DENVER -- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton has spent the last several years on a series of never-ending projects in regard to his back. He's been either rehabbing it, working to make it stronger, or backing off the effort to keep from taxing it.
But this offseason, Helton decided he couldn't win a Gold Glove, which he has won three times, treating the back with kid gloves. He can't hit for power and average at an All-Star level, a place he has been five times, without hitting the weight room hard.
After struggling through the worst season of his career in 2010, not only because of his back but mainly because he mysteriously lost strength in his legs, Helton, 37, believes his hard work could pay off in 2011.
"I figured I'm at the point where I was going to push it," Helton said. "It really doesn't matter at this point. Going into the season, I needed to be stronger, regardless what it took. I wasn't going to baby it anymore."
It's an approach that fits the playing style that made Helton special. Over 14 seasons, Helton has a .324 batting average, 2,236 hits and 333 home runs. Among active players, Helton ranks second in on-base percentage (among players with 3,000 plate appearances) at .424, third in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) at .979 and third in doubles with 527.
All this, even the on-base performance, came from an aggressive hitting style. As is common with players high in walks -- Helton ranks seventh among active players with 1,197 -- the passes come not with keeping the bat on his shoulder, but in attacking the plate to the point where pitchers are badgered into throwing outside the strike zone.
That's why last season was a jarring development. Helton dropped to .256 in 118 games. It was the second-fewest games of his career. The difference between that and his 83-game 2008 was Helton needed back surgery then. Last season, there was no operation to blame. Helton worked hard on his back and core muscles going into the season. Although the injury was officially a back strain, the bigger problem was the power in his legs deserted him.
"There was not a new injury or anything like that," Helton said. "Mentally, there were probably a few injuries, just hurting my pride and all that stuff, I'm sure. Other than that, I was healthy. There was no excuse.
"I actually didn't see it coming. It's just one day I went out there and it wasn't there. It was an uphill battle after that more than anything."
Helton was at Coors Field with many of his teammates on Friday, shooting the team's creative commercials. After shooting his scenes, Helton stayed in uniform and went into the batting cage for extra work. This was not a guy babying his back.
Helton's power has diminished as the back problems have worsened, but it's not as if his production is a distant memory. He hit .320 in 2007, when the Rockies made it to the World Series, and .325 in '09, when they made another playoff trip. Rockies manager Jim Tracy -- after hearing reports about how strong Helton has looked this offseason -- was eager to see if he can regain his past form.
"I'm looking forward to it," Tracy said. "I miss him."
Helton said only in extremely frustrating moments did retirement ever enter his mind. "Did I mean it?" he said. "No."
Last year, Helton restructured a contract that was to end this year into a deal that gives him $29 million over the next three seasons. Yes, the move gave the Rockies payroll flexibility.
More important to Helton, it gives him more time to live his dream.
"I plan on playing the next three years -- that's how long I'm under contract," he said. "I plan on leaving the game. I plan on leaving it on a good note, and I'm going to go hunt and be a dad.
"But I can do that when I'm 50. I've only got a limited time frame that my body is going to allow me to come to a clubhouse and be a teammate and go play the game I love at the highest level."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.