First baseman Todd Helton, the longest-tenured and arguably greatest player in Colorado Rockies history, announced he will retire at season's end. Helton, who turned 40 on Aug. 20, is in the final year of his contract, and his retirement has been expected all along. However, he declined to make the announcement before now, saying he would be uncomfortable with the inevitable curtain calls, gifts and recognition that come with final visits to various cities.
Finally, Helton announced his retirement to The Denver Post in a story that ran late Saturday night. The decision was typical of a player who wanted to go out in low-key fashion. He did it while the Rockies were on the road, before a Sunday when Denver sports fans were waking up excited about the Broncos' game against the Giants and Peyton Manning's brother, Eli.
Even though he put off the official announcement, he knows the next phase of his life will be difficult.
Todd Helton's stats
"I am sure it will be hard," he told the Post. "A lot of guys say it's the camaraderie and sitting in the clubhouse that they miss. I can go to hunting camp and sit around talking to the guys. I will miss the competition. I love the game. I enjoy it more than people might think. I enjoy preparing, getting myself ready, and going out and battling. I don't know how I am going to replace that."
Helton, a star quarterback in his younger days who played alongside Peyton Manning at Tennessee, was with the Rockies for 17 of their first 21 years of existence, often as the star of a struggling franchise. So he won't be able to hide from the thank yous. Rockies fans will have a chance to honor him properly starting Monday, when Helton begins his final homestand at Coors Field -- nine games against the Cardinals, D-backs and Red Sox. The fans will say goodbye on Todd Helton Bobblehead Day on Sept. 25. His final game will be at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 29.
The Rockies released a statement immediately after the Post's story went public.
"For seventeen years, number '17' has been the icon of Colorado Rockies baseball," Rockies owner, chairman and chief executive officer Dick Monfort said in the statement. "Todd will be missed and our hope is he will be a part of our Colorado baseball family for many more years to come. Thanks Todd!"
Larry Walker won the only National League Most Valuable Player Award in Rockies history, tops several all-time lists and is in the discussion of Hall of Fame inclusion. But Helton was Colorado's first-round Draft pick (eighth overall) in 1995 and has played every one of his 2,235 games in Rockies purple, black and silver. Only 21 players have played more games with just one team. Among active players, only Derek Jeter's 2,602 games in Yankee pinstripes top Helton's tenure with the Rockies.
He will retire as the organization's all-time statistical leader in an abundance of categories, including games, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, runs and walks.
Baseball's all-time lists show Helton accomplished much with the Rockies. Entering his final playing days, Helton is 16th all-time with 586 doubles and 75th with 367 home runs.
|11 (tie).||Paul Molitor||605|
|13.||Cal Ripken Jr.||603|
The bulk of his production came from 1998, his first full season, through 2004. During that period, he averaged 157 games per season and batted .340 with 246 home runs, 326 doubles, a .434 on-base percentage, plus all three of his Gold Glove Awards, all four of his Silver Slugger Awards, and all five of his All-Star Game appearances.
His 2000 season was one for the ages.
Helton hit .372 to win the only National League batting title of his career -- in 2003, he came up for his final plate appearance .0022 points behind the Cardinals' Albert Pujols, only to be intentionally walked. Additionally in '00, he led the NL in RBIs (147), slugging (.698), on-base percentage (.463), OPS (1.162), hits (216), doubles (59), and total bases (405). And he delivered one of his two 40-homer seasons, finishing with 42.
One of the highlights of that year came on Aug. 21, when he singled in the sixth inning to bring his average to .400 -- the latest a player's mark had been that high since the Royals' George Brett on Sept. 4, 1980. Also, in the final game of the season, his three-run, ninth-inning homer off the Braves' John Rocker was not only his 49th of the season, but part of a seven-run ninth inning to come back for a 10-5 win.
It appeared Helton was headed for Hall of Fame status. Injuries, however, slowed him. He continued to be a productive player, hitting .320 in 2007 and .325 in '09. Of course, both were playoff years.
Helton was instrumental in the greatest year in Rockies' history.
The Rockies were competitive in 2007, but seemed destined to fall short in the race for the playoffs. During a 13-0 victory against the Marlins on Sept. 16, Helton hit his 300th career homer and received a curtain call from the fans at Coors -- the first of his career. No one knew the highlights would grow greater.
The game began a club-record 11-game win streak. The third game of the streak, on Sept. 18, was the nightcap of a doubleheader with the Dodgers. Helton stepped up in the bottom of the ninth with the Rockies trailing by a run and got down to one strike, then launched a two-run, game-winning homer off pitcher Takashi Saito to set off a wild celebration. The Rockies won 21 of 22 games from the start of the streak through the National League Championship Series, before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.
Ironically, before that season, the Rockies and Red Sox came close to a trade that would have seen Helton leave the only team he knew. Reports at the time said the Red Sox's refusal to include reliever Manny Delcarmen in the deal was a key factor in it not happening. Delcarmen was dealt to Colorado in 2010.
Helton's ability to fight through his various injuries will be remembered.
Back issues arose in 2002, when Helton considered, but ultimately declined, to have surgery to remove a lipoma -- a benign fatty tumor -- in his back. His production decreased and his pain increased until '08, when he finally underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disc. He recovered quicker than anyone expected and played 151 games, and had 15 home runs and 86 RBIs in a surprisingly productive '09.
When Helton ended last season in August with surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, he knew the end of his career was near. Still, he wanted to go out a player, not a name on the disabled list.
Quietly, Helton began rehabbing and preparing for 2013, but didn't commit publicly to returning until beginning to hit in January. New manager Walt Weiss entered the year with a plan of controlling Helton's playing time so he could make it through the season. But by midseason, Helton was making the lion's share of the starts at first base.
The numbers are not at the level of old -- .244 with 13 home runs and 51 RBIs entering Sunday's finale against the D-backs. But Helton has taken time to enjoy the daily competition, and he provided a brief blast from the past when he hit four home runs and drove in nine runs during a seven-game period, Aug. 30 to Sept. 6.
Although the health reduced his offensive effectiveness, he remained one of the greatest defenders of his time at first base when he was on the field. Helton entered Saturday night with 1,716 assists, second all-time among first basemen to Hall of Famer Eddie Murray's 1,865, and his .996 fielding percentage ranked sixth all time.
"Obviously you have some [regrets]," Helton told the Post. "I always feel and think I could have done more for the team. I wish I could have done everything a little better. I wish we had won more. But I am not going to let it worry me or cause me to not to sleep at night. I know I gave it everything I had."
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.