DENVER—Todd Helton is the face of the Colorado Rockies, but that’s as much a matter of chance as it was choice.
Helton has decided to walk away from the game as an active player at the end of the season, finally confirming in September that he will retire. And for all the times his name appears on baseball’s list of all-time offensive accomplishments, what stands out most is that he will have spent his entire 16-year, 59-day big league career with the Rockies, a team in its third year of existence when it selected Helton in the first round of the 1995 draft.
He is one of just 25 players to have spent more than 2,200 games with one—and only one—major league team.
After all is said and done, he should be the first Rockies player to have his number (17) retired. As nice as the story has been, though, it wasn’t as simple as it may seem.
“Let’s just say everything worked out the way it should have,” Helton said.
It has been a dream come true, even if Helton, growing up in Tennessee, never could have envisioned what has happened.
“In Tennessee they live and die college football,” he said. “If you are not playing football they don’t know who you are. You are taught that football is the No. 1 thing, but baseball was something I always loved and knew I wanted to do.”
A two-sport star in high school in Knoxville, Helton committed to Tennessee and was a second-round draft pick of the Padres in 1992. He leaned toward starting his pro baseball career.
“I left spring camp and called San Diego and told them I wanted to sign,” Helton said.
But when Reggie Waller, the Padres scouting director at the time, showed up to get the deal done, it was for $50,000 less than originally discussed. Ultimately, the money and other considerations pushed him toward Tennessee.
“I knew if I went to college and did well I’d get drafted again and financially I would be OK, too,” he said.
He paused. “My grandparents lived in Knoxville and they wanted to see their grandkid go to Tennessee,” he said. “That was part of the reason.”
Helton played quarterback for the football team and was a two-way player for the baseball team, leaving as Tennessee’s all-time leader in both homers (38) and saves (23). He said college taught him a lot, particularly watching future NFL players Heath Shuler, his predecessor at quarterback, and Peyton Manning, his successor.
“I realized the time you had to put in to be a good college quarterback and the time you have to put in to be a good college baseball player,” he said. “I had the chance to get to know what a professional quarterback looked like in college, so I was able to make a good decision then.”
Detour From Oakland
Helton saw his pro future was clearly on the diamond, and he was one of the top prospects for the 1995 draft after his junior year.
Even then, though, the path to the Rockies was not clear. The Athletics had the fifth overall pick, and Dick Bogard, their scouting director at the time, was said to have a deal with Helton in place. Just before the draft, however, general manager Sandy Alderson mandated the selection of righthander Ariel Prieto, a Cuban defector who had set the scouting world abuzz after arriving in the United States about six weeks before the draft.
“They told me they were going to draft me,” Helton said.
The A’s intent to take Helton was so well known in scouting circles that Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard had only a cursory look at Helton, as scouting director Pat Daugherty pushed Gebhard to see players he expected to be available when the Rockies picked eighth overall.
“Geb saw me one time, hitting in the cage at the (Tennessee) indoor facility,” Helton said. “We got rained out. I think he saw me for five minutes.”
But when Helton slipped past the A’s and all the way to eighth, Daugherty didn’t hesitate to call his name.
“At draft time, everyone is worried about how high they go in the draft, it’s a big deal,” Helton said. “You don’t think about the city . . . Once I realized I had been drafted by Colorado and would be playing for the Rockies, it was very cool.”
Things worked out well for both sides, of course, but the relationship nearly ended in January 2007. Helton, who had a no-trade clause, agreed to a trade, but only to the Red Sox. The Rockies worked out a deal to send Helton to Boston for third baseman Mike Lowell, veteran pitcher Julian Taveras, and pitching prospects Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen. The Red Sox balked at giving up Delcarmen and the deal fell through.
“The ultimate decision was not mine,” said Helton, who was disappointed at the time. “And I am happy it didn’t (work out).”
That turned out to be a charmed season for the Rockies, who won 14 of their final 15 games, including a win-or-go-home Game 163 with San Diego, to claim the NL wild card, and swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks to advance to the World Series. They faced the Red Sox, who swept them, but Helton says he has no complaints.
“Going to the World Series with the Rockies meant more to me than winning the World Series with another team,” he said.
In spite of all the twists and turns, it seemed Helton belonged in Colorado.