Helton glad to be back, but turns spotlight on the kids

By Steve Williams

The ‘Welcome Home’ event for Todd Helton last week at Lindsey Nelson Stadium was a two-for-one treat for Helton, as he got to see his former high school team (Central) play a game at the site where he played in college (UT).

Helton, who will be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on July 21 in Cooperstown, was introduced to the crowd on hand and a list of his impressive accomplishments were announced, followed by a lengthy ovation.

“They didn’t have to read off all that; that was a little too long,” said a modest Helton. “But I appreciate it. I think my good buddy Andy wrote it. He was very nice to me.”

Yes, it was Andy Bolton’s doing. He was a teammate of Todd on the undefeated 1990 CHS state championship team.

A few other highlights on Helton’s resume included leading Tennessee to the 1994 and 1995 SEC baseball titles and a third place finish in the 1995 College World Series … In 2000, Todd led the MLB with a batting average of .372 … He was captain of the Colorado Rockies’ 2007 National League Championship team that played in the World Series.

It had rained most of the day, but the sun popped out about two hours before Helton’s ceremonial first pitch, which sailed over the catcher’s head.

“That’s the first ball I’ve probably thrown in 10 years,” said Todd, “unless I’m playing catch with the dog.”

Helton was scheduled to throw out another first pitch before the LSU game this past Saturday and the odds were probably high that the southpaw would throw a strike this time.

When asked what the ‘Welcome Home’ event meant to him, Helton answered: “It means a lot that (UT skipper) Tony Vitello would let these two high school programs come here and play. I’m truly grateful for that. But for me personally, I get to see a lot of people that I haven’t seen in many, many years. I lived out of state for 20 something years. I’m a home body now and I don’t like to get out too much. So I don’t catch many games.”

Vitello said after the event last week that “Helton doesn’t like the limelight” and is a little shy. “A lot of people think he’s just a hitter. Really what he is is a winner.”

This reporter told Todd about having known his late Uncle Joel Helton quite well and about the time he playfully bear-hugged me and slammed me to the ground when I was working for The Knoxville Journal and he was Central’s head football coach. “He was crazy,” said Todd. “We miss him.”

“My dad (Jerry) would have been over the moon that I made the Hall of Fame,” added Todd. “I can’t even put into words how excited he would have been. I know they’re up there looking down and are proud of me and happy that I made the Hall of Fame.”

Todd’s mom (Martha) is still living. “God willing, she’ll be at the Hall of Fame and to me that is going to be very special.”

Helton’s oldest daughter, Tierney, was at the ‘Welcome Home’ event. She’s a junior at UT and also in the photography business. Youngest daughter Gentry is in the eighth grade at CAK.

“I haven’t watched a high school game since I played in one,” said Helton. “I’ve always been playing (in college and in major league). I plan on catching a few more now that I’m back in Knoxville.

“When people ask me, I do say I’m retired,” continued Todd. “But I still work for the Rockies as a special assistant to the general manager, which means I go out to minor league ball parks and I work with the kids mentally and physically. I enjoy watching minor league baseball; I really do. Those guys are hungry; just like college baseball players.”

Helton said he gets a lot of satisfaction out of his work with the Rockies’ minor leaguers “when they do well.

“Outfielder Jordan Beck (former UT player and Colorado’s No. 2 pick in 2022), for instance. He’s starting out in Triple-A this year. And Chase Dollander (former UT pitcher and Colorado’s No. 1 pick in 2023), I get reports on him and he pitched unbelievable the other day.”

With rising players like Beck, who currently is at Albuquerque, and Dollander, who was assigned to Spokane in the High-A Northwest League, Helton thinks better days could be just around the corner for the Rockies, who have been down lately.