Todd Helton back and better than ever
Rockies first baseman continuing to rake after tough '08
Wrap up the Comeback Player of the Year Award and hand it over to Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies, who's never before had to make any comebacks in an All-Star big league career but is in the midst of a terrific one this season.
Helton reached career milestones of 2,000 hits and 500 doubles this summer and was hitting .320 as a force in the middle of the Rockies batting order -- nothing unusual there for the first baseman who holds every important Colorado hitting record and was a career .328 hitter coming into this season. Except for one thing: He spent last winter rehabilitating from major back surgery after missing half of the 2008 season with the injury.
"That's just part of the game," Helton said. "The tough part last season was not to be able to go out there for my teammates ... not to be as good as I should be."
Helton struggled mightily through the first half of last season, hitting just .266 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 81 games. He went on the disabled list with a strained lower back on July 4 and essentially was done for the year, making just two more pinch-hitting appearances the rest of the season.
"I tried to rehab it during the season, but it didn't work," he said. "I had the surgery right after the season."
Now the real rehab began. Day after day, Helton followed the regimen prescribed by doctors and trainers. At age 35, it was not easy.
"In the grand scheme of things, it was not that bad," Helton said. "You work to get back to normal, everyday activities. The word I'd use for it is 'tedious;' that's the best way to describe it. But compared to a real job, well, it pales by comparison. You're still lucky to do this job."
First base with the Rockies has been Helton's since he arrived in Colorado to stay in late 1997. His career batting average since then was .333 going into this season, third highest in the Major Leagues. He became the model of consistency, the first player in Major League history to hit better than .315 with 25 home runs and 95 RBIs in each of his first seven seasons. The only other players to accumulate seven straight seasons like that at any time in their careers were Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Helton, Gehrig, Ruth, Albert Pujols and Ted Williams are the only five players in Major League history to bat .325 with a .400 on-base percentage and .570 slugging percentage based on a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances.
For Helton, nothing is as important as consistency, for himself and for his team. He was an integral part of a remarkable stretch of 21 wins in 22 games that swept the Rockies into the World Series two years ago. And after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager on May 30, this season's Rockies ran off 17 wins in 18 games and moved from last place in the National League West into postseason contention. It was the same kind of run that took them to the pennant in 2007.
"If you're consistent with your approach every day, even when you're not doing well, good things will eventually happen," Helton said. "That's what happened with us two years ago and again this season."
Besides playing baseball, Helton was a quarterback at the University of Tennessee, where Peyton Manning carved a brilliant career in his way to the NFL. Helton remembers Manning's positives.
"He had a good work ethic," he said. "He was a smart guy."
Over at the University of Mississippi a few years later, backup quarterback Seth Smith might have noticed the same things about Manning's brother, Eli.
Now Smith and Helton are teammates with the Rockies, and their mutual quarterback roots with the Manning brothers creates the possibility of some interesting road-trip conversations about SEC football.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.