Fresh mountain air

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX – Only the goatee remains. The rest of Todd Helton's face from the first day of the Colorado Rockies' spring training has vanished.

The scrunch of his nose, the furrow of his brow, the snarl of his lip – all signs that Helton would rather be anywhere else. Maybe a mortuary or the elephant cage at the zoo or purgatory. Because, hey, the Colorado Rockies – Helton's Colorado Rockies – seemed a dead-end franchise that stunk and wasn't going anywhere.

Now, just the goatee, still bushy, though much better kempt. It matches the glow on Helton's face. His eyes flitted around the Rockies' clubhouse Wednesday, and he smiled, and he joked with Kazuo Matsui, and … wait. The Rockies, playing in October? The Colorado Rockies? Helton's Colorado Rockies, the franchise that couldn't, or at least hadn't, causing him to entertain a proposed trade to the Boston Red Sox this offseason?

All of this is a little much, seeing as just 231 days ago, Helton showed up at Rockies camp in Tucson, Ariz., looking worn and defeated, and currently he looks reborn and completed.

Winning is baseball's Botox. And the Rockies, victorious in 17 of their last 18 games, kick off the National League Championship Series on Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field having taken revitalizing shot after shot, none more than the first baseman who needed it most.

"There's not many stories that work out with good endings in the game of baseball," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It's filled more with heartbreak than it is great moments.

"Well, this is a good story."

It's one that begins Aug. 2, 1997, in the eighth inning, against Pittsburgh reliever Marc Wilkins. In his first major-league game, Todd Helton hit a home run, and though the Rockies knew they panned a whopper of a nugget when they selected him in the first round two years earlier, no one could have expected to unearth one of the greatest hitters of this generation.

All Helton has done in his 11 seasons with the Rockies is hit. Pull it, slice it, poke it, gap it, pummel it – the ball tends to be no match for Helton's left-handed swing, pretty more in its efficiency than in the fashion of Will Clark or Rafael Palmeiro, whose swings looked like they were diagrammed by da Vinci.

Problem was, few noticed Helton's numbers – his .332 career batting average ranks second among active players and 21st overall since 1900 – because the Rockies never gave good reason. Since Helton joined Colorado full-time in 1998, its best season has been the 82-80 of 2000. They ran off managers Don Baylor, Jim Leyland and Buddy Bell before settling on Clint Hurdle, who had led them to four fourth-place finishes and a last-place showing before this season.

For 1,578 games, Helton's lone view of the postseason came from the television. When the Rockies beat San Diego in a one-game playoff to capture the NL wild card, the champagne bottles Helton popped served as an apropos metaphor for himself.

"I don't think you can put it into words," Helton said. "It's kind of like somebody asking you, 'Well, how'd you feel when your first child was born?' You can throw any adjective you want out there and it's really not going to do it justice."

Elated. Fulfilled. Relieved. All work, and so many more, too, because Helton didn't break his streak like Arizona's Jeff Cirillo, a bench player in his first postseason after 1,617 games. Helton raked in September, his .390 batting average third in the major leagues among those with 100 at-bats and his 1.107 on-base-plus-slugging his highest of any month this season.

On Sept. 18, with the Rockies hanging by a thread of dental floss, Helton blasted a game-winning two-run home run off Los Angeles closer Takashi Saito to complete a doubleheader sweep and propel the Rockies toward what would become an 11-game winning streak. Over the next two weeks, the Rockies morphed from afterthoughts to baseball's darlings, their young talent tantalizing while the old standby at first base sopped in some long-overdue admiration.

"I think it's cool," Helton said. "What am I supposed to think? I appreciate anybody who watches us and supports us, even if it is for just a brief moment."

Granted, Helton's production has dropped off considerably since his peak. He is 34, and while his .320 batting average and .928 OPS suffice almost anywhere, they don't jibe with a $16.6 million salary this season and another $74.5 million owed over the next four years. Though Rockies ownership has promised to up its gaunt payroll significantly next season, it does not take away that Helton is a lobster tail in the soup kitchen.

Still, O'Dowd said he does not plan on actively seeking Helton's departure this offseason, particularly if the Rockies continue to win and build upon a legacy that, to this juncture, had focused more on their ballpark and its ability for video-game scores than the players wearing black and purple.

"Unless something unforeseen comes up, like that situation," O'Dowd said, "there's no impetus to do anything."

That O'Dowd would even discuss the machinations of January and February came as a surprise. The Helton trade is like Lord Voldemort – That Which Cannot Be Named – and generally considered off-limits, or at least pooh-pooh'd.

Because, really, what does it matter anymore? Helton got impatient. Can't blame him for that. O'Dowd held his ground. Can't blame him for that. And something coalesced. Matt Holliday grew into an MVP-caliber player, Troy Tulowitzki did his best Derek Jeter imitation, Jeff Francis matured into an ace, the Rockies' power bullpen arms blew through players and all the while Helton pulled and sliced and poked and gapped and pummeled.

"Things happen for a reason," O'Dowd said, "and that (trade) didn't happen for a reason."

So now he's here, at Chase Field, where he's hit .375 with a 1.047 OPS and 11 home runs – his second-highest total in any road park. He's here, face of the franchise, hitting cleanup in Game 1 of the biggest series of his life. He's here, new outlook, new beginning, new opportunity.

And right now, there's nowhere else he'd rather be.

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