DENVER—Todd Helton’s challenge has nothing to do with the fastball or slider. He’s battling Father Time.
And it has taken a toll on the man who has been the face of the Rockies franchise for more than 15 years.
With his 39th birthday lurking on Aug. 20, Helton went on the disabled list again in July with a right hip inflammation that affected the lefthanded hitter’s ability to lift his right leg in his hitting approach.
After playing in 144 or more games in each of his first 10 big league seasons, Helton has been on the disabled list three times in five years, and when he has been active he has been forced to accept that days off are a necessity, not a penalty.
That, more than his .238 batting average so far this season, eats at Helton, a career .320 hitter whose eventual Hall of Fame candidacy will be the first real test of the attitude voters will have toward Coors Field.
“I enjoy the challenges the game brings, starting with getting my body ready, and the last five years that has been more of a challenge,” Helton said. “I used to enjoy the process of playing with an injury and finding a way to make adjustments to succeed despite (the injury). Not now.”
Helton has never been afraid to take a hit and get back up. A second-round draft choice of the Padres out of high school in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1992, he opted instead to stay home and attend Tennessee, where he not only made an impact on the baseball field but also was a quarterback for the Volunteers between future NFL starters Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning.
“You never want (the other team) to see you grimace,” Helton said.
But times change. And now, instead of just dealing with injuries, Helton is facing questions about the end of his career. No longer the force he was in his prime, will Helton accept a reduced role in his final act?
Helton’s hallmark has been his metronomic efficiency. For his career, he has hit better than .300 in every month except April, when he has a .299 career mark. He has been a fixture at first base and in the middle of the Rockies lineup, and it was always an easy decision for a manager to put him in the lineup. The decisions about what to do going forward will be much more difficult.
You can be sure Helton’s decision will be based on how he feels, not his bank account. He never has lost touch with his humble upbringing and has taken care of his considerable career earnings.
Two years ago, to help the Rockies free room in the budget to sign long-term deals with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, Helton reworked his contract to defer a chunk of money and limited his guarantees in 2012 and 2013 to $4.9 million and $5 million.
That’s not chicken feed. It is, however, far from the $23 million his previous deal would have earned him for playing this season.
More important to Helton, though, is being a factor on the field. Since he arrived in the big leagues, he has been one of the best clutch hitters in the game. The late Sparky Anderson said that before every series his team played, he would pinpoint one opposing player he was not going to allow to beat his team. Helton would have been that guy if Anderson had managed against the Rockies.
“It’s about confidence,” teammate Jason Giambi said. “He has confidence in every at-bat, and he wants to be up in those situations. A lot of guys say they want to be put there, but most guys are kidding themselves. Todd? He loves it.”
Helton has hit .328 in his career with runners in scoring position, .298 with two outs. And while most hitters struggle to hit .200 with a two-strike count. Helton has hit .263.
“Most of the time I am confident I can put the ball in play and can foul a pitch off,” Helton said. “That’s one of my biggest assets. Ninety percent of the time, if you make a pitcher throw a number of pitches, he is going to give you one to hit.”
The challenge facing Helton is how many more times he will get that chance to face that late-inning challenge.