scores on the internet. And the Braves always won. Stupid Braves. Later, it was the stupid Red Sox.

Whatever you say he lacks in Hall of Fame credentials, I say he makes up for in loyalty, class and staying clear of the steroid era.

Mariano Rivera’s league-wide sendoff has become a little dizzying at this point.
“Hey dude, here’s a weird sand sculpture.” From: the Rays.

The intermission-heavy structure of the game itself allows for an incredible goodbye, as I learned this week. Lou Gehrig’s photo is still one of my favorite pieces of sports photojournalism.

Maybe it was better that the Yanks and Rox didn’t make the playoffs this year, as their ceremonious final games in respect of those who built their current baseball generation were uninterrupted by the score and the game results were an afterthought.

Thursday night’s 10-minute standing ovation for Rivera and Helton’s ceremonious exit Wednesday in Denver each reminded baseball fans what it was like to honor a great, finally absent of the mixed emotions that have followed countless players’ alleged mis-doings of late.

Rivera has never been linked to steroids either, but I’ve never been able to stand a team that has a payroll of $228,995,945 over a team with a payroll of $75,449,071 (the Rockies in 2013). There’s no telling what Helton could have done with the similarly overpaid Red Sox, where he was almost traded in 2007, and although it’s also naive to say it was entirely forces within his control that resulted in his staying in Denver, he stayed.

Following an underdog, the team at 20th and Blake, feels at times like a lifelong prison sentence marred with losing. But the Rockies have been an easy reprieve from the dirty game. Baseball has been something of a tiresome sport through the steroid era. Here, we don’t have the luxury of going to Coors Field every night after work, to see the raw form of baseball and use it as a reminder that there’s more than the mess in the news. We inadvertently watch as Sportscenter babbles around A-Rod accusations as we flip back and forth from the Rockies game on television.

The steroid era has us worn out not because we feel betrayed by the sport — the matter isn’t that morally-driven anymore — we’re just tired of being told what and what not to think of a player or the game as a whole.

You never had to be told what to think about Todd Helton. Hall of Fame induction I’m sure would mean a lot to Todd, but it doesn’t mean much to me as a fan. Because he was always there when it mattered. Like Wednesday night.

When Helton pinged that cutter from Jake Peavy over the right field wall in his first at-bat — staying cool after all of the pre-game theatrics and hat-tips — it reminded me what it felt like to enjoy a major league baseball game. Not since their World Series run in 2007 had I felt goosebumps like that watching the Rockies play.

I was a freshman in college and had third baseline upper deck seats (the steep, scary ones) when the Rockies made that silly run through the end of the regular season, not losing a game until they were swept by the Red Sox. Wednesday was a brutal emulation of Helton’s career as the Rox fell 15-5 to the Red Sox. Diluted from the mouths of sportswriters are his numbers built at Coors Field. Great, they were, to the ones who watched all the moments like those. Absent of the HOF discussion, Wednesday turned us all into blubbering babies. I’ll continue to write around the HOF argument because I think Pete Rose’s ballot is long overdue, while I believe Barry Bonds belongs in prison before he’s allowed into Cooperstown, and I know there’s a certain amount of era-dominated opinion in those statements.

My growing up with baseball was McGuire and Sosa clunking homers in a battle to beat Roger Maris’ record — to a young fan, the intricate numbers game was simplified to a power-hitting home run contest that I could grasp more easily than the meaningful metrics. Those same tools now are used to throw Helton’s name around a Hall of Fame discussion, one held by more “elite” writers that myself.

Baseball is a strange game, just like all sports, muddled in the opinions of the masses. When you hear, “the Coors Field advantage” discussed, and maybe it’s due to regional exposure that I say this, but the thin air seems more likely to keep someone out of the Hall than the performance enhancing drug use itself. Compromise: Let’s take a fourth of a home run away from Barry Bonds for every one he hit at Coors Field.

Sappy as it sounds, I think Helton gets in if not simply for what he meant to the sport as “one of the good guys.”

These days, we don’t trust baseball players, but it was never hard to trust Helton. Even with his mis-step last offseason, a DUI, his human, apologetic reaction was so believable most forgave him almost immediately. Even more, athletes are made role models somewhat unfairly by the simple fact that they play sports well — the fact that their physical abilities lend to kids looking up to them is in itself dumb — and while so many let you down, Helton never did.

About

Brad Estes

Sheridan Press sports editor

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