Helton brings excitement to team, fans on rehab assignment in GJ
Todd Helton was just one of the guys Friday night — sort of.
In front of a near full house at Suplizio Field, the Colorado Rockies first baseman leaned on the batting cage, chatted with his teammates and signed autographs as fans streamed into the ballpark.
And he could only guess how 22-year-old Ross Gerdemen was feeling as the starting pitcher for the Missoula Osprey. It’s not every day a kid in Rookie ball faces a five-time Major League All-Star.
“Probably to expect his best stuff,” Helton said before the game, his first in a two-day rehab stint with the Grand Junction Rockies. “I’m in a lose-lose situation here. I’m expected to hit a homer here, and it probably won’t happen. I’m gonna compete just like I compete anywhere else.
“If it was the Rockies pitcher, I’d probably let them strike me out, but it’s the Diamondbacks, so I’m going to do the best I can.”
Helton was right: no home run Friday night, but he did go 2 for 2 with a walk in his three plate appearances, then pulled himself from the game after five innings. His first at-bat resulted in a clean single on a two-strike outside pitch, which he hit to left field.
Helton, who wore his own uniform but a GJ cap, chose to come to Grand Junction to start his rehab stint for a couple of reasons.
“Just the energy these guys have,” he said of the Rookie Rockies, whose average age is 21. “They’re green, and they don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s exciting to be around these guys, it’s exciting to come to Grand Junction.
“I could have gone to the Springs (Triple-A Colorado Springs) a lot easier, or any other place. I chose here. It’s a new experience, and I’m excited to be here.”
Helton said he thinks he’s been to Grand Junction before “but never spent any time here. I decided to make a road trip. If you’re gonna get some work in you might as well be in a beautiful place.”
He was impressed with Suplizio Field, from the look of the stadium to the condition of the infield.
“Obviously they play a lot of big games here and are used to having big crowds,” he said. “This is a beautiful stadium and a beautiful setup.”
Helton has been on the disabled list with a strained right hip and hopes to be ready to return to the Rockies’ lineup early next week.
A cortisone shot helped the hip immensely, he said, and he felt no pain during batting practice. The big test, he said, is when he takes that first step out of the batter’s box.
“Hopefully if I get a hit tonight it will be that first step coming out of the box, because you can’t favor it at all,” he said. “You’re just taking off, and once you get to running you can protect it a little bit.
“Defensively, I wasn’t able to go to my right on a ball hit, so hopefully I will have some balls hit and see if I can go to my right side.”
Helton, 38, knows he’s in the twilight of his career, and said he’s not one who will stick around past the time he’s physically able to play full-time.
“Not gonna happen,” he said of the talk of taking over Jason Giambi’s role of pinch hitter or going to the American League as a designated hitter. “I’m at the point of my career, it’s not that I wouldn’t want to DH or be a pinch-hitter, but I wouldn’t want to travel and be away from my family if that’s going to be the role it’s gonna take.
“I love the game of baseball, but I love my family more, and I have other interests outside the game of baseball where it’s not like I’m going to go crazy or anything. But I’ll miss the game when I’m done.”
During batting practice, Helton hung out with the young players, watched the pitchers in the bullpen and took his swings. At one point, he fouled off a couple of pitches as he was testing his front leg kick, then hit some long fly balls and a home run into the center field batter’s eye.
After that turn in the cage, he talked with Rockies manager Tony Diaz about what he was seeing. On his next rotation, Helton was hitting sharp line drives to gaps, then launched a shot that hit the top advertising banners on the scoreboard — and the ball was on the way up.
He hopes his stint in Grand Junction is the first step to getting his swing back.
“The little I swung today I felt a remarkable improvement. I felt I could stay back,” he said. “My leg kick’s not going to be as high, so hopefully I’ll be able to get that little pause in my swing where I can recognize pitches. The biggest thing is it holding up over time, not just these next two games but the rest of the season. I need to be able to go out and not just get on the field but be able to play at the highest level.”
During his at-bats, he displayed his trademark straight-up stance, the bat waving high over his head. He still had a high leg kick, although perhaps not as high as when he’s completely healthy.
He signed baseballs, gloves and anything else the young Rockies asked, and he talked not only about life in the big leagues, but what it takes to get there.
“I can talk to them and correct them, talking to the first basemen about using one hand instead of two as a first baseman,” he said. “The biggest thing is it’s just the repetition of doing things right. Coaches notice that, and that’s how you move up a level at a time. It’s carrying yourself like a professional and doing things right every time.”