Leadership to be Helton's enduring legacy
Veteran will be remembered for being a mentor, professional, true friend
DENVER -- The standing ovation that said it all about retiring Rockies first baseman Todd Helton didn't come from a stadium full of fans. It was long before anyone thought of giving him a horse as a going-away gift.
On Sept. 18, 2007, with the Rockies down to the final strike in the second game of a doubleheader, Helton blasted an unforgettable two-run homer off Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito, who had been nearly unhittable as far as Colorado was concerned. It was early in a run that would carry the Rockies all the way to the World Series.
Helton ended up taking the first curtain call of his career. While he was still on the field taking part in television interviews, the Rockies were in the clubhouse, ready to celebrate.
"Everyone in there was all excited, sitting in their chairs -- no one had even undressed," recalled Brad Hawpe, a former Rockies outfielder. "Nobody said, 'Hey, let's wait for Todd,' but we all knew we were waiting for Todd to come in. I don't even know who started clapping. You could ask all the other guys and they'd say, 'It was probably me.' We stood up and clapped and gave him our own standing ovation."
Rockies left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis smiled at the memory.
"We basically continued the celebration we had on the field," he said.
The scene forever stands as a testament to Helton's effectiveness as a leader. Furthermore, it's significant to note the players speaking here, Hawpe and Francis.
Hawpe is someone Helton readily calls "one of my guys." Hawpe is from Fort Worth, Texas, a little bigger than Helton's native Knoxville, Tenn. But they shared interests in hunting, fishing and ranching, as well as a love of country music.
Francis is Canadian, from the cosmopolitan Vancouver. Both he and Helton are intelligent, but the pitcher, partly due to his professorial manner and partly because he was a physics major at the University of British Columbia, can be described as bookish. Many of Helton's "guys" found his gruff manner and sharp, edgy sense of humor intimidating at first, and Francis was at the top of that list.
"I never said anything to him unless he said something to me," Francis said, smiling. "It took probably four years for us to have a conversation. We joke about that now."
The numbers and awards will all be capsuled and available for Hall of Fame voters to debate five years from now, after Helton wraps up his 17-year career with Sunday's season finale on the road against the Dodgers. But what's not in dispute is Helton's unmatched legacy of leadership in the franchise he has been a part of for all but four years of its existence.
Attempts at leadership in pro sports sometimes goes awry. If leadership doesn't extend beyond a team's inner circle, it merely succeeds in creating fractions. If a supposed leader is constantly calling out teammates or deflating them, either with anger or humor, any guidance will fall on blocked hearts. Leadership through media interviews can insidiously bypass the teammates who are actually in a position to fix problems, while creating a public perception that a certain player is a "stand-up guy."
Although for most of Helton's career, the Rockies struggled to find a winning combination, when the talent was in place, he laid down the principles that helped the team to succeed.
Those who got close felt lucky.
The Cardinals' Matt Holliday was a Double-A prospect when he came to his first Major League camp with the Rockies and found Helton's inviting hand, and Holliday -- the quiet leader of several successful Cards teams -- has carried Helton's leadership principles with him.
"You can tell when people are genuinely interested in who you and your family are," Holliday said. "Right away, he had invited [my wife] Leslee and I to dinner in Spring Training or over to the house to play ping pong.
"That's a leadership quality in baseball, but it's a leadership quality in all capacities. Someone is much more willing to be a follower or to listen or be led when they know you genuinely have their best interests, and not just from a professional standpoint, that you genuinely care about who they are as a person. Todd, even as a young player, took interest in me and my family."
Hawpe, who is the part owner of a ranch in the Texas Panhandle with Helton and former Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook, didn't connect with Helton immediately.
"He's a fun but tough person, and as a young player, he's tough to get a feel for," Hawpe said. "Then during the winter going into 2005, Helton would call me. I had just been up and down from the Minors, but he was taking the time to call me. He wanted to know that I was working hard and getting ready and doing the things it takes to win. This wasn't someone doing something because the front office told him to do it. He did it because that's the type of guy he is."
Of Cook, Helton proudly says he "turned him into a redneck."
The 2007 and '09 Rockies teams were populated with Helton's guys. Infielder Clint Barmes, now with the Pirates, was one of the ex-teammates who delivered video messages on the scoreboard during Helton's final home game.
Rockies reliever Matt Belisle had a breakout performance at the end of the 2009 season, and he and Helton grew to be friends in '10. Belisle has a ranch in Texas, and the two spend time together in the offseason. Belisle is grateful to Helton not only for his friendship, but also for improving his approach to the game.
"There's a drive to raise my game when there's a guy like that playing first base behind you," Belisle said. "He helped me improve, grind, get better, compete, and as the relationship forged, it just grew."
"They're good people, raised right, hard workers," Helton said of his teammates.
But the clubhouse is full of cultures and lifestyles that aren't necessarily as country as Helton. Venezuelan catcher Yorvit Torrealba has spent five of his 13 seasons with the Rockies, and he found the way that Helton reaches out to everyone to be endearing.
"He's a leader who means a lot to a lot of people," Torrealba said. "He would help you out whenever you were struggling with your swing. As good a hitter [as] he is, for him, it's kind of simple to see what we're doing wrong. And he's so professional also. It's awesome.
"It doesn't matter where you're from. He tries to understand you. The guy even speaks Spanish a little bit."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.