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- Retired Major League Baseball first baseman
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It's about over for Todd Helton, at 37.
"Thirty-nine," he corrected.
"Thanks for the benefit of the doubt."
Early Sunday morning, before many of the young men who are the future of the Colorado Rockies would arrive at Salt River Fields, Helton poured a cup of coffee, fell into a chair, patted the one beside him.
"What's up?" he said.
He arrived 18 years ago, the quarterback-turned-franchise-first-baseman, in a draft of Darin Erstad, Kerry Wood, Roy Halladay and Carlos Beltran. The Colorado Rockies were a couple years old. He was a big-leaguer by the summer of '97, second to Wood as Rookie of the Year in '98, a 35-homer guy in '99, a batting champion in '00, filthy rich by '01.
Now, nearing his 17th season, more than 2,400 hits in, 354 homers in, back and hip ailments having stolen a couple hundred games and countless at-bats, Helton looks and acts and talks like a man who's probably had enough. The greatest Rockie, Helton has not said he will walk away after 2013. But, his contract will expire then. He has two children at home. The travel is a bear. And his body, though hale enough for the moment, not only resists the rigors of a daily game, it sometimes flat refuses to cooperate.
"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.
He's a smart guy, an engaging guy, by all accounts a good guy. He hates the DUI he foolishly drew going on three weeks ago, a decision he has called "a monumental mistake." He's apologized. And it will sting for a while, as it should.
For going on two decades, the game was better for him. The Rockies were more legitimate for him. He was, is, can be an elegant, determined player who lived the mood swings of the organization. Sometimes it worked, once all the way to the World Series. Most times, it didn't. And the rest of the time Helton strapped an ice bag to his back and made the best of it.
"My head's in a lot better place than it had been in previous springs," he said.
"Just is, just is," he said. "I'm just ready."
"We're talking about baseball here," he said.
Helton didn't play Saturday, when the Rockies opened their spring schedule against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He wouldn't play Sunday either. The plan is to go slow with Helton, whose 2012 season ended with early-August hip surgery. He'd trudge through the usual drills on a cool Sunday morning when a stiff wind reddened his face and ears.
"I think I just realize," he said, "my career is coming to a, um …"
As if he wasn't sure how to say it.
He shrugged. Why bother? Helton has almost always said what he's thinking. What's real.
"Coming to an end," he continued. "And with that in your mind, it's easier to be more focused every day, enjoying it a little more, slow yourself down, really to be in the moment. Good or bad, in the moment."
When you're 23 and in the big leagues, not only do you believe tomorrow's coming, you believe it'll be better. Richer. When you're leading the league in hits and RBI, and your home field is the best hitter's park ever built, you believe it can't ever end. When you're 34 and your back seizes up, it's going to get better, and you're going to turn on the ball again, and the Rockies will be good again, because surely they'll figure out a way to pitch in that place. And then, damn, second place in the NL West becomes third, then fourth, then you lose 98 games – ninety-eight – and you're in last place and the manager just freakin' quits. It's like managers don't quit except in Colorado, because sometimes it seems just hopeless, but even then you don't believe that.
And then suddenly you're 39, coming up fast enough on 40, and what the stat line doesn't say your body does. So maybe this is the last spring training for Helton, then the last season. On a Sunday morning five weeks before opening day, hits from the '70s are coming out of the clubhouse speakers, a guy who looks like a cheap Zach Galifianakis knockoff is standing in the middle of the room, the coffee is hot and some dude said 37 instead of 39.
"I realize I'm never going to be sitting here in this moment again," Helton said. "Pretty deep, huh?
"There are many factors in this. My family. What it's like to be away from home. It sucks. I love everything about this, but the travel sucks."
"That it?" he asked.
Well, no. But it seems he's done.
Helton nodded his head in a polite goodbye, then crossed through the middle of the clubhouse. When he passed the guy with the floppy hair and long, tangled beard, a smile crept over his face. Helton tapped him on the shoulder.
"Dude," he said, "loved you in The Hangover. You were great."
The bearded guy looked up at Helton, perplexed.
Yeah, the Rockies are going to miss him. The game, too.
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