Todd Helton is the face of the Colorado Rockies.
It's as much a matter of chance as it was choice.
He will walk away from the game as an active player in two weeks, having confirmed this weekend that he will retire at season's end -- something that had been pretty well-known ever since March 2010, when he reworked the '11 and '12 portions of his contract to provide the Rockies with the financial flexibility to sign Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to multiyear deals.
|Carl Yastrzemski||Red Sox||3,308|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||Orioles||3,001|
|Mel Ott||NY Giants||2,730|
|Derek Jeter *||Yankees||2,602|
|Luke Appling||White Sox||2,422|
|Ted Williams||Red Sox||2,292|
|Todd Helton *||Rockies||2,235|
|Pee Wee Reese||Brooklyn/LA Dodgers||2,166|
|Jim Rice||Red Sox||2,089|
And for all the slots he has earned on baseball's all-time list of offensive accomplishments, what stands out more than anything else is that he will have spent his entire 16-year, 59-day big league career with the Rockies, a team in its third year of existence when it drafted Helton in the first round in 1995.
Helton is one of only 25 players to have spent more than 2,200 games with one -- and only one -- Major League team.
It wasn't as simple an occurrence as it may seem.
Helton was, after all, a high school football hero in the pigskin-driven state of Tennessee. He was, after all, a second-round Draft choice of the San Diego Padres out of high school in 1992. He was, after all, an anticipated first-round Draft choice of the Oakland A's in the moments leading up to the '95 First-Year Player Draft. And he was, after all, apparently headed to the Boston Red Sox in the weeks prior to Spring Training 2007.
After all is said and done, however, Helton is most likely the player who will be the first to have his number (No. 17) retired by the Rockies, because what could have been never happened.
"Let's just say everything worked out the way it should have," said Helton.
It is a dream come true, even if Helton never in his wildest imagination could have envisioned what has happened.
"In Tennessee, they live and die college football," Helton said. "If you are not playing football, they don't know who you are. You are taught that football is the No. 1 thing, but baseball was something I always loved and knew I wanted to do.
"I realized that when I got to college, and the time you had to put in to be a good college quarterback and the time you have to put in to be a good college baseball player. "
Helton also got a wakeup call, watching his predecessor at Tennessee, Heath Schuler, and then his successor, Peyton Manning.
"I had the chance to get to know what a professional quarterback looked like in college, so I was able to make a good decision then."
It was more by chance than plan that he had the college exposure.
When Helton was drafted by the Padres after he came out of Knoxville Central High School in 1992, he was ready to start his baseball career.
"I left spring camp and called San Diego and told them I wanted to sign," said Helton.
When Reggie Waller, the Padres' scouting director at the time, showed up to get the deal done, it was for $50,000 less than the bonus that had been discussed. Waller initially blamed it on a secretarial mistake. Then, Helton remembered, Waller challenged Helton to a race for the difference.
Waller may have said that in jest. Helton, however, didn't see the humor.
"I knew if I went to college and did well, I'd get drafted again and financially I would be OK, too," Helton explained.
"My grandparents lived in Knoxville and they wanted to see their grandkid go to [The University of] Tennessee," he said. "That was part of the reason."
And Helton was correct. He played well at Tennessee, and after his junior year, he was drafted again, and he did financially well, even though there was a wild card in the mix -- Sandy Alderson, the general manager of the Oakland A's at the time.
Dick Bogard, the A's scouting director, had the fifth pick in the first round and was so set on Helton that the rumor in the scouting world was there was a deal in place. Moments before the conference call for the Draft, however, Alderson overruled the selection of Helton and mandated the selection of right-handed pitcher Ariel Prieto, a Cuban defector who had pitched for an independent league team in Palm Springs, Calif.
"They told me they were going to draft me," Helton said of the A's.
Oakland's intent to take Helton was so well-known in scouting circles that Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard had only a cursory look at the left-handed-hitting center fielder/closer at Tennessee, scouting director Pat Daugherty having instead pushed Gebhard to see players he anticipated being available for Colorado to draft.
|"Let's just say everything worked out the way it should have."|
|-- Todd Helton|
"Geb saw me one time, hitting in the cage at the [University of Tennessee] indoor facility," said Helton. "We got rained out. I think he saw me for five minutes."
When Helton slipped past the A's, as well as the Marlins (who selected high school outfielder Jamie Jones) and the Rangers (who drafted Florida State right-hander Jonathan Johnson), Daugherty didn't hesitate calling Helton's name.
How little contact did Helton have with the Rockies?
"The first conversation I had with Geb," Helton recalled, "I asked him, 'Do you want me to pitch? He said, 'No, you're going to play first base.'"
"At Draft time, everyone is worried about how high they go in the Draft, it's a big deal," remembered Helton. "You don't think about the city. … Once I realized I had been drafted by Colorado and would be playing for the Rockies, it was very cool."
Twelve years later, in January 2007, the relationship was on the rocks.
Helton, who had a no-trade clause, agreed to accept a deal, but only if he went to the Boston Red Sox. The Rockies told the Red Sox they could have Helton for a package of third baseman Mike Lowell, veteran pitcher Julian Taveras and pitching prospects Craig Hansen (Boston's No. 1 pick in 2005) and Manny Delcarmen (second-round pick in '00).
The Red Sox balked at giving up Delcarmen. The deal fell through.
"The ultimate decision was not mine," said Helton, who was disappointed at the time. "And I am happy it didn't [happen]."
That turned out to be a charmed season for the Rockies, who won 14 of their final 15 regular-season games -- including a win-or-go-home Game 163 with San Diego -- to claim the NL Wild Card, swept Philadelphia in the National League Division Series and Arizona in the NL Championship Series, then faced the Red Sox in the World Series.
Boston swept the Rockies.
No complaints, said Helton.
"Going to the World Series with the Rockies meant more to me than winning the World Series with another team," he said.
The Rockies, after all, were the team Helton belonged with, even if there were a series of twists and turns he had to deal with before he could start and end his career in Colorado.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.