Helton's injury leaves void in clubhouse

Rockies miss Helton's leadership

DENVER -- One afternoon last week, the Rockies were running and sweating and swinging on the field in preparation for a game. In a small room near the clubhouse, where players would soon be donning their game faces, sat Todd Helton.

He was done for the day. The sweat was already dry. The only similarity between him and his teammates was he was wearing a hat with the "CR" logo. This was before Helton had all of the medicals on his ailing back sent to noted surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins in California, and after D-backs pitcher -- and Watkins surgery patient -- Randy Johnson had spoken to him about options.

"One day I think I feel good, I think it's just a matter of time," Helton said. "Then I wake up and can't get out of bed and wonder, 'When is this ever going to get better?' So I don't know. It's day-by-day, I guess."

This story, however, goes beyond Helton's back, and when or if he'll be back. It's about a clubhouse in which he has a locker, but reduced influence, because he isn't playing. For example, because he's nowhere close to a return, he won't be with the squad when it starts a key three-game set with the National League West-leading Dodgers on Tuesday night.

Helton, a man with tremendous presence -- as demonstrated by the way his teammates followed him and pulled for him during last year's startling playoff run -- can't be present in any meaningful way.

Think back to last Sept. 18. Helton launched a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-run, two-out, two-strike homer to beat the Dodgers, 9-8. As he rounded third, he tossed his batting helmet high in the air. The Rockies didn't come down until the World Series. The win was the second in a 14-of-15 run just to make the playoffs and a 21-of-22 carpet ride to make the Fall Classic.

Whatever hard-to-define quality that the Rockies had then, and haven't had this year, was present that night, and it was wearing No. 17. After Helton's postgame interviews, his fellow Rockies would wait by their lockers, and applaud him. It's not really a stretch to say that the players delighted in winning for Helton as much as for themselves.

Now, advance to the present.

"It's very hard, because you want to lead by example. I'm not going to tell somebody how to do something if I'm not going to do it myself."
-- Todd Helton

Truth is, the effect the prolonged back pain had on Helton's swing was one of the problems that has the Rockies in worse shape currently -- at 57-69 and eight games behind the Dodgers -- than last year.

Helton hit .266 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 81 games -- markedly decreased production from his career averages -- during which he moved to different spots through the lineup while trying to hit through worsening health.

In fact, the team has gone 22-19 without Helton.

But when the Rockies had their big chance earlier this month -- a 10-game homestand that should have helped the club gain ground in the West -- they went 3-7, with five losses to the league's worst teams, the Nationals and the Padres, and dropping yet another series to the D-backs.

Spotty starting pitching and poor offensive production -- either not reaching base or not driving in runners in scoring position -- were the Rockies' most measurable issues. But the club's lack of success manifested itself in lackluster performance, physically and mentally -- issues that the presence of one of baseball's most respected veterans might address.

If he could.

"There's an intangible there that's special, a desire and want-to," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's very focused. It's almost etched in granite when he takes the field. So you're going to miss a guy like that.

"He wasn't in a good place physically, so from a production standpoint, Todd hit a couple of different places in our lineup, trying to get it going. More than anything, the fact that he just wasn't healthy. ... He did the best he could with what he had. It came to the point that he just wasn't able to compete anymore."

It also was hard for Helton to lead the club through its early struggles. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who has been on the disabled list twice and is only starting to display the consistency and uncanny leadership he showed last year as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, understands.

"It's been tough for both of us this year," said Tulowitzki, who admitted going through a stage where he altered his throws to first base because Helton, a three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, wasn't there. "I know, speaking for myself, it's tough to be the same leader, because I haven't played as well and I've been hurt a little. It shouldn't be that way, but it is."

Rockies players, however, stop way short of using Helton's injury as a crutch.

"I don't know if there's a secret formula he brings to the table," relief pitcher Brian Fuentes said. "You can't say, 'If Todd was here, the season would be different.' Do I wish he was here? Of course. Everybody wishes he was here in the locker room. He's not, so we have to move on and we have to play hard until he gets back."

But there's no denying that Helton defines leadership. During a discussion of another subject at midseason, right fielder Brad Hawpe turned the focus to No. 17.

"We've been very fortunate to play next to Helton," Hawpe said. "That's where it all starts."

Helton has shown a special trait for teaching without standing in front of the class. Outfielder Cory Sullivan, who was sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs on Thursday, recalled Helton subtly giving him a revealing tip about hitting posture.

"It could be in the training room or could be in the weight room," Sullivan said. "You almost have to be aware that he's doing it. It's just little pieces, knowledge of the game."

This highlights a unique dynamic among teammates.

Theoretically, Helton could provide the same leadership, even when hurt.

What's to stop him from dropping tidbits? What's to stop him from agonizing through his rehab right in front of his teammates before games? Is there a reason he can't hang in the clubhouse and talk sense into players when they need it? Is there anything stopping him from putting a finger on what's missing?

Logically, no. But that has nothing to do with being a good teammate.

"I probably could," Helton said. "But it's hard for me to critique the team when I don't really feel like I'm out there doing it. If you're on the outside, you become not a part of it. Therefore it becomes criticism.

"I can say we stink if I'm out there playing. But if I say we stink now and I'm not out there playing, well ... It's like saying, 'You stink.'"

In that position, all Helton can do is stay out of the way.

"I just don't want to get in these guys' way when they're preparing to get ready for a baseball game," Helton said. "I know that's how I am. You don't have the same focus when you know you're not going to go out there and play.

"You've got no pressure on you. Your only pressure is just to try to get better. Me not having that, it just distracts from what these guys are trying to get done."

In the big picture, the Rockies have made the most of Helton's injury. That stems, in part, from Hurdle's unbending optimism and always entering a situation with Plans B and C. Talent has even more to do with how the club has responded.

Ian Stewart, whose power has been a huge part of recent victories, is an example. Stewart's swing has given Garrett Atkins a chance to move from third base to first, a more natural position for him. Helton is signed through 2011, but if he is limited in future years, it looks as if the Rockies are in good shape.

But do the Rockies have anyone who has what it takes to will the club through tough games? Eventually, the younger group must develop that for the Rockies to become a consistent contender.

Right now, the proven leader has other priorities.

"Pretty much, I'm just trying to get better," Helton said. "It's hard [enough] being on the 15-day DL. Being that you're not going to be back longer than that, on the 60-day DL, is definitely no fun.

"It's very hard, because you want to lead by example. I'm not going to tell somebody how to do something if I'm not going to do it myself."

For another comeback, Rockies who have leaned on Helton will have to find the way themselves.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.