Saturday, May 27, 2017

Todd Helton: A Collecting Cutch Contest Entry

When you visit Coors Field, you'll find three retired numbers mounted above the visiting team's bullpen in right center.

The first, of course, is #42, once worn by the great Jackie Robinson, which is retired across the league. The second is a set of initials, KSM, to honor the memory of Keli McGregor. McGregor was the president of the Rockies baseball club until his untimely death from a rare viral infection in 2010. The Rockies wore a memorial patch on their uniforms for the remainder of the 2010 season. The third and final number is #17, belonging to Todd Helton, the career Rockie and fan favorite who spent, coincidentally, seventeen seasons in Denver.

2005 Leaf #69 Todd Helton
He was a fixture at first base from 1997 through 2013, as shown on this rainy Leaf card from 2005. Helton is ready for a throw from a fellow fielder, although his mitt is partially cropped out of the photo. Fans in the Coors Field seats are sheltered under plastic ponchos and umbrellas. It's not the most enjoyable way to watch a ballgame, but at least the sun isn't in their eyes.

Though I'm a bit late to the party, I thought the Rockies deserved an entry into Collecting Cutch's contest. I'd have liked to pick Arenado, but I don't really have that many cards of him, and he's only been playing since 2013. Todd Helton seemed like a better choice to get the top-10 treatment, not only because I have many more of his cards, but also because his career spanned a few eras of the post-strike baseball card industry.

Collecting Cutch promised "this is going to be an easy and fun one." Fun, yes, but narrowing this down to just 10 cards was pretty tough. That it was well after midnight when I made the final selections probably didn't help, but Helton had quite a few great cards throughout his career as a Rockie.

2005 was Leaf's final year of existence, a set that Panini hasn't brought back yet. There was a gap or two, but they had a solid run during the '90s, produced some beautiful sets, and gave us perhaps the rarest main set of the whole overproduction era in 1990.

2000 Stadium Club #193 Todd Helton
Most of these cards are from Helton's pre-goatee days, not that you can tell from this shot. Stadium Club can always be counted on for awesome photography, but they have an even more inconsistent history than Leaf. Helton was always better known for his abilities at the plate, but he took home three Gold Gloves to go along with a few Silver Sluggers.

Apparently I like horizontal cards more than some of my contemporaries, and I'll take a little asymmetry in my binder pages for a card like this any day. Watching Helton dig out a slightly errant throw to nail a runner (crossing the baseline in the process) against an all-dirt background earns it a spot in the top-10.

Arenado already has Helton beat when it comes to Gold Gloves, but this card reminds me of a rocketing one-hopper that Nolan speared in last night's game with a little extra flourish. The Gold Glover's version of a bat flip, if you will.

2004 Playoff Honors #73 Todd Helton
These aren't ranked in any particular order, they're just what seems to flow when I thumb through the stack. Most of my posts are like that to a degree. The cards tell me what to write, in a sense. And I did make an effort to not just pick my ten favorite sets. That's partly why 2004 Playoff Honors is on here, a single-year set you probably haven't seen in the Cardsphere in ages, if at all.

It's a shot from a recognizable AT&T Park (or rather Pacific Bell Park, as it was called when this photo was taken), but it shows Helton in a very familiar spot. Second base. Yes, he played first defensively, but he was a machine when it came to hitting doubles. Those doubles, coupled with his lifetime totals of homers, hits, and other stats, put him in the same company as Stan Musial.

2002 Upper Deck Vintage #262 Todd Helton
Helton followed the Stan Musial school of thought for getting yourself into scoring position, rather than Rickey Henderson's. He wasn't much of a base stealer, but sometimes he could be seen diving back to second base, trying to avoid the tag of the Expos' Orlando Cabrera like he is here. The out-of-town scoreboard is out of the frame, so I don't have enough information to date this card, but the horizontal layout against a black border earned it a spot in the top-10, even if it is a pretty blatant knockoff of 1971 Topps. The back calls him "One of the best players in the game today," and also calls out his stellar .999 fielding percentage the previous season. That translates to just two errors all year.

I doubt there's been a baseball card set with that kind of accuracy.

2000 Finest #71 Todd Helton
When I first started thinking about this post, 2000 Finest was one of a few that immediately came to mind. Other than the gigantic shiny silver baseball, the photo of his post-swing pose is pretty common on many of his cards. That's what makes things like the rainy day at Coors and the fielding a short hop stand out so much. It's a set that I've shown a couple times, and I'm sure I've purchased this card a couple times over in error. Helton is in a lot of discount boxes around here.

These cards are all pretty thick. You can always count on Finest for that. The thinnest one so far is the Leaf card at the top. But this is the shiniest one.

