Manning and Todd Helton were teammates at the University of Tennessee, where Helton was the starting quarterback until Manning came along and usurped him. Another Tennessee alum, R.A. Dickey, is a starting pitcher for the Mets, so it was a veritable Volunteer reunion at Coors Field Sunday.
"R.A. is my age," Manning said. "He was in school with me, so it was great seeing him. R.A. is 35, I'm 36, Todd's 38. Pretty good for three guys who were all in school at the same time back in the mid-90s to still be doing it. I'm real proud of R.A. and all that he's accomplished and conquered. Tennessee Volunteers all keep up with each other, so it was good to see him today."
Manning's friendship with Helton has brought him to Coors Field on several occasions over the years, and he hit his own batting practice home run some 12 years ago, but his highlight reel is cued up to his chance to flash leather at the position he grew up playing, shortstop.
"As many times as I've been here with Todd, as much as I like taking BP, I love taking groundballs more than anything," Manning said. "I was working behind a shortstop eight or nine years ago, and he kind of rotated in to hit and the third base coach was hitting groundballs to me by myself. I'm sure he was like, 'Why am I hitting groundballs to Manning? It's one thing if Manning rotates in, but why am I focusing on him?'"
While noting that his long friendship with Helton has given him a special connection to baseball -- Manning won his only Super Bowl title the same year Helton won his only NL pennant and played in his only World Series -- Manning also said the attachment to the game goes far back for the Manning family, including his father Archie's potential as a pro player.
"My dad was a big baseball fan growing up," Manning said. "He played for Ole Miss and he was drafted. He was a Yankee fan growing up, and I was always a Cardinals fan. But really since I got to college, I've never been in a baseball town. New Orleans, Knoxville, and Indianapolis. Since I've been playing pro ball, the Rockies have been the team that I've kept up with, check the box score, see how Todd's hitting. They're my team now for sure."
Though Helton didn't twist Manning's arm to sign with the Broncos, he couldn't have been a better friend over the course of the past year. When the NFL locked out its players last summer, Helton invited Manning to Coors Field to work out in June and July, and when Manning was preparing to show he still had a golden arm this winter, Helton went to the Duke campus in North Carolina to run pass patterns with Manning and help him prepare for his 2012 "tryout" that eventually landed him in Denver.
"He's a great friend and I appreciate what he did for me last year, allowing me to use the facility and use the trainers to work out in the rehab process," Manning said. "I hadn't seen these guys in a year. I've come a long way in a year, and they were a big part of it. I couldn't thank the Rockies organization enough for opening their arms up to me last year when I was truly an outsider. I'll always be indebted to them for that, because I needed a place to work out."
After finally finding a home in a big league city, Manning seemed to feel a comfort level with the Rockies. He has already forged new friendships with the purple-pinstriped ballplayers, and even got a little territorial about the locker he camped out in when working out with the club last summer.
"I was here a couple different times," Manning recalled. "I was here for a week continuously. I was truly a Rockie for a week. I didn't travel with them, but I had my own locker and everything.
"[Michael] Cuddyer's using my locker. He didn't ask permission, but that's OK. It was a great week."
The appearance at batting practice was no hit-and-run. After cheering Decker on and delivering the news of his wide receiver's two home runs to the media, Manning settled in for Sunday's rubber game between the Rockies and Mets, and with neither Volunteer Dickey or Helton in the starting lineups, he was free to root for his new home team.