KLEE: Almost two decades later, Todd Helton's roots grew deep

By Paul Klee Updated: September 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm • Published: September 21, 2013 | 4:25 pm 0
photo - Arizona's Eric Byrnes lays next to home plate Monday, October 15, 2007 at Coors Field, as Todd Helton celebrates the last out of their NLCS series, sending Colorado to it's first World Series. Mark Reis photo
Arizona's Eric Byrnes lays next to home plate Monday, October 15, 2007 at Coors Field, as Todd Helton celebrates the last out of their NLCS series, sending Colorado to it's first World Series. Mark Reis photo

DENVER - Once the rumor leaked, Bob Gebhard boarded a plane to Knoxville.

For weeks leading into the 1995 MLB draft, the Rockies, and their general manager, were scouting under the assumption Todd Helton would be chosen by the Oakland Athletics at No. 5. The Rockies didn't pick until No. 8.

Their plan was to draft pitching, again, because that's what teams playing at 5,280 feet do.

"Then about a week to 10 days before the draft, (scouting director) Pat Daugherty called me," Gebhard said. "He said, 'You need to go see this Helton kid. I'm hearing he might slide to us in the draft.'"

With Gebhard in the stands, Helton hit a home run that night.

The A's drafted pitching, a right-handed prospect named Ariel Prieto.

The Rockies drafted a first baseman from the University of Tennessee.

"A lot of things went right for us to be able to draft Todd Helton," Gebhard told me.

More than 2,230 games and 2,500 hits later, the central figure of the Rockies franchise enters the final week of his career. Helton has six games left, three at home.

How did he get here? Where did it start? It could be said that Helton's loyalty to his roots are what allowed him to grow a 17-year career with the same team.

With a left-handed swing linked to Coors Field as closely as altitude, and a Ducks Unlimited sticker in his clubhouse locker, his roots are apparent, daily.

These are his roots with the Rockies.

"Todd was in Asheville, N.C. I went down to watch him in the playoffs," said Paul Egins, a member of the Rockies player development staff at the time. "He hadn't hit a homer yet, and he was concerned about that."

Egins noticed Helton was standing way off the plate, far enough that pitchers weren't pitching him away. They were pitching him right down the pipe.

"They struck him out a couple times that day," Egins said. "After the game, he said, 'Were those strikes?' And I said, 'Yeah, Todd. They were strikes.' He said, 'Really?'

"Then they threw a pitch inside. It would have hit a normal left-handed hitter. He hit that one out of the ballpark. And I said, 'That one was a ball, too, but you hit a home run.'"

On this long baseball road, there were detours. All led him to the same place: Colorado.

There was a detour to left field. Yes, Todd Helton in left field.

"We had Big Cat playing first base," Gebhard said, referring to Andres Galarraga. "But being a dual-sport athlete (at Tennessee), we certainly felt Todd could play another position."

The left-field experiment was brewed up in the Instructional League. Helton has lasted longer in a deer stand than he did in left field.

"Todd didn't like it. I don't think he spent two weeks in left field," Egins said. "Let's just say it wasn't like a duck to water."

His roots were at first base, and it will be a strange sight next season when Helton's not there.

"You hear all the time: Why didn't you smile more out there on the field? Why didn't you show more emotion? Because I was out there trying my hardest," Helton said. "To me, when you're out there trying your hardest, it's hard to smile all the time.

"Let me tell you: I was enjoying myself. I was enjoying every minute I spent out there."

Gebhard said these attributes drew the Rockies to Helton in the 1995 draft:

Plus hitter. Smart player. Intense competitor. Leadership in the dugout.

"We weren't sure how much power he would have. We thought he could hit 20 homers, maybe," Egins said. "But we did know he would hit some doubles."

He hit 589. Only 15 players have hit more.

"I know a lot of baseball guys, and I've been in a lot of baseball locker rooms, and I know that Todd Helton has the respect of all his opponents and peers," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a close friend from their days at Tennessee.

In Helton's first spring training, it was understood the first-round pick would work with the big leaguers before being sent down to the minors.

That included a demotion in hotels.

The big-league guys stayed in the Viscount Suite Hotel. The minor leaguers holed up in the Aztec Inn.

"That in itself can tell you the difference in the two hotels," Egins said.

Soon after switching hotels, Helton cornered Egins in the clubhouse.

"Todd looks at me and says: 'I don't like being in the minor-league hotel,'" Egins said. "Next year I'm going to be in the major-league hotel."

He stayed for a while.

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Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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