DENVER -- It was the spring of 1996. Todd Helton, the Rockies' first-round Draft choice the year before, was a Spring Training invite, and stepped into the cage for his first round of big league batting practice.
After three swings, Rockies manager Don Baylor turned to an observer and explained he was going to have a meeting with the organizational staff and "make sure everyone knows that if anyone touches that kid's swing they are fired. That's a Hall of Fame swing."
Nobody ever touched the swing.
Nobody ever had to.
It served Helton and the Rockies well.
So well, in fact, that on Sunday afternoon the Rockies honored Helton, who retired at the end of last season, by making his No. 17 the first retired number in franchise history.
"It's not something you think about," Helton said, "but when it happens, it is amazing. To have your number retired by a team you play with [your entire career]. … Anytime you walk into the stadium, you will see that number up there. It's incredible."
But then Helton was incredible.
He was a five-time All-Star, and three-time Gold Glove winner, and his career .996 fielding percentage is the sixth best for a first baseman in history.
He ranks among the top 100 all-time in average (.316, 69th), on-base percentage (.414, 26th all-time), slugging percentage (.539, 36th all-time), hits (2,519, 93rd all-time), total bases (4,292, 58th all-time), doubles (592, 16th all-time), home runs (369, 75th all-time), RBIs (1,406, 72nd all-time) and walks (1,335, 35th all-time).
Hall of Fame type numbers?
"Obviously, that would be a great honor, but there's nothing I can do about that," he said. "You have the vote."
Just one, he was told.
"Well," he said with a smile, "put in a good word for me."
Helton's biggest challenge will be overcoming the Coors Field Factor.
Yes, his home-road splits are significant. Helton hit .345 at home and.287 on the road, a 58-point differential. His home OPS was 1.048 compared to .855 on the road, a 193-point differential. He had a .441 on-base percentage at home compared to .386 on the road, a 55-point differential. And his .607 home slugging percentage was 138 points higher than the .469 slugging percentage on the road.
No question, Helton had a significant edge at Coors Field in his offensive production.
But should he be a victim of his own success.
Sitting on the bench in Tiger Stadium prior to Game 3 of the 1984 American League Championship Series, former Royals third baseman George Brett, who is in the Hall of Fame, was asked what he might have accomplished if he spent his career in that park, with its right-field overhang, instead of spacious Royals Stadium with its artificial surface.
"I'd probably been Darrell Evans," he said. "I'd have hit .250, .260 with 400-and-some home runs. As a hitter, you become a product of your park. You have to take advantage of where you are going to play half your games.
"The reason I became the hitter I am is because of Royals Stadium."
And here's something else to consider.
As dominant as he was at Coors Field, Helton outplayed the bulk of Hall of Famers on the road.
There are 116 position players in the Hall of Fame who had at least 4,000 plate appearances since 1912, which is how far back the home-road splits extend for Stats Inc. Among those 116 position players:
• Helton's .287 road batting average is higher than 45.
• Helton's .386 road on-base percentage is higher than 84.
• Helton's .469 road slugging percentage is higher than 74.
• And Helton's .855 road OPS is higher than 78.
And Helton even ranks well among the smaller group of 21 Hall of Fame first basemen who have had at least 4,000 plate appearances since 1912.
Johnny Mize, Stan Musial, Orlando Cepeda, Lou Gehrig, Billy Terry and Jimmie Foxx are the only ones who are ahead of Helton on the road in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.
Helton has higher numbers in all four categories than Ernie Banks, Jim Bottomley and Tony Perez.
He has a higher road on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS than Rod Carew and George Kelly.
And a higher on-base percentage, average and OPS than Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray.
Not that Helton has ever paid that much attention.
"I just came to work every day and played as hard as I could," said Helton. "Some days it was enough and some days it wasn't."
And Sunday was Helton's day, celebrating a career that was as much good fortune as good planning.
For all that Helton did in Colorado, it would have never happened without the Padres and the A's.
The Padres selected Helton in the second round out of high school, and it appeared he was ready to sign. When then Padres scouting director Reggie Waller showed up at Helton's house with the contract, the bonus was smaller than had been agreed upon.
Helton remembered Waller trying to blame it on a clerical mistake and offered to race Helton for double or nothing. Helton declined the race and the contract, and went to Tennessee where he was an All-American in baseball and the Vols quarterback in between Heath Schuler and Peyton Manning.
Three years later, the late Dick Bogard, scouting director of the A's, was set to take Helton with the fifth selection in the first round of the 1995 Draft. The morning of the Draft, however, then A's general manager Sandy Alderson informed Bogard that the team needed a pitcher, not a hitter, and ordered the selection of Cuban defector Ariel Prieto, who had been pitching for the Palm Springs, Calif., independent league team.
After the Marlins selected Jamie Jones and the Rangers took Jonathan Johnson, Rockies scouting director Pat Daugherty didn't hesitate in calling Helton's name.
Helton answered -- in a big way.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.