Different Strokes

The dream was really no different than it ever was. The feeling of being rushed. Getting called upon, but never quite being able to get ready. Always in slow motion.

It used to happen all the time, but not lately.

Todd Helton had the dream “quite often” when he played baseball for a living. But when he stopped, so too did the dream. It just went away.

But in April, the night before he was supposed to play golf with Vic Lombardi, it resurfaced. Like old times, the dream is as vivid as it ever was – “First time I’ve had it since I’ve retired,” says Helton

Helton had been invited to play golf on “The 19th Hole,” a CBS series hosted by Lombardi, featuring a “who’s who” list of Denver sports figures (think Chauncey, John, Todd – one-name guys). A casual loop caught on tape, designed to get to know some of the town’s most prestigious sports figures and their golf game.

During the round, Lombardi asks Helton about nerves – whether or not he gets them while playing golf, standing over a birdie putt or swinging when there’s a friendly wager on the line.

Helton says no.

But then he clarifies, saying he’s never really played in a “real tournament.” He might get some nerves in something like that. Maybe. Maybe not.

“What about a serious cash game with Jordan or something like that?” Lombardi asks.

“No. No.”

And that is when the dream comes up.

“I did have the dream last night – that I hadn’t had since baseball – of not being able to get ready. Like, you’re being rushed and you have to run out there naked.”

It is kiddingly suggested that perhaps Helton gets nerves after all. Maybe they’re paying him a visit in anticipation of this particular outing, playing golf on camera.

“I guess so,” shrugs Helton. “I guess I get more nervous than I think.

“I think everybody has that dream. No? No?

“Just me?”

***

If Todd Helton were to get nervous around the golf course, one couldn’t tell on the day that followed “the dream.” When the cameras are on, so is Helton’s game – or so it would seem. This is evident on Bear Creek Golf Club’s final three holes, a string that Rich Goins, Helton’s friend and Denver media legend who now serves as the club’s membership director, says are “perhaps the toughest three finishing holes in the state.” Helton pars in with ease.

The only thing “off” about Helton’s game is his swing. And that’s not to say his swing is ugly, by any means. In fact, it’s pretty, but it just so happens to be right handed, a bizarre observation considering he’s got 2,519 career base hits in the majors as a lefty.

He always hit left-handed when it came to baseball, but the first time he ever played golf, a young Helton did what every kid does – he yanked a stick out of his father’s bag and started whacking away. His dad, who played minor league baseball as a catcher, was a righty. And his golf clubs followed suit. So, that’s what his future big-league son learned to play with.

But it’s not like Helton spent much time golfing anyway. He was too busy becoming the Tennessee Gatorade High School Player of the Year in both baseball and football. As a pro baseball player, he never golfed during the season; even though he was hitting from the other side of the plate – “totally different muscles to be sore” – he never wanted his golf swing to screw with his baseball swing.

“And you have to give the game of golf some kind of credit,” he says. “You can’t just go out there and play and expect to be good.”

“Pitchers do,” says Lombardi.

“They only work one day a week, right?” Helton quips. “What else they gotta do?”

Now, it’s Helton who doesn’t have to work on a daily basis. Sure, he’s got a cattle ranch – “I still have the horse (the Rockies gave me), but I don’t ride it enough. So it goes on some rodeo tours, where it can get ridden in the open and get used to everything” – and he’s got a Ford dealership – “I have a great partner, let’s put it that way” – but his lifestyle is far from the obligatory 9-to-5 grind. It’s only recently – in retirement – that Helton owns up to having “the golf bug.”

Despite his back-to-back-to-back pars on Bear Creek’s 16-17-18, Helton insists his game isn’t where it needs to be: “I’m not good enough where I can just walk up there and hit it. I still have to go through a little checklist of things. I hit some really bad shots.”

In baseball, when he was at his peak, it wasn’t so complicated. There was no thinking whatsoever.

“See ball. Hit ball,” he says. “That’s when the game is fun.”

“This game is not that easy,” says Lombardi, referring to golf.

“It wasn’t that easy,” Helton says, going back to baseball.

As a kid, Helton loved Rod Carew. Specifically, he loved the way Carew hit. When he was somewhere around the age of 10, the Helton family got their first VCR. He had a tape of “This Week in Baseball” that featured Rod Carew teaching youngsters how to hit to the opposite field.

“I wore that thing out,” says Helton.

But he’s only taken one, seemingly ineffective, golf lesson – “I hit ground balls to shortstop for about a month.”

So now he just plays.

Helton has broken 80 “five or six times.” His best round is a 77.

“Now, you think you’re good,” he says referring to that round. “Then, you go out and shoot 90.”

He recently shot an 84 at Augusta National – “from the member’s tees,” he’s quick to point out (as in, not from the pro tees). That experience was shared with none other than fellow University of Tennessee alum, longtime friend and quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning – “How else would I get to get to play Augusta?” says Helton.

“How did Manning play? What did he shoot?” asks Lombardi.

“Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t.”

“You guys don’t keep score? C’mon, you know what he shot,” Lombardi presses. “He shot better than you.”

“I know he won money from me, that’s all I know.”

Helton drops more than a few hints that, while golf is just a hobby – perhaps second only to hunting – winning and self-improvement are still paramount. You can take the competitor out of a game, but for guys like Helton, competition can’t be taken out of any game. Golf seems like a “replacement” of sorts for Helton.

As he was in baseball, he’s a student of golf. He’s a member at Castle Pines and “practically a member” at Bear Creek, where he regularly tees it up with Goins, who he calls his “golf coach.” It doesn’t take much banter to deduct that the games between Helton and Goins see a little money changing hands. Each insists the other has gotten the best of them.

