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Long penalized Rockies great finally gets his due with Hall of Fame nod

Maybe, the fact it took so long, and the doubt whether it would ever happen, made it even sweeter for Todd Helton when his cellphone rang Tuesday at his Knoxville, Tennessee, home.

It was a call from Cooperstown, New York.

Finally, he’s a Hall of Famer.

Now, and forever.

“They can’t take this away from me,’’ Helton said, “can they?’’

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It took six years for Helton to get the call from the Hall of Fame. Once he heard the words, he raised his left arm into the air, turned around and looked at all of his friends and family in his living room.

“Thank you so much,’’ Helton, wearing a purple sweater in honor of his Colorado Rockies franchise, said. ‘Thank you so much.’

He threw the phone up in the air, and began hugging everyone, trying to fight back tears.

Helton joins third baseman Adrián Beltré, catcher Joe Mauer and manager Jim Leyland in the 2024 Hall of Fame class. They will be inducted on July 21.

For Helton, it’s different. Who can blame him for wondering if this day would ever come?

The other players were first-ballot Hall of Famers, with Beltré getting votes on 95.1% of ballots, the 19th-highest total in history.

Helton received just 16.5% of the vote his first year on the ballot, and even with the exit polling showing that he would finally clear the 75% threshold this year, Helton refused to look at the updates, watch MLB Network, or even talk about it.

He considered himself deeply superstitious throughout his 17-year career, but after finally believing it was silly, all of the superstitions returned Tuesday until the phone call arrived, letting him know that he was on 79.7% of the ballots.

“I was pretty nervous,’’ Helton said. “I didn’t really think the phone was going to ring. And when it rang, I was still in shock.’’

Helton, fair or not, was penalized by the Hall of Fame voters for playing his entire career at Coors Field. It didn’t matter that he had a .316 career batting average and .953 OPS to go along with five All-Star appearances, four Silver Sluggers and three Gold Glove awards.

Nothing was good enough, not with playing every home game at Coors Field.

“I think Larry moved that needle,’’ Helton said. “He paved the way for me. He made it all right for the voters to vote for a Colorado position player.’’

Helton hit a staggering .345 with a .441 on-base percentage and .607 slugging percentage at Coors Field, with 227 home runs. He was still a good hitter on the road with a career .287 batting average, .386 on-base percentage and .469 slugging percentage with 142 homers. Obviously, Coors Field provided a huge advantage.

“Coors Field is a good place to hit, I’m not going to lie,’’ said Helton. “Coors, there’s a lot of green. You just felt like you were going to get a hit.’’

When the Rockies hit the road, there was no greater adjustment for hitters. It was a painful re-entry to reality watching pitchers throw breaking balls that would break, fastballs that would move, and see the balls not fly.

“You don’t get to pick where you play,’’ Helton said. “I’m not embarrassed by anything about my home and road numbers. Going to the road after Denver was hard. It’s a huge adjustment going through that rigorous grind and going through those changes. It is a good place to hit, but there are some drawbacks and toughness about going there and playing there.’’

Helton was drafted by the San Diego Padres out of high school but chose to play football and baseball at the University of Tennessee, where he started a season ahead of a fella named Peyton Manning. Football provided Helton’s scholarship, but he knew that baseball would be his career. The Rockies drafted Helton eighth overall in the 1995 MLB draft.

If he had been drafted by another franchise, maybe he never would have been punished by Hall of Famer voters for playing his entire career at Coors. Maybe he would have been valued higher if he played on consistent winners instead of reaching the postseason just twice, including that magical 2007 season when the Rockies won the National League pennant. Maybe he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer just like Beltré and Mauer.

“I wouldn’t have changed a thing,’’ Helton said. “Playing with the Rockies, making it with a team that I struggled with, and one I watched build, and helped build. …

“I put my heart and soul in for all of those years. And losing in the World Series (with the Rockies) meant more than winning somewhere else.

“It’s not just a good place to hit, but great fans, and just good people running the organization.’’

Helton paused, became emotional thinking about his dad teaching him about the Hall of Fame at the age of 8, knowing that he made it, to the pinnacle of his sport.

“Everything I’ve done,’’ Helton said. “It really did happen. What I did was good enough to make it to the Hall of Fame.’’

Helton, the first homegrown Rockies’ player to make the Hall of Fame, perhaps will forever change the perception of position players’ statistics in Colorado. Maybe he can open that door even wider for those who come along afterwards. If not for a potential Hall of Fame induction by another Rockie in another generation, perhaps stronger consideration for future MVP candidates.

“I’m a good example for everybody playing in Colorado that you can make it to the Hall of Fame,’’ Helton said, “and they’re not going to hold it against you.

“This is something you don’t play for, but obviously, it’s the greatest award you can have as a baseball player.’’

Helton is a Hall of Famer, and in six months, he will have the plaque to prove it, with thousands of Rockies’ fans — yes, including Manning — expected to be on hand to witness it.

“Everybody’s welcome to come,’’ Helton said. “For the fans, well, they’re unbelievable in Colorado.’’

Yes, you better believe it, they’ll be there.

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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