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Helton out to prove he's not finished
The Colorado Rockies’ clubhouse doors open shortly after 7:30 a.m. First baseman Todd Helton is seated in front of his locker, having already begun his workout routine. He is intent on making sure that nothing is left to chance in his bid to reignite his career at age 37.
“I don’t think any spring is that big a deal,’’ he said. “But the regular season. … It’s a different story. … It’s make or break for me.”
Helton has had the type of career that at least will have fans debating his Hall of Fame worthiness once he retires. He has been the face of the franchise, the Rockies’ first-round draft choice in 1995. It was Helton thrusting his hand in the air, punctuating his walk-off home run against the Dodgers in the third win of the Rockies’ season-ending 14-of-15 dash into the 2007 postseason, which fans and teammates point to as the moment they began to believe the Rockies could rally.
And then there was 2010.
A five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, Helton has had months better than the season he had a year ago. Eight home runs and 37 RBI? In 118 games?
“It’s very reasonable to say I stunk,’’ Helton said.
And Helton has had too sweet a career to be able to accept the stench.
This isn’t about money. He has a $19.1 million salary for this year, $13.1 million of which he agreed to defer to help create payroll flexibility, and he can stay around for the 2012 and 2013 seasons at $4.9 million and $5 million, respectively.
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This is about doing what Helton feels he is supposed to do, not paid to do. This is about being a contributing factor to a lineup that the Rockies feel is good enough to make them a factor in the NL West. Of course, the Rockies felt they were good enough to win the West last year.
However, the offense was missing. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez had impact seasons but no supporting cast. Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta and Seth Smith didn’t take the step forward that was anticipated, but they still are considered part of the future.
For Helton, it’s not about the future. It’s about today. He knows he is on the backside of his career. He doesn’t want to hang around just to hang around. But he is in no hurry to walk away.
"I've got to go out there and prove to myself that I can be a player that's going to help this team win,” Helton said. “I don’t have doubts but I do have questions that have to be answered.”
Helton began looking for the answers in the offseason, undergoing a revamped workout program. It’s not like he lay around a year ago. But a year removed from back surgery, and having played a key part in the Rockies’ NL wild-card berth in 2009, Helton had a wakeup call when he couldn’t answer the call for offensive help in 2010.
“I wanted to be stronger physically, stronger mentally,” he said of his new offseason approach. “I want to have a better year. I want to make the team better.
“I expect my worst day this year to be better than my best day last year.”
The Rockies aren’t looking for a miraculous resurgence from Helton. They aren’t expecting batting titles or home run crowns anymore. What they want is a veteran hitter who regains his ability to drive the ball and can provide middle-of-the-lineup protection for the 3-4 punch of Gonzalez and Tulowitzki.
Helton won’t outline any particularly numbers.
“The number that matters is wins; enough wins to win a division,” he said.
The Rockies would be pleased if he hit .280, drove in 90 runs and hit 20-plus home runs. They are looking at him playing closer to 120 games than the 150-plus games that he regularly did in his earlier years.
“The goal can’t be to get on the field and get through the day,” Helton said. “I have to be able to play the game well
“I am not going to baby my back, but I have to take care of my body. I learned that from last year.”
Now he has a lesson he’d like to teach others: He still has some life left in that body and production left in that bat.
“I want to prove to myself I can still do the job, and I want to prove to people who think I’m at the end that they are wrong,” he said. “I have dealt with the first hurdle. I have proven to myself that I can get to the point where I feel good. That’s something for me to build on during the season.”
It’s a remodeling job for the franchise’s old foundation. And so far, the Rockies like the way the work is evolving.
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