Helton is bubbling with new enthusiasm
Rockies first baseman Todd Helton gets more recognition when he has a bat in his hands, but he's just as comfortable wearing a glove, as evidenced at yesterdays workout. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
DENVER - Todd Helton had always wondered what it really, truly felt like. Yes, he'd been sprayed with champagne and doused with beer in celebrations this October - they come about once every 12 years for the Rockies, and he wasn't around for the first. But this one was different from the wild-card clinching win over the Padres and the sweep of the Phillies in the Division Series.
It wasn't the champagne. It wasn't the beer. It was the occasion.
"We're going to the World Series," Helton said amid the clamor of the Rockies clubhouse on the night they clinched their first National League pennant with a four-game sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series. "You always dream and hope and imagine what it might be like, but you don't know how good it is until you get here. You can't.
"You see other teams doing it and you say, 'That looks kind of cool.' But when you actually do it? It's totally different."
Is there any more deserving participant in the 2007 World Series than Helton, who has been the face of the Rockies since he broke in, full time, in 1998? Most of the times, that face resembled Phyllis Diller more than Julianne Moore, even as Helton was putting up numbers that placed him in the rarefied air of guys like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams.
This year, after 11 seasons and 1,578 games, the 34-year-old Helton had his initial postseason experience, an experience that came about so rapidly and astonishingly and has proceeded with such swiftness that he and his teammates probably needed the eight days of down time before the World Series to fully savor it all. They've won 21 of their last 22 games.
In his 10 full seasons with the Rockies, Helton has never hit less than .302 and has a lifetime average of .332. He led the majors in 2000 with a .372 average. He's a hitting machine; he has 33 four-hit games in his career, has 20 hitting streaks of 10 or more games, and leads the majors in batting average and doubles in the 21st century.
He's the only player in major league history to have 10 consecutive seasons with 35 or more doubles. Entering this season, he was one of five players with a career batting average in excess of .330, a .400 on-base percentage, and a .590 slugging percentage with a minimum of 3,000 at-bats. The other four? Gehrig, Williams, Babe Ruth, and Albert Pujols.
But Helton amassed all of those gawdy numbers for generally mediocre-at-best Colorado teams, teams that would obligingly bow out at the end of September to allow the winners to continue and to allow Helton, a Tennessee native, to go into full hunting mode. And it appeared this October would be no different because the Rockies were a so-so 76-72 in mid-September, well behind in both the division and wild-card races.
Then, on Sept. 16, Helton hit his 300th career home run as part of a 13-0 win over Florida, a win that started them on their unbelievable run of 21 wins in 22 games. Two nights later came No. 301, a walkoff shot off the Dodgers' Takashi Saito to complete a sweep of a doubleheader, which, according to several Colorado players, was the "shot heard 'round the Rockies." Helton hit a scalding .390 in September as Colorado rallied to force a wild-card tie with San Diego.
They beat the Padres in 13 innings for the wild card, and the rest - as in 7-0 in the postseason - is history.
"I wish there was a word to describe it, that could actually live up to what I feel," said Helton. "But I would be doing a disservice if I tried. But any time you can make grown men celebrate like this, you've done something special."
It would be silly, not to mention negligent, to focus on Helton as a hitter and ignore his defense, for here is one of the game's purest-fielding first basemen around. He hasn't committed an error since June 14 when the Rockies were in Boston, the second of two all season. He's had the best fielding percentage for a first baseman in the National League on four occasions, including the last two seasons. He's won three Gold Gloves.
And it was Helton's mitt that secured the final out of the 2007 NLCS, a grounder to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, whose throw to first beat Arizona's Eric Byrnes. Once he caught the ball, Helton looked skyward, raised his arms and closed his eyes as if to say, "Finally!" He soon was seen carrying daughter Tierney around the infield at Coors Field and later in the clubhouse, soaking it all in.
"We came a long way to get where we're at," he said. "We always believed. We're here. We knew we were a good ball club, but knowing you're a good ball club and actually going out and doing it is two different things. We actually walked the walk."
And here's what makes it truly special for Helton: He's going to the World Series wearing a Rockies uniform. It was hard to make that connection for so long, and Helton almost was traded to the Red Sox earlier this year for Mike Lowell and a couple of relief pitchers. Reportedly, the deal died when the Sox wouldn't include Manny Delcarmen and the Rockies wouldn't assume more of Helton's hefty contract, which runs through 2012. It appears to have worked out for both sides.
"I always said I wanted to do it as a Rocky, and I always said it would be unbelievable and that much more special," he said. "And I was right. This means everything."