DENVER -- Through the phone, you could sense the smile on Rockies veteran first baseman Todd Helton's face on Wednesday. That smile -- the one that said, yes, at age 39 and coming off right hip surgery, Helton will be back for his 17th season in 2013 -- started a day earlier during a batting session at Coors Field. "I usually don't hit until the first of the year, with Christmas being over," Helton said. "My first day was nothing to get excited about -- I was just getting some feel back. But yesterday, I was really excited.
"I worked with Pat Burgess, who is our bullpen catcher but who is really good. [Rockies hitters often work with him.] I got to the point where I was seeing the ball where it was pitched. I could hit it hard. It was a good feeling. I kept telling him, 'Wow, that was a lot of fun.'" Last season, Helton battled through pain for 69 games (.238, never climbing above .270, seven homers, 37 RBIs), before undergoing surgery Aug. 10 to repair a torn labrum in his hip. Helton said at the time he wanted to return, but until Wednesday he had been quiet about whether he could or truly wanted to go through the grind again. The Rockies hoped it would happen and nudged him in that direction. New manager Walt Weiss said he told Helton, "You'll be able to hit a ball in the gap when you're 52, so don't tell me you can't hit anymore." Before committing publicly, Helton put his full effort into the rehab exercises and proper eating that it normally takes to be ready for a season. Having put his hip through "way more violent" activities during training, Helton said he knew his body would be able to handle swinging the bat. All he has experienced since entering the cage is the usual midsection soreness "any 40-year-old who starts hitting would have." "It's not the actual games that I had to decide I wanted to do -- everyone wants to play those," Helton said. "It's the travel, talking to you guys [in the media], the meetings, the time away from the family, those things. I don't think as you get older the love for the game dies any." Helton, who turns 40 on Aug. 20, said his goal is to be ready for the start of the regular season, which means don't expect to see him in extensive action during Spring Training. He expects to play first base on a regular basis -- not serve as a pinch-hitter, the way Jason Giambi did for the Rockies from late 2009 through last season. To do that, he must pace himself. "If the season opened two weeks from now, I could play, but I don't know how long I'd last," Helton said. "That being said, the target date I have in mind is to be out there at the start of the season, and my goal is to get through the dadgum season." Helton said he will be open with Weiss about how he feels, and he realizes the Rockies have options such as Michael Cuddyer, Jordan Pacheco and Tyler Colvin for the days when he's not able to play. "I'm not out to just say, 'I'm the first baseman,' and be a detriment to the team," Helton said. "I think I'll know if that's the case. Hopefully I'm not blinded by anything. I expect to go out and help the team. "Cuddyer is an established Major League player who is in the prime of his career. Pacheco is an up-and-coming star who sprays the ball all over the field and is never off-balance at the plate. Colvin just keeps getting better. Those guys can do just fine." Helton, who restructured his contract a few seasons back to give the Rockies payroll room, is due $5 million in the final year of the deal. With five All-Star Game invitations, three Gold Glove Awards, one batting title and 2,420 career hits -- all with the Rockies -- Helton can increase his Hall of Fame credentials by staying on the field. But it's not clear how long he will continue to play. He said he purposely doesn't keep track of his stats, so that's not a motivator. But he knows that when his career is finished, it will be hard to replace those days when the calendar turns and he climbs into the batting cage and starts swinging. "You're so trained to, bam, now that Christmas is over and it's a new year, it's time to get back into baseball mode and start hitting," Helton said. "When I retire and that's gone, it's going to be very hard to decide what to focus on. I think I'll go to Africa for a safari."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.