DENVER — Self-assured and self-contained, a throwback from another era who is more interested, as batting coach Clint Hurdle put it, in substance than style, Todd Helton insists he isn't driven to hit .400, merely to be the best he can be.
In that regard, batting .393 with 36 games to play and considered to have a legitimate shot at that mythical and elusive .400, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman reflected on the drive and said, "When the car stops, I'll get out and see where I stand. Until then, I don't think it does any good to think too much about it.
"I mean, I get sick of answering the same questions at times, but I don't feel any stress or pressure. I have the great ability to live one day at a time, which is not to lie and say it doesn't pop into my head occasionally, but I have the ability to pop it out just as quickly. My focus is strictly on the process, which is my swing and approach, not the result, which is the numbers. I'm only trying to get as many hits as I can to help the team win--not to hit .400. It would be unrealistic to make that a goal or even think you would ever be in this position."
Unrealistic? Of course, but here he is, at 27 and in only his third full major league season, threatening to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, threatening to hit .400 at a later stage of a season than anyone since George Brett carried the pursuit into September 1980 before finishing at .380, wondering amid it all, "What happens if I hit .399?"
A good point, and his way of asking if he will be considered a failure now if he doesn't hit .400, if the smallest of fractions will be allowed to mar an otherwise mile-high and most-valuable-player-caliber season in which .393 is currently complemented by 110 runs batted in, 31 homers and National League-leading totals for hits, doubles, total bases, extra bases, on-base and slugging percentages, and the esoteric but meaningful category of fewest swings and misses?
For some, of course, it won't matter what he hits or where he stands when the car stops.
They tend to degrade his performance already,
putting an asterisk on his accomplishments because he plays half his games in the hitter's haven that is Coors Field, benefiting from the thin air and spacious
Helton is hitting .425 at Coors, but he is also hitting .360 on the road, the NL's second-highest road average, and his manager, Buddy Bell, is quick to point out that no one put an asterisk next to Williams' name just because he played half his games in cozy Fenway Park, or on those 3,000-plus hits by Wade Boggs, who played the majority of his career in Fenway, or on any of those 17 American League batting titles won by Boston players.
"You have to perform to do what any of those players did, and you have to perform to do what Todd is doing," Bell said.
Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox, who got a close look during a three-game series this week, agreed.
"You can't say the light air is a factor because he's not hitting tape measures," Cox said. "He's hitting bullets. He could be hitting .399 or whatever it is in Atlanta or anywhere.
"Every swing is a line drive. He might be the best hitter I've seen since George Brett, he's that fluid, smooth, well balanced. I mean, I wouldn't bet against him hitting .400, no joke."
Said San Diego's Tony Gwynn, who was at .394 and counting in August 1994 when the players' strike erased the rest of that season: "The way I see it, .400 is .400. People who know the game know that Coors or no Coors, Todd has been hitting the ball hard. He's not getting chinkers or 18-hop grounders through the infield. He's crushing it."
Helton shook his head when asked about the aspersions because of Coors.
"I don't resent it as much as I'm just tired of hearing about it and feeling I have something to apologize for," he said.
"I didn't build the place. I was merely drafted by the Rockies to play here. I'm not ignorant of the fact that this is a good hitter's park and that we may have some discrepancies between our home and away averages, but there's a lot of players who hit better at home than on the road. I shouldn't have to defend myself or my teammates."
Helton should have no reason to be defensive. He is a left-handed batter hitting .412 against left-handed pitchers, .334 against right-handers. He is batting .472 in August, including a 19-for-29 barrage on his team's last trip to raise his average 19 points, an almost impossible jump this late in a season in which he has 455 at-bats. He has also struck out only 42 times, and if there are occasions when he may benefit from Coors, the ballpark can't help his absence of speed and leg hits, meaning almost all of his hits have to land on the outfield grass or beyond.