2001 Ultra #97 Todd Helton
Speaking of Helton's swing, this Fleer Ultra card is the best one I found in my whole collection. He's back in Pacific Bell Park, with a cameo of (I think) catcher Bobby Estalella, a future Rockie. The extension is textbook, and while I never liked pinstripes on their road uniforms, Helton's swing reminds me a bit of Mickey Mantle's. 2007 Topps illustrated that maybe a little better, and it was one of the last to miss the cut in favor of this gorgeous full-bleed card.

2008 Stadium Club #4 Todd Helton
There were other candidates from Stadium Club, and this post wasn't that far off from being a "top-10 Todd Helton cards from Stadium Club" post. And we're not done yet. This one is from the poorly-received 2008 set, which still hits the Coors Field mini-collection quite well. The luxury suites and Club Level rarely make it onto a card. Helton had grown his goatee by this point, and was still honing his craft daily at batting practice. You don't become a fan favorite and the face of the franchise by slacking.

In addition to his #17 retired number plaque, there's a "Burger Shack" named after him behind the left field bleachers, just under the giant scoreboard. It's not far from where a group of die-hard fans unfurled a white banner with Helton's name on it during all his at-bats. The Helton Burger is one of the best snacks in the ballpark, but it competes with the Oskar Blues-branded CHUBurger found in the Rooftop.

And yes, I realize I just called a burger a "snack". No further comment.

1993 Topps Traded #19T Todd Helton USA (RC)
This wouldn't be much of a list without Helton's Team USA Rookie Card from 1993 Topps Traded. It's the headliner in that 132-card set, one that featured many newly-minted Rockies and Marlins who didn't make it into Series 2. Little did Helton know he'd eventually take over at first for Andres Galarraga, card #31T in that set.

The aluminum Easton bat takes me back to my little league days, and in looking closely at this card, Helton can be seen wearing a Topps patch on his left sleeve. The card back gives us some of his baseball stats at the University of Tennessee, and mentions that he "also plays college football." Famously, he was briefly the starting quarterback for the Volunteers until he experienced an injury and a guy named Peyton Manning took the job. Both became legends in Denver sports history.

1999 Topps #52 Todd Helton
There's not much overlap between my top-10 Helton cards and my top-10 overall sets. 2000 Finest stands a chance, though, as does the final set. But if nothing else, this list list should give you a pretty good idea about what I like in a card. Thick card stock, full-bleed printing, a bit of foil but nothing crazy (2000 Finest obviously excepted), a horizontal layout, and if none of those boxes are checked, at least an interesting photograph.

This card from 1999 Topps is the second card that popped into my head before I even checked the binders. The overall design isn't going to win any awards, but Helton shielding himself from the rain with a white towel is somehow extremely memorable. The red wheelbarrow and tarp add a bit of uniqueness to the card, and I had forgotten that this one also included the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy.

The back of this early Helton card hit the nail right on the head, by wrapping up the paragraph with the following: "Statistically, Todd's season was also a success - but likely just an appetizer for a banquet of feats to come."

2014 Stadium Club Members Only #31 Todd Helton
That "banquet of feats" came to its end on September 25th, 2013, Helton's final home game. The Rockies got trounced by the Boston Red Sox that day, but Helton's 2nd inning home run and farewell lap (as pictured) are more likely to stand out in fans' memories. He did play a final weekend series on the road to conclude the 2013 season, but this one is what Rockies fans remember.

I found no card of Helton's triumphant pose to close out the 2007 NLCS, which surely would have made the cut, but this Members Only parallel from 2014 Stadium Club concludes the top-10 list, one that I knew had to be on it. Julie of A Cracked Bat sent me this rare specimen, and it shows that final lap around Coors Field. It's in foul territory down the third base line, as we can see by Todd reaching over the tarp to high-five (side-five?) a fan.

Upon the conclusion of his storied career, Helton found himself atop the Rockies career leaderboard for hits, home runs, games played, RBIs, walks, doubles (592, almost twice Larry Walker's total), runs scored, and, well, pretty much everything else that doesn't involve speed. 2000 was his best single season, where he led the National League in a slew of statistics, including, yes, doubles.

And don't forget the horse.

Whether he'll be the Rockies' first representative in Cooperstown remains to be seen, but he gave Denver fans a wealth of memories, years of solid performance, a trip to the World Series, and more than enough cards to make a top-10 list.


  1. Two really nice images - the 2000 Stadium Club and the 2002 Upper Deck Vintage. I love them both!

  2. Great Helton collection! That 2002 UD Vintage card is fantastic!

  3. Very awesome list of the most underrated 1B of the new millennium. I don't know if he will get enough traction for HoF debates, but he definitely deserves to be a part of the conversation for the next decade. I always liked him.

    Great group of cards and thank you for entering the contest.