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Back to his roots

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – The swing looked about the same, left-handed and true as a mother's love, and the number was right, 17 and nothing else, and the goatee – well, it could nest a baby bird. Yeah, that's definitely him.

So if the who question was taken care of, it's time to ask the more important one: What was Todd Helton doing, on a Friday afternoon, about 500 feet from the Colorado Rockies' spring-training clubhouse, playing in a game with a bunch of minor leaguers?

"Good to get back to the roots," Helton said, and you'd swear he had changed his last name to Balboa and was getting ready to pound on a side of beef. When you're a 34-year-old star with a $141.5-million contract and a balky back, the only roots with which you concern yourself are the gray ones sprouting through the noggin.

And yet Helton was here, on a supposed afternoon off, because he was concerned with his swing. Surely Shakespeare got writer's block and Picasso lost his muse once or twice. Neither tried to solve the woes by slumming it with a bunch of kids.

Helton, for his swing's aesthetics, is no artiste. The only thread he shares with one is obsession, and that's rather evident in that a man hitting .320 with a .932 on-base-plus slugging and only three strikeouts in 25 at-bats this spring worries himself enough to forsake rest and relaxation and play – wholly on his own volition, mind you, nary a prod from manager Clint Hurdle.

It's just another sign of the life that last season's World Series run injected into Helton. Much of last spring Helton sulked, a proposed trade to Boston dead and the thought of even more time with a non-contending club disheartening. He had spent his whole career piling up numbers like an abacus without anything to show for it, Dan Marino in spikes.

The timing was perfect. Now Helton sees Matt Holliday, who narrowly missed winning the National League MVP last season, and Troy Tulowitzki, who did the same with Rookie of the Year, and Brad Hawpe, and all of the other kids with whom the Rockies have supplemented him, and it's a challenge, his personal game of keeping up with the Joneses.

"There's a different attitude now," Helton said. "It's a better atmosphere. We know we've got what it takes. It's just a matter of going out and doing it. And I've got to pull my weight."

In Helton's head, that meant a day among the Rockies' union of young and old. On one bench sat Dexter Fowler, the lanky 21-year-old who, someday, may take over center field. And the other was Victor Zambrano, a has-been who forever will be known as the Jeopardy! question to: "The likeliest target to get gang tackled at Shea Stadium."

Zambrano happened to be pitching, too, and Helton worked him to a 3-2 count in his first at-bat before depositing a lazy changeup over the outfield fence.

So, if it ain't broke ...

Oh, it's useless arguing with Helton. He stuck around for a few more hours, biding his time on the bench – they at least allowed him the luxury of DHing – responding to questions from the young and impressionable, goofing around with coaches he had known for years and, for the first time in more than 10 years, showing up at minor-league camp.

It's tough. Sweltering temperatures in all-black uniforms with games that carry on into the afternoon. No matter the beauty of the palm trees that ring the outfield fence and the mountains that linger in the background, it's trying to slog through exhibition games against the same guys nearly every day.

Which is why Helton limited himself to five at-bats and began his walk back toward to Rockies' clubhouse. Along the way, he saw Holliday sitting on a metallic bench and chatting on his cell phone, though he didn't see Holliday's conversation as any kind of barrier.

"Thanks for cheering me on, Matthew," he said.

Holliday nodded.

"I hit a homer, too," Helton said.

Holiday, busy with his phone, mouthed one word.

"Awesome."

Helton walked away, gesturing back at Holliday that he had another hit, a blistering RBI single, so, hey, how about some respect, and Holliday pretty much ignored every word. Little did it occur to him that the sight of a potential Hall of Famer among the proletariat was something you don't see everyday.

He went to minor-league camp on the advice of White Sox slugger Jim Thome, who, like Helton, can't stand the idea of his bat getting slow as do so many others on the downhill slope of 30-something life and did it last year. Helton had hit only one home run this spring, and though last year he batted .320 and got on base more than 43 percent of the time, his power numbers stayed low. Combine his 17 home runs last season with his previous two years (20 and 15) and they just edge past his single-season high of 49.

In fact, Helton's greatest power display this spring came with a 5-ounce bat inside a restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. In honor of former Rockies pitcher Joe Kennedy, a close friend who died of a heart ailment, Helton participated in a charity home run derby on the Nintendo Wii with dozens of current players and, wouldn't you know, he actually won the thing.

A harbinger?

"Nah," Helton said. "It's just timing."

Which, as he now knows, may just be everything.

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