“That’s the fun thing about golf,” he says. “You can hit the ball far, but it’s all about once you get around these greens.”

Retired or not, pressure is something that Helton embraces.

***

Before the round, out on the driving range, Lombardi pulls a trick out of his bag – literally.

Amidst his clubs, he’s got a black, wooden baseball bat. He draws it like a sword and hands it to Helton.

“You think you can hit a golf ball further with a golf club or this?” he asks. “Let’s see.”

Helton obliges. He has Lombardi stand about 10 feet away to the side, tossing range balls softly into his strike zone.

The pitch… a swing and a miss.

Lombardi breaks into laughter.

“It’s been a while since Todd’s played baseball,” he chuckles.

“Son of a…” says Helton. “Give me this. Alright, I got this.”

Lombardi tosses another. A ball. Helton – always the patient eye – takes. He didn’t swing at balls out of the strike zone as a player; he’s not going to swing now during Lombardi’s stunt.

Next pitch.

Helton drives the ball to the equivalent of right center. Looks like a double, like so many times before.

Next pitch. Popped up.

“That’s my game right there,” he says. “That’s why I retired.”

One more pitch; like a low sinker. Helton goes down to get it. Call it a single.

“Okay, you’re right,” says Lombardi. “You can hit it further with a golf club.”

“That’s the first time I’ve picked up a bat in a year-and-a-half,” Helton says.

“No way,” says Lombardi.

That’s mostly true. He does occasionally hit fungos as the coach of his daughter’s softball team, a role retirement has allowed him to enjoy. But never a baseball bat, not since Sept. 29, 2013, when he went 1-for-4 against the Dodgers in L.A. in his final game in a Rockies uniform.

“You don’t have any ambition, no urge, maybe just to go to a cage, hit a few just to see if you’ve still got it?” Lombardi asks sincerely.

“No. No.”

“You’re rare. That doesn’t happen too often.”

“C’mon.”

“Seriously? Guys just walk away – never touch a basketball or pick up a bat? I mean, people still get engaged…”

“I don’t know,” says Helton, wrapping a bow on this notion. “I guess I’m not ‘people’ then.”

It’s pretty clear that Helton is content in retirement. He keeps a casual eye on the Rockies – “I’ll turn it on if I happen to be home” – but isn’t fanatical. He gets a kick out of watching Corey Dickerson take a big cut with a 2-0 count, but says Tulo still has the sweetest swing on the team. He pulls for Walt Weiss – “his personality is coming out a bit more and he’s putting his mark on the team” – and he feels for LaTroy Hawkins, who he calls one his “favorite people in the world.” He wants the Rockies to do well – “I think it’s good for the city; I think it’s good for baseball. You know, I bleed purple, so I hope they go out and win every game” – but he’s long past the 162-game grind of Major League Baseball.

He’s reflective of his career, but most definitely does not live in the past. Some good friends gave him a bronze sculpture of “The Final Out” – the famous image of Helton’s glove raised to the heavens, knowing that the Rockies had earned a trip to the World Series – and it sits in his living room.

“It’s one of those things that I cherish,” he says.

Before his dad passed away in early March, he’d said on many occasions that if Todd would have played in New York, he’d be a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. It doesn’t seem as if Helton hasn’t put a lot of thought into it, though.

“I’m happy I played in Colorado,” he says.

With two daughters (12 and five), he has time to be a full-time dad now. He jokes that his wife gets a little sick of him being at home so much. He admits to being sore from pitching B.P. to his oldest daughter’s softball team. Basketball, he says, is actually her favorite.

“I don’t care how many points they score or whether or not they get a hit,” he says. “I like to see them get better. I like to see them compete – be a competitor. That’s about life – competing in life – that’s the point I try to get across to her.”

“Not sure how you teach that,” says Lombardi, a father of three. “In this day and age, too many of these kids… we live in this ‘field day society’ where everybody gets a ribbon.”

“We don’t do the ribbon thing,” says Helton. “I’m hoping that’s a cyclical-type deal, where people realize that everybody doesn’t win.”

He’s not playing baseball, but he’s still concerned about success – at golf, at parenting, at staying in shape.

“So have you done the FitBit thing yet?” he asks between shots.

“What’s that?” asks Lombardi.

“C’mon,” says Helton, showing off the band on his wrist.

“No. I’ve seen people with those things,” Lombardi says. “What does that do? I don’t need that. Do I look like I need to worry about excess fat?”

“No,” says Helton. “I do.”

“What does it do?”

“It tracks your steps, basically.”

“What are you, 60 years old?”

“I worked out for 20 years. I do not want to go in a gym and pump iron. But I want to stay in shape,” Helton explains. “This thing makes me get out of the cart and walk.”

He’s in shape. It’s not as if Helton doesn’t say busy. He goes fishing and he hunts. He’s been on a few hunting shows and recently went on an African safari with former teammate Brad Hawpe – Hawpe has started a supplement company and has Helton supplementing his diet with this and that.

Life is good and this has been a good day on the golf course.

But he still doesn’t crave the limelight and he isn’t lacking plans or purpose. There will be no doddling around the clubhouse when this round is finished.

“I gotta get outta here,” he says.

“Whatcha got going?” asks Lombardi.

“Gotta go home and cut the grass.”

***

A big thanks…
To Vic Lombardi and Todd Helton for allowing MHS to tag along for a quiet day on the links…and to Rich Goins and Bear Creek Country Club, a beautiful Colorado golf course fit for a Hall-of-Fame first baseman.

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