Peyton Manning grateful to Rockies

DENVER -- Peyton Manning and Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton were quarterbacks at the University of Tennessee in the mid '90s and the two have maintained their friendship over the years. So during last summer's NFL lockout, Helton helped arrange to have Manning work out at Coors Field.

A lot has happened since then. For one thing, Manning is now the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, not the Indianapolis Colts. For another thing, Michael Cuddyer has taken his locker.

"I was here for a week. I was truly a Rockie for a week," Manning said after watching batting practice before Sunday's Mets-Rockies game. "I had my own locker. Cuddyer is using my locker now. He didn't ask for my permission but I guess it's OK. It was a great week. I'm indebted to the Rockies because I needed a place to work out during the lockout.

"The whole Rockies organization, I can't thank them enough for opening their arms up to me last year when I was truly an outsider."

Because of his friendship with Helton, Manning has visited with the Rockies several times, occasionally taking batting practice and ground balls. He even hit a ball over the fence during one visit, though he just watched batting practice Sunday.

"As much as I like taking batting practice, I like taking ground balls more. I miss that about baseball more than anything," Manning said. "I was here and can't remember who the guy was that I was working behind here, it was eight or nine years ago, but he rotated into hit and the third base coach was hitting ground balls to me by myself. I'm sure he was thinking, 'Why am I hitting grounders to Manning?'"

Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, who played college baseball at Minnesota, took a couple swings and hit two balls out. "I thought he represented the Broncos well today," Manning said. "I'm pretty sure he'll walk tall all week."

Manning said he played shortstop in high school but said he doesn't wonder what might have been had he chosen baseball over football.

"I wasn't good enough," Manning said. "I loved playing but I probably outgrew the position my senior year. But I loved it. I loved the bus rides, I loved the camaraderie. All my receivers all played baseball with me. In the summer, we played in a summer league and we would get back from a bus ride and we would keep our spikes and always got throw around. I always kept a football in my bag. My receivers were my second baseman and the center fielder and we could keep our uniforms on and throw around.

"I love everything about baseball. It's such a different mentality than football. So many more games. A different atmosphere. But I've always been a fan of it. And having the connection and the friendship I have with Todd makes it very special."

Manning said that he grew up rooting for the Cardinals but has followed the Rockies closely since college. "Really, since I got to college I haven't been in a major league town anywhere I've been -- New Orleans, Knoxville, Indianapolis. Since I've been in football, the Rockies are the team that I've kept up with, the team I checked the boxscores, I checked to see how Todd is hitting. Certainly they're my team now. ...

"It's good to be here as the home team not as a visitor."

Manning also visited briefly with New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, who was at Tennessee at the same time.

"RA is 35, I'm 36 and Todd is 38, so that's pretty good for three guys all in school at the same time in the mid-90s to still be doing it. I'm real proud of RA. All that he has accomplished and conquered. Tennessee Volunteers all keep up with each other."