On Sunday, the Rockies will retire a player’s number for the very first time. We’ve known for quite a while that Todd Helton’s 17 would be the first. It’s hard to pinpoint, but at some point in his career, Helton made it inevitable. Todd Helton fulfills all of the requirements befitting the title “Mr. Rockie.” He’s played more games than anyone else who has worn purple pinstripes by a long shot. His 2,247 games played is almost twice as many as Larry Walker’s 1,170, who played the second most. The active leader in games played for the Rockies is Troy Tulowitzki, and he would have to play eight full 162 game seasons to catch Todd. By virtue of his lengthy career, Helton leads the Rockies in nearly every counting offensive category. Even triples. Helton always displayed an ability to turn triples into doubles, yet he’s fourth all time in Rockies history in triples with 37, which is six more than Carlos Gonzalez. He is also in top five in all of the ratio stats, but in those categories he’s surround by players with several thousand fewer plate appearances. Helton is probably not the best player the Rockies have ever had—I think that title belongs to Larry Walker—but he is the greatest Rockie of all time. Coming up through the Rockies system, Helton was a touted prospect. But prospects fail more often than they succeed. What Todd Helton became for the Rockies was remarkable and truly unpredictable.
What Helton did is even more astonishing when viewed in light of another prospect who came up less than a year before Helton: Neifi Perez. Helton and Perez overlapped as young players in the Rockies’ system—in fact, they were the first two postion-player prospects the Rockies ever developed into everyday players. Jamey Wright, who the Rockies drafted in the first round in 1992, was Baseball America’s number 66 prospect after 1995; he debuted on July 3, 1996, and is currently a member of the Dodgers bullpen—really. In 1992, the Rockies signed Neifi Perez as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic. Three years later in 1995, the Rockies drafted Helton eighth overall in the amateur draft. Baseball America ranked Perez as a top 100 prospect twice: 63 after 1995 and 33 after 1996. Neifi made his debut first. As a 23 year old, he led off and went 0-4 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Helton made it onto Baseball America’s top prospect list three times. He was ranked 32 after 1995, 16 after 1996, and 11 after 1997. Helton’s debut came just under a year after Perez’s on August 2, 1997 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was also 23. Helton went 2-4 with a walk, one run scored, and one run batted in. Their respective debuts can be read as microcosms of their careers. Helton was one of baseball’s premier hitters from about 2000-2007, while the 2003 Baseball Prospectus Annual suggested that based on one metric, “Perez is probably the worst hitter in major league history.”
The careers of Helton and Perez didn’t look anything alike, but in the late 90s when they debuted, I could only see their baseball fates as inextricable. The Rockies had two top 100 prospects playing in the infield, so I had a hard time thinking of reasons why they wouldn’t lead the team into the future. Sometime in August or September 1997, I remember watching one of Todd Helton’s first games for the Rockies with my uncle. A batter for the opposing team innocuously grounded out to shortstop. The play, therefore, went from Perez to Helton. In hopeful naiveté, I declared that “we’ll be watching that play happen for the next fifteen years!” It was a long time ago, and I was just 14 years old at the time, so I’ll paraphrase my uncle’s response. It went something like this: “pfffffft!” It’s easy to read this guffaw as a dismissal of Perez’s potential or the slim chance that any two players be teammates for a decade and a half. It could very well have been about Helton, too. Few would have suggested that Helton would even have a fifteen year career, let-alone for fifteen years with the team that drafted him. It’s rare.
In hindsight, I was searching for players who were truly Rockies. I remember baseball before the Rockies, and I also recall how fun it was to watch Andres Galarraga win the batting title in 1993 and the emergence of the Blake Street Bombers at Coors Field in 1995 (1994 is hazier and sadder). But those players, the Big Cat, Walker, Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, Vinny Castilla, all came from other organizations. Helton and Perez were ours. That’s what made a mundane play involving Helton and Perez so much different than one with, for example, Weiss and Galarraga.
Helton’s career spanned more than half of my lifetime. He has and will continue to play a central role in the way I relate to the Rockies. I was a diehard fan from the team’s inception until about 2001 or so. But then my interests drifted elsewhere—starting college, for one, occupied a great deal of my time. I still paid attention to baseball and the (mis)fortunes of the Rockies, but not with as much intensity as I had before. I remember the catching duo of Joe Girardi and Jayhawk Owens more than that of Ben Petrick and Brent Mayne, for instance. But even during this lull period, I paid attention to Helton’s monster numbers, even if I did so with detachment. It was also around this time that I began to forget about Neifi Perez. In the summer of 2006, I renewed my interest in baseball. There was no intervening moment that caused baseball and the Rockies to become a staple of my life again. But I did find comfort in the familiar name that bridged my two stints of baseball fandom. Nearly the entire roster had changed, but Todd was still there.
On a recent episode of the Purple Dinosaur Podcast, Tyler Maun quoted Purple Row’s Drew Creasman regarding Rockies’ prospect Raimel Tapia as “a blank canvas to dream on.” This is true about Tapia insofar as it is true about every prospect, although no prospect’s canvas is truly blank. It was the case for Helton as well as Perez. The difference among prospects is in the nature of the dream and the nature of the canvas. In the later stages of prospect-hood, Perez’s canvas had all-around ability, generating the hope that he would become a good defensive shortstop and a serviceable hitter. His defense turned out to be better than expected—and his offense much, much worse. The clear portion of Helton’s canvas was his ability to hit. In 1997, Baseball Prospectus warned readers that Helton was a good hitter, but that he was also destined to be “overrated.” The next year, they called him “overrated but very good; then “very, very good;” and in 2000 BP expressed disappointment that Helton hadn’t produced astronomical numbers. The vocabulary here is limited, although it took shape as time went on and Helton fleshed out his canvas and shattered even our most optimistic dream.