Columns » End Zone

Helton soars, Rox crash

End Zone

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If you watched the Colorado Rockies' 2013 home finale last week against Boston, you saw everything that has been both wonderful and maddening about this state's major-league franchise since the mid-1990s.

You saw first baseman Todd Helton's farewell performance at Coors Field, in which he rose to the occasion with a home run, a double and three RBIs. The game typified Helton's remarkably consistent career, with credentials that make him a strong candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame: 369 homers (74th all-time, eight more than Joe DiMaggio, 52 more than George Brett), 592 doubles (16th all-time, ahead of Wade Boggs, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, among countless others) and a .316 career batting average.

All those glittering numbers, yet nearly all wasted, just as they were in Helton's last home game, an embarrassing 15-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox. Colorado's pathetic pitching once again failed miserably, which became the summer script as the Rockies faded from 35-30 on June 11 (when they were just one game out of first place) to a 74-88 finish.

So the season ends with Colorado saying goodbye to its finest all-around player ever, and with the usual dim outlook for years to come. The team still has plenty of offense, but the dearth of pitching and the forever-befuddled front office have dragged down the Rockies to the point where success looks like a pipe dream.

Yet Helton never would say so to media, not even privately.

He came out of the University of Tennessee in 1995, made it to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox at 22 to finish the 1996 season (.352 in 21 games), then dominated for the 1997 Sky Sox until moving up to the Rockies as the heir apparent to Andres Galarraga. As media here and in Denver learned, Helton never had an ego, never popped off, and never let his frustration show — except after his single transgression, a late-night DUI (not after wild partying, but foolishly going to a convenience store near his home for lottery tickets) this February.

Most teams with a cornerstone as solid as Helton can build a good enough roster to win consistently. But the Rockies never could, escaping their futility only for fleeting moments, topped by an amazing 2007 run to the National League pennant.

From the day Helton first put on a Colorado uniform, Aug. 2, 1997, until his career ended Sunday, the Rockies totaled 1,243 wins and 1,402 losses, with only five winning seasons and 90 or more victories only in the wild-card playoff years of '07 (90-73) and '09 (92-70).

Having followed Helton from close range and afar since he first came to the Sky Sox, I've tried to come up with favorite memories. One stands out — his walkoff homer to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in mid-September 2007, igniting that charge to the World Series. He was like a kid that night, frolicking around the bases and then tossing his cap before leaping into a horde of teammates at home plate.

Otherwise, I'll most remember marveling at Helton's consistency through the years, day after day: his seemingly effortless defensive prowess at first base, his remarkable eye at bat for knowing when a pitch was even an inch outside the strike zone, and his patience to foul off pitch after pitch until walking or punching a hit, often to the opposite field.

It's an overreach to say Todd Helton should have been able to win a World Series, because so many great players never do. But it's totally appropriate to insist that he deserved much more team success than the Rockies achieved in his career.

So he had a great final night at Coors Field in a 15-5 loss, and a sad final year on a team going nowhere.

Let's hope the Rockies' failures don't keep Helton out of the Hall of Fame.

That would be worst ending of all.

routon@csindy.com

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