Helton aims to solidify Rockies’ legacy

The Colorado Rockies were an afterthought for Todd Helton in his youth.

He never considered he could wind up playing for them.

Now look at him.

Todd Helton is the Colorado Rockies.

He is the public face and the clubhouse foundation for the franchise.

And his stature was underscored on Thursday afternoon.

Helton appeared in his 2,000th game with the Rockies, joining Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves as the only current players among the 36 who played in at least 2,000 games in a career spent with only one team.

“Two thousand?’’ said Helton. “Big numbers.

“It’s not something that you sat out to do. It’s not a goal. You don’t think about the longevity aspect. But when it happens. … Two thousand? Wow.’’

Wow, and then some.

Consider that Helton and 424 other players have worn a Rockies uniform since the franchise’s inception in 1993. Helton, who made his big-league debut on Aug. 2, 1997, has had 359 of those 424 others as teammates. Friday night, Mark Ellis, acquired from Oakland on Thursday, will become the 360th big-league teammate of Helton’s Rockies career.

“He is Denver, and the Rockies and Major League Baseball to the people in the Rocky Mountain region,’’ said Hall of Famer George Brett. “He is one of the great hitters of all time. Watching him play is such a treat. … When he retires I know where I’ll be five years after that, in Cooperstown. I want to see that (Hall of Fame induction) ceremony.’’

Hall of Fame? That’s still a debatable subject.

What isn’t debatable is Helton’s impact in Colorado, where he will eventually become the first player in Rockies history to have his number retired.

Only three other players have even appeared in as many as 3,000 games for the Rockies — Larry Walker, 1,170; Vinny Castilla, 1,098, and Dante Bichette, 1,018.

He is the Rockies all-time leader in at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, doubles, RBI, extra-base hits, intentional walks, walks, total bases, multi-hit games and sacrifice flies. He ranks second to Walker in batting average and on-base percentage, behind Neifi Perez and Walker in triples, and behind Walker, Bichette and Andres Galarraga in slugging percentage.

Not bad for a guy who on that June day in 1995 when the Rockies announced him as their No. 1 draft pick, knew basically nothing about the franchise that was in its third year of big-league competition.

Three years earlier he had visions of being a San Diego Padre. A second-round pick of the Padres out of high school there was believed to be an agreement for him to sign, but when then Padres scouting director Reggie Waller showed up with a contract, the bonus was less than had been discussed. Helton found no humor in the suggestion that the two of them could have a foot race to decide on the proper figure.

Helton instead went to the University of Tennessee, where he quarterback the Vols between the Heath Shuler and Payton Manning eras, and played baseball.

And then, in 1995, after his junior year at Tennessee, he was set to be the first-round pick of Oakland, which had the fifth pick in the draft, three ahead of the Rockies. So set, in fact, that original Rockies scouting director Pat Daugherty told original general manager Bob Gebhard not to waste his time going to Tennessee to scout Helton because he wouldn’t be there for the Rockies.

On draft day, however, Sandy Alderson, president of the A’s, overruled the scouting department, and demanded the drafting of Cuban defector Ariel Prieto, who had been pitching for an independent league team in Palm Springs, Ca., because the A’s needed pitching help in a hurry.

Prieto did go directly to the big leagues with Oakland, but after a 15-24 record, he was released following the 2000 season. Helton, meanwhile, took two years and almost two months before he made his big-league debut, but by the 2000 season he was winning a batting title with a .372 average, making the first of five All-Star appearances.

He is not done yet, either.

After struggling through a 2010 season that had him wondering if the end had come, Helton underwent a rigorous offseason conditioning program to strength his core and legs, and is easily the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors at the age of 37. He went into Thursday hitting .306 with nine home runs, one more than his total for last season, and 34 RBI, three fewer than his total of a year ago.

He again is looking ahead, seeing no reason why he won’t be able to finish out a contract he restructured to ease payroll demands on the Rockies, and which guarantees him $4.9 million for 2012 and $5 million for 2013, well below the $23 million he originally was supposed to be making in 2011.

Just ask him about his biggest thrill in baseball and his plans are apparent.

“I hope,’’ he said, “I haven’t had it yet. I hope it is still ahead of me.’’

Only once in his more than 14 years with the Rockies did Helton even come close to leaving. After the 2006 season, with the Rockies in a youth movement, and wanting to free themselves of his contract, which had five years remaining, Helton gave the team permission to work out a trade with Boston. It fell through at the last moment when the two teams haggled over how much of the remaining contract each would assume.

And with that, it was clear Helton would end his career where it began.

He told the Rockies, in advance, that he would never again consider waiving the trade veto if the Boston deal fell through. It wasn’t, after all, Helton who was seeking a trade. The native of Tennessee had long since made his year round home in the Denver area with every intention of living in the area when he retires, and as much as he wanted to win, just as important to him was to win with the Rockies.

Fittingly, it was in 2007 that the Rockies advanced to the World Series for the first time ever, sweeping Philadelphia in the NLDS and Arizona in the NLCS before facing a nine-day vacation before Game 1 of a World Series that Boston, of all teams, swept from the Rockies.

Two years later, the Rockies were back in the postseason.

Suddenly, Helton knew the emotions of being on a winner.

It was, however, far from satisfying.

“Before that, there was always that drive to experience the excitement,’’ said Helton, “and once that was accomplished. … Well it makes it even more frustrating when we don’t win, now, because now I know just how exciting it is to be in the postseason. Now I know what I am missing out on.’’

It means that Helton has some unfinished business he still wants to take care of before he calls it quits.