On March 11, 2010 Todd Helton signed a contract extension with the Colorado Rockies, ensuring that he would never wear another uniform. In his press conference, Helton (a man notorious for few words) uttered a simple, poetic statement that reminded an entire region why he was a legend, even without a world championship.
"This is a great commitment for the both the organization and me," Helton said in a team release. "Potentially it allows us to continue to put a championship caliber club on the field and allows me the opportunity to finish my career as a Colorado Rockie. Because I am a Rockie."
Those words marked the beginning of a 2010 season that has proved a bittersweet ride for the Colorado Rockies. Struggling with injuries and again falling short of lofty preseason expectations, the Rockies have been a victim of bad luck and their own inconsistent play. There are signs of hope, however, with Troy Tulowitzki finally rejoining the team after six weeks recovering from a broken wrist and Carlos Gonzalez absolutely hitting the cover off the ball. The other team leader, Helton, has spent the last few weeks hovering between traveling with the team and making rehab starts in the minors. What started as a season of hope and expectation has become a season full of question marks.
Now, with Helton potentially taking Dexter Fowler's place on the roster, here we are at the crossroads of a great (potentially Hall of Fame worthy) career. Less than 6 months after signing a three year extension ensuring he retires a Rockie, his body has betrayed him once again. First it was the back, then it was the diminishing eyesight, now it's a mysterious "dead leg" robbing him of his power. Todd Helton is now returning down I-25 from a rehab stint in Casper, Wyoming, batting against kids half his age in rookie ball (and not exactly lighting up the boxscore) and now facing an uphill battle inside Coors Field.
The extension both parties worked so hard on over the offseason has now forced the hand of General Manager Dan O' Dowd and the rest of the Rockies staff. The return of Helton has become the most difficult decision this front office has ever had to make, and one that gives them very little chance of success. If Helton returns and struggles, can they truly bench him in a pennant chase? If he plays okay, are they forced to play him through the mediocre production? Can one man's career take precedent over an entire season?
With the other Colorado sports greats, there has always been a moment of truth, some doubt to shade their memory. Elway held the Colts hostage before becoming a Bronco legend. Sakic was close to becoming a New York Ranger. But that was never an issue with Helton. His best years were the worst years of the organization, but he never complained. He always put up great numbers even though he was surrounded by wave after wave of mediocre or rookie players. For almost a decade, he carried an entire franchise on his back without complaint.
This is not a call for Helton to retire mid-season, he deserves far more respect and courtesy. He deserves one more shot on the biggest stage, in the thick of a pennant chase. He stayed loyal to Colorado as they learned how to build a winner at altitude and unfortunately watched his body slowly break down before he was given a fair chance. In a fairer world, Helton would be enjoying pennants instead of spending time on the disabled list, watching the franchise he helped build succeed without him. But what if the game has passed him by, should the team continue to waste their competitive window on an aging first baseman who no longer swings a bat with authority?
History suggests Helton wouldn't allow it. As much as his career has meant to the Rocky Mountain region, Colorado has meant just as much to Todd. They have showed him support and loyalty, given him a long and fruitful career, and his family a place to call home. The man who defined Rocktober will always be a hero in town, and he has nothing left to prove to anyone but himself. This entire season, the franchise has given him time to make his own decision and he has given as much as his body will allow.
No matter what happens from here on out, Todd Helton will decide his career on his own terms, and that's the very least Denver can do for him. Hopefully he is able to give us both a storybook ending one final time.