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Helton savors Spring Training like it's his last

Special to

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Salt River Fields wasn't exactly overrun by butterflies Sunday, but there were goose bumps all around when the Rockies welcomed back the longtime anchor to their lineup as Todd Helton began his spring campaign in preparation for what would be his 16th consecutive Opening Day start at first base.

"I'm sure I'll be nervous once I get out there," Helton said early in the morning of his 2013 Cactus League debut. "Getting in the box, I'll be a little nervous, which is a good thing."

Before Sunday, Helton had not played in a game since Aug. 5, when he doubled, walked, and scored a run against Tim Lincecum as the Giants completed a sweep of the Rockies at Coors Field. Helton went on the disabled list the next day, having season-ending right hip surgery to close the books on a season that saw him hit a career-low .238 in just 69 games.

With the World Baseball Classic prompting an earlier and longer Spring Training, Helton sat out the first eight games of the Cactus League season, but he returns with a little help from his friends, nestled in the three-hole in a batting order that -- with the exception of Carlos Gonzalez's absence for the Classic -- could well replicate the Opening Day lineup card manager Walt Weiss will bring to the plate April 1 in Milwaukee.

On Sunday, Eric Young Jr. and Dexter Fowler set the table in front of Helton in left and center, respectively, with Troy Tulowitzki cleaning up at short, followed by Michael Cuddyer in right, Wilin Rosario behind the dish, Nolan Arenado serving as designated hitter, Chris Nelson at third and Josh Rutledge batting last and playing second.

"It's exciting to see everybody's name back in the lineup," Fowler said before the game. "We had a lot of guys hurt: Tulo, Todd, Cuddy was hurt some of the year. It's good to have everybody healthy and ready to go."

And though he has not taken a swing in a game in seven months, Helton's presence makes the occasion special for fans and teammates alike.

"Any time Todd's in the lineup, it's awesome," Fowler said. "That guy's a Hall of Famer. The opposition, they see his name there, and they're like, 'Ah, [shoot], it's Todd Helton.' Just having him in the lineup is an advantage."

Helton tends to scoff at talk of the Hall, but his career numbers are in elite company. He is one of only eight players in history to hit at least .320 over the course of his career with a .410 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage. Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams are already in the Hall, with Helton and Albert Pujols knocking on the door.

"For as long as he lives, he's going to be able to go up there and give you a good at-bat," Weiss said of Helton. "Just make sure he's healthy, and he can go out there on a daily basis."

Regardless of whether Helton can maintain that .320 standard over the course of the coming season, his presence on the field brings an intangible value that his teammates treasure.

"Just having his leadership out there on the field, being able to talk to him about what's going on in the game and things like that, and just watch how he plays [means a lot]," Rutledge said. "He's been playing over there forever. He's a guy you want to be at first base as much as he can, just because it's a lot easier to play your position when you know he's over there."

Helton, 39, is in the final year of his Rockies contract, and he knows first base will not be home forever. He has been reluctant to make definitive declarations about his plans, but the possibility that he could be starting his final Cactus League season is not lost on Helton.

"Obviously I'm turning 40 years old," said Helton, whose birthday is Aug. 20. "I don't know when the end is, but the end is near."

So he may not have an abundance of butterflies in his 18th spring in the Rockies organization, but there is something special about his 2013 campaign.

"I'm enjoying it a little bit more," Helton said of his spring camp. "I'm mindful of where I'm at in every situation and that it could be the last time. It's fun. It's a good place to be."

Though his 2012 season was torpedoed by his hip, he lit up the Cactus League last year, hitting .395 with eight doubles and two homers in 17 games and 43 at-bats.

"It's good to get out there, see where I stand, see what I need to work on," Helton said before lacing up the spikes for his 2013 debut. "But in all seriousness, I probably need 20, 22 at-bats to be ready. I want to give myself more time, just in case, in the worst case scenario, something happens and I'm not seeing the ball well, I'll have time for adjustment."

Helton and Weiss have been very happy with Helton's work in the cage and in batting practice, but Sunday's game offers a bit of a barometer as he works up to game speed.

"It's always different when you see live pitching," Helton said. "You just want to be able to take your batting practices into the game."

Helton at the plate is the least of Weiss' worries. With Helton making just 64 starts at first base last year, the Rockies found solid backup in Jordan Pacheco (35 starts), Michael Cuddyer (24) and Tyler Colvin (18), all of whom should be back on the Rockies roster come April 1.

"Just watching him taking his batting practice I don't have any concerns," Weiss said of Helton's bat speed and eye. "We'll look forward to seeing him out there."

His fans in the stands -- and especially in the dugout -- couldn't agree more as the Rockies watch the last prized piece of their puzzle take the field.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to

Colorado Rockies, Todd Helton