TUCSON, Ariz. – Todd Helton was working on three hours' sleep, and it wasn't good sleep, either. He wasn't in his familiar bed, the one at the house he has rented here for years during Colorado Rockies spring training. When he thought the Rockies were going to trade him to the Boston Red Sox in January, he canceled the reservation. If ever there were an appropriate time for the song "Bad Day" to be straining through the boombox in a room full of testosterone-fueled grown men, this was it.
"Well, that's something we're dealing with," Helton said, and while he meant trying to get back into the house, it could've applied to every facet of his baseball life: dealing with a precipitous decline in production, dealing with the Rockies essentially saying they could live without their franchise first baseman and now dealing with the prospect of returning to a Colorado team hoping to pass .500 while the Red Sox aim to win the World Series.
Asked if the entire incident had left him sour, Helton said, "No comment," which is the kind of thing smart men say when faced with such questions.
The look on his face said something different, of course: Helton is still miffed, even if he did claim he was "happy" to be with the Rockies after the deal was spiked.
So now he waits for a resolution in a situation that seems rather simple: Helton is dissatisfied with his situation in Colorado. Colorado is leery of Helton's ability to produce $90.1 million worth over six years. It's not like they're feuding parents staying together for the sake of the kids.
Perhaps a fresh start would reinvigorate Helton, who has gone from one of the game's most fearsome hitters at the beginning of the decade – with back-to-back 40-plus homer, 140-plus RBI, 1.100-plus OPS seasons – to one racked first by injuries and currently by self-doubt.
"I've gotten some bad habits," Helton said. "I've gotten lazy in my swing. I wouldn't say the preparation, but in my swing thoughts. Mentally, I haven't been as disciplined as I know I can be, and that results in bad habits.
"I'm not going to come close to try and make (an excuse). I had bad years. I still expect to do better. You always strive to be the best. Anything less is pretty much unacceptable. So I pretty much haven't accepted myself the last couple of years."
Certainly a fresh start for Helton would clear the Rockies of his salary that cripples their $55 million payroll. A $15 million-a-year player should put up MVP numbers, and, as Helton admitted, "I don't feel that way anymore. I can't feel like it if I'm not doing it. I'm not going to sit here and lie to myself. Do I expect to get there again? Yeah. I feel like I can.
"A lot of people out there don't. So I can either pout about it or put my head down and use it to my advantage and try to prove people wrong."
Helton has regained the weight he lost last season when acute terminal ileitis, an inflammation of the small intestine, sapped him of his energy. Though not fit like he was as a quarterback at the University of Tennessee, Helton looks strong for 33. Though as eager as he was to revive his career after hitting .302 with 15 home runs, 81 RBIs and a career-low .476 slugging percentage, Helton teased the Rockies a bit.
Habitually early to spring training – "Every year I tell myself I'm going to come down the 15th, and Feb. 1 I'm itching to go," Helton said – he did hold back this year, opting to work out in Denver before arriving Friday, still a week before position players are required to report.
"I don't know if he's carrying a wound," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think that would be hypothetical, at least from where I stand. At times, in players' careers – players that have the value and integrity and have done the things Todd has done – if there's a desire to at least explore something, you explore it, because it's the right thing to do."
While Hurdle's logic makes sense, Helton – whether he wanted the Rockies to trade him or felt miffed that they even considered it – doesn't seem to think so. Nor do his teammates, nearly every young pitcher going out of his way to meet Helton on Friday and the others chiming in with support.
"I can't imagine it around here without him," Rockies starter Aaron Cook said. "He's Todd Helton. He's been the Colorado Rockies."
Yet the Rockies are changing. They have outfielder Matt Holliday and third baseman Garrett Atkins, both burgeoning stars, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, expected to be one in his own right. Their starting rotation goes young and deep and their farm system is flush thanks to the long-time-coming overhaul from general manager Dan O'Dowd, now in his eighth season.
The Rockies' rebuilding was supposed to be like one of Stalin's five-year plans, and Helton was supposed to be the coal and iron that fueled them. But it took three years longer than anticipated and now Helton, too, seems to want change, and not only with his physical condition or his mental approach at the plate.
Never one to grow his facial hair past some stubble, Helton showed up with a goatee thick enough to house a family of sparrows.
"I have my reasons for having it on there," he said, and when asked whether he'd care to divulge those reasons, he said no.
Maybe it's just Todd Helton's way of dealing, something he never needed to understand before and something with which he has become intimately familiar.