Rockies veteran Helton makes fresh start in 2011

Todd Helton has long been one to show up early at spring

training. With temperatures in Denver in the single digits and a

sparkling new training facility at Salt River Fields, he became

even more eager to get to the desert this year.

Not to mention Helton is on a mission to erase all memories of

his disappointing 2010 performance.

Even Helton himself is curious how he will respond after

struggling through the worst season of his 14-year big league

career with Colorado. The longtime Rockies first baseman is

perfectly candid about it all: He didn’t work hard enough and his

mental approach suffered.

The face of the franchise was in a major funk.

”Just a bad year all around, physically, mentally. I didn’t

compete well,” Helton said. ”As you get older, it’s easier and

easier not to work out and push yourself as hard as needs to be the

case if you’re going to be a big league player.”

Helton is recommitted to going the extra mile for the Mile High

City, ready to put an awful year behind him. He’s in great shape

for the start of spring and insists he has rededicated himself to

his preparation and his teammates.

The 37-year-old Helton batted a career-worst .256 with eight

home runs and 37 RBIs in 118 games last year and dealt with yet

further back trouble – a far cry from the superstar seasons that

had come to be expected of him.

He spent time on the disabled list last summer with a stiff

back, but Helton insists that was the least of his problems.

”To me the reason I had a bad year wasn’t 100 percent because

of my health,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press

this week. ”It was just a bad year. Anything else I say or

insinuate is an excuse. Even if it’s justifiable in my head it’s

still an excuse. Sometimes you have to own up to a bad year. It

happens.”

This winter, Helton made himself get up to work out even on the

days he didn’t feel like it. He found a new exercise partner in

Denver during the offseason – a guy who played five years as an NFL

linebacker, no less.

Helton will look to prove himself again just as he did in

2009.

Slowed by spasms and other issues with his troublesome back in

2008, he underwent surgery that September. Then, he bounced back in

’09 to hit .325 in 151 games with 15 home runs, 86 RBIs, 38 doubles

and a .416 on-base percentage.

Last spring, the Rockies rewarded their reliable veteran with a

$9.9 million, two-year contract extension through the 2013 season.

He earned $16.6 million last year, and agreed to defer $13 million

of his $19.1 million salary for this season over a 10-year period

beginning in 2014.

Colorado had a $23 million option for 2012 with a $4.6 million

buyout as part of the $141.5 million, nine-year contract that began

with the 2003 season.

There is optimism everywhere right now around the young Rockies,

who believe they have the talent and depth to contend in the NL

West – and will do all in their power to keep the World Series

champion San Francisco Giants from defending their division

crown.

Colorado spent $273 million this winter to improve a club that

finished 83-79 last season for third place in the West despite

being crippled by injuries and losing 13 of its final 14 games.

A lot of the leadership will begin with Helton.

”He is the consummate professional,” manager Jim Tracy said.

”This is not the first time that Todd was challenged with

questions from a lot of people about where he’s at at this point in

time in his career. He dealt with a back surgery back in 2008 and

everybody was wondering, ‘What the hell’s going to happen?’ What’d

he have, 15 (homers) and close to 90 (RBIs) as far as his offensive

production in 2009 and helped us to a wild card championship.

”We dealt with some similar issues health wise last year. And

we sit here again today and wonder, ‘How’s it going to turn out?’

No one has worked harder than he has to get himself in the physical

condition you see him in right now.”

There have been so many milestones for the five-time All-Star,

who is the exception in the majors these days having spent his

entire career with the same team.

Helton has said he plans to play out the final three years on

his contract. Tracy will likely keep him fresh by also using new

acquisition Ty Wigginton and Jason Giambi at first.

Helton has been around long enough to know that if he produces

as he is capable, it will be tough to keep him out of the lineup.

He also says any question about him is ”valid.”

”I’m curious myself,” he said. ”A 162-game season is no easy

feat. It’s not a 37-year-old’s game, it’s a 20-year-old’s game. I

realize that, and I realize I have to take care of myself better.

Not only work harder but eat better, just do things like that

hopefully pay off. They might not seem like a big deal right now

but hopefully they pay off throughout the season.”

Colorado’s first full-squad spring workout isn’t until Tuesday,

though Helton and many of the other position players have already

been regulars around the complex taking batting practice and

working in the field.

Everybody who sees Helton notices not only his fit physique but

that he seems as determined as anyone to get going again. He is

refreshed.

”He looks like he’s in great shape. He likes to compete, he

likes to win,” Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez said. ”Every season

since he came up to the big leagues, he’s had big years – superstar

years – and he had a really down year last year. So, he’s going to

try to find a way to get back to who he was.”