Manning now backing old pal Helton

Manning now backing old pal Helton

DENVER -- In each of the Rockies' three clinching moments -- the 13-inning Wild Card tiebreaker against the Padres, the National League Division Series sweep of the Phillies and the NL Championship Series sweep of the Diamondbacks -- Todd Helton was in the thick of the action, on base for the walk-off win and squeezing the final out in his mitt for the two sweeps.

Helton had waited 1,578 games without tasting the postseason, the third longest dry spell among active big leaguers, and as he rallied the Rockies to roll on day after day, one of the team's biggest fans watched from afar. Helton's college teammate and good friend, another longstanding successful athlete who had waited nearly as long for that chance at a championship, was riveted to the television, rooting Helton into Rocktober.

"I'm pulling hard for the Rockies," said quarterback Peyton Manning on Thursday after practicing with the reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. "I have watched most of the games, and stayed up late watching them play."

Helton is no less a fan of Manning and the Colts, having returned the rooting over the years as he watched Manning chase history on any given Sunday.

"He's my friend," Helton said on a snowy Sunday at Coors Field, better suited for football than a World Series workout. "I hope all my friends do well."

Manning and Helton go back to their days at the University of Tennessee, when Helton beat out his freshman teammate for the backup quarterback slot behind Jerry Colquitt, who injured his knee in the season opener. Helton started the next three games before suffering his own injury and opening the door for Manning, who seized the job and never let go, relegating a healing Helton to the backup role.

"You know, if Peyton played first base, he'd be my backup," Helton told ESPN after beating the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the NLCS, laughing at the irony of their intertwined careers.

The two talk throughout the season, though Helton describes the communication as simple talk between friends, not shop talk about pigskins and pennant races. Manning, however, can't hide his elation at the converted quarterback's progress through September and October, noting that he called Helton after his walk-off homer in the nightcap of the doubleheader the Rockies swept from the Dodgers early in their 21-1 run, and again as the club was heading into San Diego on what would end up a 6-0 road trip.

"I'm real happy for Todd," Manning said Thursday, 13 years after the two teamed up for Tennessee. "I've talked to him, probably texted him a few more times. I know he's got a lot on his plate right now, but I know how happy he is to finally be in a World Series."

Earlier in the season, Manning had invited Helton to visit the Colts in Indianapolis, though he wouldn't entertain the idea of Helton coming much earlier than Thanksgiving, hoping his friend would remain preoccupied through October. Manning has been a frequent guest at Coors Field, taking batting practice with the Rockies in years past, though he never made it in '07. Helton has acknowledged the increased demands on Manning's time since the Colts claimed the Super Bowl title in February, and it's easy to imagine Helton hoping for similar demands on his down time following the Fall Classic.

In the time since they were teammates, Manning and Helton have both built careers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. For Manning's 10 years on the gridiron and Helton's 11 years on the diamond, both have started nearly all of their team's games since their rookie seasons, compiling breakthrough numbers.

Though their personal success stories have been as parallel as the paths of a pair of athletes can be while competing in different sports, they each reached a crossroads in '07, ultimately dispelling the demons of their careers -- the inability to bring their team to the season's final game, when champions are crowned.

"In professional sports, it's not easy to win," Helton said, looking at the '07 title runs of both his Rockies and Manning's Colts. "As fans, sometimes you think, 'Why haven't we been to the playoffs?' It's not easy. A lot of things have to go right."

It would be understandable for Helton to question his prospects of ever playing in the World Series. He has always been committed to the Rockies, even in the midst of frequent trade speculations that culminated in extended talks with the Red Sox preceding this season, and despite his club putting together only one other winning season in his franchise-most 11 years with the Rockies. But on a team built on inexplicable faith, Helton never wavered.

"I always had the confidence," Helton said. "I don't know what had given me that confidence, but I always thought we would get there. I didn't know when. And I didn't know it was going to be as meaningful as this."

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Had a trade taken place sending Helton to Boston -- or any number of potential contenders eager to claim one of the game's best hitters and a Gold Glove fielder -- he might still have found himself in the winner's circle. But the chance to finish the dance with the club that brought him accounts for the special significance.

"I don't think there could be another team that I'm with that would be as meaningful as this team," Helton said. "I just always had a confidence that we were going to make it, and to be honest with you it's probably very unjustified, because I've only had one winning season up to this season."

That's one place where Helton and Manning's paths diverge toward polar opposites. Manning's Colts, conversely, have had only one losing season since his rookie campaign.

"In 2000, we had a really good baseball team," Helton said of his previous high-water mark. "We were leading the division going into the All-Star break, and we threw an 0-7 [road trip and 11-game losing streak] leading into the All-Star break to drop us way back down. That's sort of when we went into the dismantling mode and traded everybody and never got back on track after that.

"We had a really good baseball team, and I thought we were right there. We just went on one stretch, and they sort of dismantled the whole thing. That was probably the low point. We went from the high point to the low point. We still ended up right at two games above .500, but that's the only other winning season I've had in Major League Baseball."

For Helton's Rockies to have launched themselves from the cellar to the Series in a single season is an accomplishment Manning can't quite match, though he's already got the ring that Helton continues to strive for. But both teams got hot when it mattered, with the Colts making a late-season surge -- finishing the year on a nine-game winning streak, including their final five regular-season games, three do-or-die playoff matches highlighted by strong defensive play and a thrilling comeback against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game -- culminating in the Super Bowl victory over the Bears.

"I guess you could say [they're similar runs], although I think what the Rockies have done has been nothing short of phenomenal," Manning said. "Anybody that kind of appreciates sports has an appreciation for what they have accomplished. Hopefully they can keep it going in the World Series."

Helton will settle for nothing less. He'll be no more satisfied with making it to the Series as opposed to winning it all than the career .332 hitter would be hitting a "mere" .300. When he looks at characters from the game he can commiserate with, a perennial contender springs to Helton's mind, one who went to four American League Championship Series and one World Series before finally getting a ring at the age of 38.

"I always looked at Wade Boggs," the 34-year-old Helton said. "I just remember him finally winning the World Series and riding the horse around the stadium with the Yankees. That is probably the guy I look at and say, 'Hey, he finally won a World Series.' We haven't won yet, but at least we're going."

If his Rockies can pull off the final series of the season, the old teammates, Helton and Manning, will share a stage again as each grasps hold of his sport's championship trophy. The battle for bragging rights is on, with Manning determined to stay up late and root on the Rockies, hoping that Helton will be backup to no one come the final out.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.