Diamond Nuggets 

Homegrown gold from the once and future Sky Sox

click to enlarge Pitching notably Atlanta's, ruled the day through most of the game. - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Pitching notably Atlanta's, ruled the day through most of the game.

The schedule read "All-Star Break." For all but a handful of players, the three days in July are a chance to spend time with family, kick back, and do nothing. For some players, being in the All-Star Game can be pretty near the same thing.

Todd Helton didn't set the game on fire with his appearance in the All-Star Game on Tuesday. Not the way he has set the league on fire this season, chasing .400, hitting with power, and developing into a rock-solid leader as the Rockies anchor at first base. But the baseball world took notice of Todd Helton, the first homegrown Rockie to make a significant impact upon arriving in the Major Leagues.

Helton was the Rockies first round draft pick in 1995, and by early in the '96 season he was calling Colorado Springs home, playing first base for the Sky Sox in the considerable shadow of the popular and productive Andres Galarraga with the parent club in Denver.

"I'm excited to be on the All-Star Team with him," Helton told the Indy during the pregame workout in Atlanta, reflecting on the impact Galarraga had on him as a developing player in the Rockies system. "The biggest thing he helped me [with] was at Spring Training. Most of it was with defense. Just sitting there watching him take ground balls, you can learn more than anyone can ever tell you."

But the Big Cat was just as well known for his positive character, and Helton never lost sight of that aspect of his mentor. "Those are the people that you want your kids to be like. He's what you want big-league players to be like."

It was Helton's quick development with the Sky Sox that led the Rockies to feel comfortable letting Galarraga slip away from them to the Braves three years ago, a move Galarraga credits with saving his career. The Rockies would only agree to a two-year contract with Big Cat, while the Braves offered him three. The second year of that contract was a year lost to a battle with cancer, and Galarraga told reporters he didn't think anybody would give a contract to someone coming off a year of chemo and radiation treatment. But his comeback has been the great story of the 2000 season, hovering in the vicinity of .300 and 20 HRs at the break.

There was never bad blood between Helton and Galarraga. "I'm really happy for him," Galarraga told the Indy. "He surprised me the way he hits for power. We had a great relationship. We're friends."

It seemed inevitable and ironic that Helton would, at some point, enter the All-Star Game to relieve Galarraga. "It's my first time here, whatever they tell me to do I'll do," Helton said, trying unsuccessfully to keep a giddy beam from escaping as the excitement grew before the game. "I'll play shortstop if I have to."

What he was asked to do was nearly as unusual. After Big Cat's fourth-inning single, Helton was brought in as a pinch runner.

"I've gotten pinch ran for lots of times," Helton joked in the clubhouse after the National League's 6-3 defeat, "but that was the first time I've been someone who pinch ran."

Helton's versatility and productivity caught the eye of no less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who sang Helton's praises before the game, putting him in elite company.

"Maybe the pitching isn't quite as good," Jackson remarked of the state of the sport on the field before the All-Star Game, "but the players, like the Gary Sheffields and the McGwires and Sammy Sosas, the Todd Helton's that come along, those players are as good as any player of any era."

Other Rockies on the field in Atlanta included third baseman Jeff Cirillo and last minute replacement Jeffrey Hammonds, who took the injured Barry Bonds' spot on the roster.

Though Hammonds was used only briefly as a pinchhitter, Cirillo played four innings at third, with Helton tending the other corner for four innings. "It was fun, I had a good time," said Cirillo, downplaying the defeat. "It's not that the game is secondary, but just being here is the main thing. Just being honored and getting to dress with the greatest players in the world."

Cirillo made a dazzling defensive play, falling back on the warning track by the third base seats to reach for and catch a foul ball. The highlight for him, however, was the emotional introduction of the players, when position players gathered together with their peers at their respective place on the field, accompanied by their families in a rare treat that emphasized that the All-Star Game did not have to mean sacrificing quality time with loved ones. "Taking my kids onto the field, that was great," Cirillo said.

The Rockies looked good in Atlanta, where the only team with more representation was the Braves. They were nothing flashy. Just solid. The new look. But the development of prospects into superstar MVP candidates does not end with Helton, nor with the team's strong showing under the national spotlight Tuesday.

Earlier in the week, Sky Sox catcher Ben Petrick was the starting catcher in the Futures Game, the opening event in the All-Star break, a game matching the best American prospects from the minor leagues systems against the best prospects in the minors who come from other parts of the world. USA won a close game 3-2, and Petrick's second inning sacrifice fly knocked in a crucial run for his team. The Rockies other roster member, pitcher Tsao Chin-Hui who plays for the Ashville, North Carolina farm team, did not get in the game.

The Sky Sox were further represented in Wednesday's Triple A All-Star Game played in Rochester, New York. Though the game had not yet been played at press time, Colorado Springs was represented by Giovanni Carrara on the mound and by Phil Hiatt and Scott McClain in the field.

Other highlights of the break included Atlanta favorite Chipper Jones going 3 for 3 with a home run in the losing effort and Sammy Sosa's 26 phenomenal towering home runs in Monday's home run derby. Pitching, notably Atlanta's, ruled the day through most of the game. Through the first inning and a half, three pitchers threw 34 pitches, an astounding 29 of which were strikes.

The rash of injuries that felled seven of the scheduled starters took some of the luster from the game, but the competitive zeal and the quest for excellence was there. National League Manager Cox told the Indy that "the players really want to win. If you sat on either bench, you could tell. They're highly competitive and nobody want to be embarrassed, and they're going to go hard and they did."

All-Star MVP Derek Jeter echoed those sentiments. "It was a great atmosphere. Even when guys came out of the game, they seemed to stick around. The All-Star Game is something you never take for granted, because you never know when you're going to get an opportunity to come back. I think everyone was just enjoying the moment and getting a chance to talk to the other players."

-- owen@csindy.com


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