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February 28, 2024
Todd Helton, Mr. Rockie, became Cooperstown’s baddest dude

Before the thunder, Todd Helton ate lightning. Five fingers at a time.

“He would jab his finger into my gut, hard,” longtime Rockies trainer and Helton confidant Keith Dugger recalled with a laugh Tuesday, just before the Colorado icon saw his overdue ticket punched to baseball’s Hall of Fame. “And I would slap him on the side of the face.”

Like many great hitters, Mr. Rockie was a notorious creature of habit — “If he ate at Arby’s the day of a good (game), I promise you, he was going to eat Arby’s the next day, and the next 15 days,” Dugger chuckled — and a slave to superstition.

Dugger was Mighty Mick to Helton’s Rocky Balboa, right down to the bruises. And most of them came, funny enough, in the summer of 2000, at the apex of a Hall of Fame career, when the Rockies’ first baseman was chasing .400. That’s when Dugger — “Doogie” to his pals — and Helton got into a pregame routine that became one-third Italian Stallion and two-thirds Three Stooges.

Dugger would tape Helton’s left wrist. Helton would poke him hard in the belly. Doogie would slap the crap out of Helton’s left cheek.

Right wrist. Another poke. Another slap. This time on the right cheek.

Here’s the thing: No. 17 kept raking. And raking. And raking. So Helton kept on poking. And poking. And poking. Dugger kept slapping. And slapping. And slapping.

“After about three weeks, my wife is like, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’ve got some kind of disease, these blue dots all over you.’” the trainer recalled.

“And I looked around and I have these little dots, bruises from Todd jabbing me in my back and my gut.

“This was kind of like, ‘Let’s (help) you get motivated for the game before he goes out there.’ But once he started getting welts under the right eye, I’m thinking, ‘We have to break this superstition.’”

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Helton eventually went into a funk, and it was back to Arby’s.

“I don’t think he even felt pain, really,” Dugger said. “When he felt pain was when he couldn’t function … for me it was all about (his) mindset. I think he was probably brought up with that toughness.”

Pete Rose famously quipped that he’d walk though Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball. When Mr. Rockie didn’t limp through Hades, he’d crawl, dogged by a bad back, torn ligaments, a trick knee and a bum hip.

Without that toughness, there’s no Hall of Fame ticket, no Hall of Fame debate, no 2,247 regular-season games, no 2,519 hits and 369 home runs over 17 seasons.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around a few Hall of Famers,” Dugger recounted, “and they all have kind of same intangibles, as if they were driven by themselves. …

“The Tony Gwynns of the world — I was around Fred McGriff and Larry Walker. … They knew what they needed from themselves to be the best. And all of them were a little bit different. For him, it was being tough, not being weak, not letting opposition know he was weak.

“And he couldn’t stand pitchers. You had the guys at the tail end of their careers, like a Greg Maddux or a Randy Johnson, and he wanted to crush them. He didn’t want to just go out there and compete. He wanted to show, ‘Man, I’m better than you.’”

With scant few exceptions, he was.

The Knoxville, Tenn., native proved a good enough collegiate quarterback to land ahead of a freshman named Peyton Manning on the Tennessee Vols’ depth chart back in 1994. Ironically, it was Helton’s Wally Pipp moment — Mr. Rockie got dinged up against Mississippi State in the season’s fourth game — that helped open the door for PFM’s Hall of Fame journey on the gridiron.

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Sure the Toddfather was a monster at altitude — 227 of his 369 career homers were launched from 20th and Blake, where he posted a sickening 1.048 career OPS. But his lifetime road OPS of .855 was higher than no-doubt HOFers Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and George Brett. Do we hold Kaufmann Stadium’s cavernous outfield gaps and rock-hard, singles-friendly Astroturf in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s against No. 5?

Does Facebook hold Oakland’s plenitude of foul territory against the careers of legendary arms such as Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers or Catfish Hunter? Do the Cooperstown justice warriors on “X” hold Fenway Park or Old Yankee Stadium’s contours against generations of fence-assisted career stats? In New York and Boston, it’s a charming, baked-in quirk. In Denver, it’s a disqualifying sin?

What righteous baloney.

Tough guys don’t need excuses. Or asterisks. And yet, the Rockies plopped Helton on the trading block in the winter of 2006-07, as the injuries mounted, as age 31 became 32, as the home runs dipped from 20 in 2005 to 15 in ’06. Boston came the closest, but wouldn’t part with Craig Hansen or Manny Delcarmen. One of the best trades a star-crossed franchise never made thankfully died on the vine.

Because baseball sometimes rhymes, several months later, Rocktober brought Helton and the Red Sox together — only as opponents in the postseason. It was then that Helton reunited with a teenage left-hander, a first baseman who also wore No. 17. Nate Jurney, a former Rockies Rookie then playing baseball at Ralston Valley, threw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the 2007 NLCS. Jurney was 17 at the time, and fighting a losing battle with cancer. He met Helton, shook his hand, took an autographed baseball home. The family still’s got it.

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Nate passed away in May 2010. But he kept a shrine to the Toddfather and the Rockies, a “Helton Wall of Fame,” through thick and thin.

“He had a great conversation with Todd prior to (Game 1) and he introduced (Nate) to other players as well,” Mark Jurney, Nate’s father, emailed me Tuesday.

“I know that his experiences were priceless. Seeing Todd get selected to the (Hall of Fame) would be a tremendous accomplishment and I know Nate has been voting for him all along.”

It took the scribes a little longer to follow a Heavenly hint. But they got there.

“You’re going to be in the Hall of Fame someday,” Dugger told Helton, back in 2010, about three years before No. 17 hung ’em up.

Helton looked at Doogie as if he was wearing a rubber duck for a hat.

“No, dude,” the trainer continued. “You have what it takes to be there. You’ve got all the intangibles. You might be short on a couple of these (counting) stats, but you’re going to be up there.”

Helton shrugged.

Not now, Mick. Not the time.

“When guys are playing, they don’t look at that stuff, nor should they,” Dugger said. “It’s not until the very end of their careers that they look.

“Todd would be hitting .310 and be unhappy sometimes. I was like, ‘Yeah, dude. Not everybody hits .350.’”

Few pull it off twice. Fewer still ride that lightning all the way to Cooperstown, through Hades and back, spitting nails with every step.

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