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Helton suffering through a miserable time

Brian Fuentes is going to the All-Star Game.

For David vs. Goliath fans, this is good news. Imagine the intrigue if Tony La Russa is brazen enough to summon the unknown All-Star to face Garret Anderson or Ichiro Suzuki with the game on the line in the late innings.

It's a nice story line, but not the biggest headline of the All-Star selection process in Denver. No, the big story is that Todd Helton is not going to Detroit for the game next Tuesday.

His run of consecutive All-Star appearances, which began in his third full season, came to an end at five when he finished far behind Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols in voting. Although La Russa probably wouldn't mind having Helton on his bench to take one shot against Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, there was no way he could select Helton as the Colorado Rockies' lone representative.

That was out of the question because of Helton's mysterious downturn. A career .339 hitter through 2004, he's batting only .270. His production numbers also have taken a dive.

In each of the previous six years, Helton had hit at least .320 with a minimum of 30 home runs, 107 runs scored and 96 runs batted in. Coors Field helped pump up those totals, sure, but Helton was widely admired for his consistency. That's why the Rockies gave him a nine-year, $141.5 million contract before the 2003 season. He has six years (and an option) at about $97 million remaining after this season.

But when the Rocks hit the midpoint of their season Monday, Helton was on pace to deliver 12 home runs, 76 runs and 62 RBI. The only category in which he has produced normal numbers, doubles (he's 12th in the NL with 21), is partly the result of his no longer being able to drive the ball out of parks.

So what gives? Is he playing hurt or just showing signs of age as his 32nd birthday approaches? Is he not getting as many good pitches to hit as in previous seasons, now that general manager Dan O'Dowd has pared the lineup to Helton, Preston Wilson and a bunch of kids who get carded when they visit the hotel bar after games?

Health
It's mental health, not physical well-being, that is the biggest question. Helton has had trouble with his hands and his back, but this is nothing new. The former University of Tennessee quarterback is as tough as any major-leaguer and has played with similar aches and pains in recent years. He's fond of saying that nobody is ever really healthy during a 162-game season, and knows how to compensate for soreness.

But Helton has always been rock-solid in his mental approach. Some who know him well say this year has been different. He was stung when St. Louis broadcaster Wayne Hagin linked him to steroid use in an explosive sound bite on sports talk radio.

Helton, who has never had the upper-body bulk of guys such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire, went ballistic when he was told that Hagin claimed former Rockies manager Don Baylor had worried about getting Helton off the "juice."

Baylor strongly denied having ever made that remark to Hagin, who worked in Denver before moving to St. Louis. It's possible he said something about Helton's use of creatine, a widely used supplement many managers blamed for contributing to muscle pulls. But creatine has never been a banned substance.

Helton admits he wasn't able to let the steroid talk go away, like water off the proverbial duck's back.

"I'm still pretty upset with it," Helton said when the Rockies visited St. Louis in late May. "I still hear a lot about it. In that sense, it really still bothers me. … Anyone who knows me, who has been around the locker room, knows there's no chance."

Any player would be angry to be accused of something he or she hadn't done. But Helton is in a position that could make him especially sensitive.

After only eight-plus seasons, he is almost halfway to 3,000 hits (1,448) and more than halfway to 500 homers (257) and 1,700 RBI (868). Those are Hall of Fame numbers, yet Helton has never been a serious candidate for league honors, finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2000, ninth in 2001 and seventh in 2003.

No matter what he has done, it has been devalued because of the advantage hitters are given in the thin air and unprecedented outfield acreage at Coors Field. The Rockies have won an average of only 73 games in the years he was on the Opening Day roster, robbing him of the chance to put his production in a competitive context.

So, in a sense, all he has are his numbers, and Hagin's careless remark tainted them.

"Wayne Hagin's comment about steroids hurt him more than most people know," says one of Helton's oldest acquaintances in Denver. "He's so in control of his emotions that he's tough to read. But I think it eats at him that people think he cheated."

Protection
With such a young team, it seems logical Helton could suffer because opponents have told pitchers not to let him beat them. But if anyone should complain, it's Wilson, not Helton.

As was the case two years ago, when Helton and Wilson had 69 homers and 258 RBI between them, Helton hits third in manager Clint Hurdle's order and Wilson bats cleanup.

So it's hard to blame Helton's 2005 problems on O'Dowd having signed off on the departures of Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, Jay Payton and Charles Johnson over the last two years.

"He's getting pitches to hit," a person close to the organization said. "He's just trying to do too much with them."

In the previous three years, Helton hit nine points higher than his average with men in scoring position. This season, he's hitting only .232 in those situations (with no homers in 69 at-bats). That's a 38-point drop.

"Maybe he's been pressing because he likes these young kids so much," said the person close to the organization. "He thinks they have some ability, that they give the team a chance to be good. I think he's really over-tried to have a big year to help the kids. Maybe he just put too much on himself thinking he has to carry a bigger load."

His security blanket
No current manager has worked more closely with any of his players than Hurdle has with Helton. He was the Rockies' minor-league hitting instructor when Helton spent his three years in the farm system and was promoted to a job on the big-league staff at about the time Helton arrived.

Hurdle knows the one-sentence -- and in some cases, one-word -- keys that help Helton get back on track if he has a bad at-bat. It might not be a coincidence that Hurdle was away when Helton went into the worst slump of his career.

Health problems in Hurdle's family have left him with divided priorities this season. He left the team for six games at one point in May and a few more games in early June.

Helton, who was hitting .339 on May 14, had been in a 1-for-16 slump when Hurdle left the team May 20. He dug himself into a bigger hole while Hurdle was gone, going 1-for-18. That slump reached epic proportions (3-for-52) before Helton eventually regained some equilibrium.

Helton's mechanics have been solid. But like all hitters, he swings at balls and takes strikes when he is not at the top of his game. That was the case in that slump, the worst of his career.

Helton's skills have not gone away. He is a good bet to return with a vengeance in the second half of the season, making pitchers pay for his first-half misery. But it's a good thing he did not get the token call -- Mike Sweeney style -- to the All-Star Game. This year, he needs a break from the grind.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.