Only Hall of Fame voters will ever know how many of them have held geography against Todd Helton when it came time to fill out their ballots. But if it really has been geography with enough of them, the fact that Helton played his entire career in a hitter-friendly place like Coors Field, that ought to end now. Nothing ought to keep Helton out of Cooperstown this time. It is the place where true Hall of Famers end up, and that is exactly what he always was with the Colorado Rockies.
Larry Walker played 10 seasons with the Rockies after beginning his own Hall of Fame career with the Expos. Helton, already in Denver when Walker got there, played his entire career, all 17 seasons -- it happened to be his number -- for the Rockies. At this time of free agency in baseball when so many great players change uniforms at least once, and sometimes more than that, it is just one more fine and essential element to Helton’s Hall of Fame resume.
He nearly made it last season, falling 11 votes short, with 72.2%. It was his fifth year on the ballot. But from the time when he received just 16.5% in his first year of eligibility, he has slowly been making his way toward Cooperstown. He went to 29.2%, then 44.9 and 52 before finally coming as close as he did a year ago. Now this needs to be his year, the Hall needs to finally open its doors to another honored guest from the Rockies, the way it already did with Walker.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was a contemporary of Helton’s as a player and spent the last four seasons of his own career with the Padres and then the Giants in the National League West. So he saw Helton a lot and at his best. Here is what Roberts told me about him:
“The most intense competitor I’ve seen on a diamond. What a ballplayer.”
And when I told Roberts that where Helton played should never have been held against him, he said, “Absolutely!”
Helton’s career slash line is .316/.414/.539 across those 17 seasons. He was a five-time All-Star and won three Gold Gloves at first base and once had five straight seasons when he had an OPS over 1.000. He finished his career with 369 home runs and 2,519 hits.
There were other first basemen ahead of him in a proud line, even in Helton’s prime. Albert Pujols was in the process of becoming one of the truly great players of this century with the Cardinals. Jeff Bagwell was with the Astros. One of them is a Hall of Famer and the other soon will be. Helton should absolutely be in there. Adrián Beltré is seen to be a lock for election. But Helton should be, too, this time around. He would have been a Hall of Famer wherever he played. The Rockies are just lucky he did all of his playing with them.
“I’m just thankful for the people that voted for me,” Helton said last year. “I don’t think about one way or the other. Just hope and pray for next year.”
And when Rockies MLB.com beat reporter Thomas Harding asked him if he had been nervous awaiting results Helton said, “More nervous than I should have been.”
There was that high time in the Mile High City during which Helton's career and Walker’s overlapped when they were one of the most feared 1-2 punches in the game. And when you go back and take a close look at Helton’s career numbers, you see why so many of them nearly give off a beam of light.
In his prime, he hit over .300 for 10 straight seasons. In 2000, he hit 42 home runs, knocked in 147 and had a batting average of .372. Yeah, it happened in the altitude of Denver. We get that. But in his best year, Helton had put the kind of numbers into the books that a first baseman named Lou Gehrig had with the 1927 Yankees.
Here is something Helton himself once said about the way he played the game:
“I want people to expect more from me, because I expect more. If you don’t set goals high, you’re not trying.”
He tried, all right, across all of those seasons in Denver; it’s why one of the first things Roberts talked about was Helton’s intensity. Roberts saw it from Helton the way everybody else did, as Helton kept spraying hits all over ballparks -- and out of them. He only got one shot at the World Series, with the ’07 Rockies, against the Red Sox. The Rockies got swept. Even then, Helton managed to hit .333.
Seventeen seasons with only one team for No. 17. You better believe that ought to count for something, too, as the votes are being counted this time. All those .300 seasons. What a time he gave Rockies fans. Now it ought to be his time, at last, to make it all the way to 25 Main Street, Cooperstown, N.Y. That’s the geography his baseball life merits.