Beefier Helton primed to prove himself all over again

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - For the last couple of years, Todd Helton didn't want to muscle up too much.

For one thing, there were unsupported accusations of steroid use that dogged the Colorado Rockies' slugger in 2005, and a bulked-up body would have only fueled those uncertain glances.

More importantly, there was his bad back. He was reluctant to pack on the pounds for fear his spine wouldn't hold up under the stress.

So, here's Helton now, looking like an NFL linebacker and tipping the scales at close to 230 pounds, a good 25 to 30 more than last year.

What gives?

Over the winter, the 33-year-old Helton cleaned his plate and hit the weights like he did in his 20s. He spent last season fruitlessly trying to regain his strength, stamina and power stroke after an intestinal infection landed him in the intensive care unit in April.

"I really got to feel what it felt like to be unhealthy and hit a ball and see it not really go anywhere," Helton said. "So, I put on some weight and hopefully it'll translate into some more power. I basically got sick of people telling me, 'Man, it looks like you've lost a lot of weight."'

So, when the first baseman finally got a clean bill of health last fall, he was a madman in the gym again.

"I pretty much figured I'm not going to steal any bases anyway," Helton said. "So, why train to be a runner when all I do is hit and I've only got to take three steps and catch the ball anyhow?"

Last year, Helton hit .302 with 15 homers - both career lows - and 81 RBIs in 145 games, which came on the heels of an injury-filled 2005 season in which he hit .320 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs.

Because of those numbers - and despite his Hall of Fame credentials - Helton said he feels he has something to show this season: "I've got some stuff to prove, there's no doubt about that."

Most hitters would love to have his stats from the last two seasons, but this was quite a downturn for a man whose .333 batting average is the best in baseball since he first put on a major league uniform on Aug. 2, 1997.

"I take responsibility for last year," general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "I so much wanted him to get back in the lineup because I really thought our club had a chance to do some neat things last year. I think in hindsight, what I should have done was just put my foot down and said no, shut him down for a few months and let Ryan Shealy play."

For a while it seemed the only hits Helton could manage were the ones he kept taking to his confidence.

"Confidence in this game is a very elusive thing, and not just for younger players. Every player goes through that, whether they admit it or not," O'Dowd said. "Last year was the first year this guy didn't perform at an extremely elite level. It's very difficult to go through an entire career and not have a year like that. It's almost impossible."

Helton set out over the winter in search of his former build and his old form. One morning he stepped on the bathroom scale and saw the numbers inching upward, finally. But he still wasn't certain about his health.

"You always have that doubt. When you get your first little stomach ache, you're like, 'Oh, shoot.' But I went back to the doctor and got some reassurance that everything was good," Helton said.

With his mind at ease, Helton quickly put aside any trepidation about his bad back caving under the weight of his new build, and he added daily core strengthening exercises to his regimen as a precaution.

"My back's as good as it's been in years," Helton said. "Usually, the last couple of years I've been babying it in my workouts. This year, I said I'm just going to strengthen my back as much as I can and work through it as much as I can, and it's made a huge difference. It really feels good."

It was his return to health that prompted the Boston Red Sox to inquire about him in the offseason. The Rockies offered to pick up much of the $90.1 million left on his contract, but the Red Sox ultimately were unwilling to part with pitching prospects and Colorado called off talks.

"I was rooting for that the whole time," teammate Matt Holliday said. "I was really hoping that things would fall apart and that he would be back. When that happened, I was ecstatic."

A deal could still happen, though. Helton will make $16.16 million this year and owner Charlie Monfort has said that while he'd prefer to see Helton batting cleanup for Colorado all the way to September, tying up 30 percent of the team's $55 million payroll isn't a good business model.

Helton's only move so far has been back to the cleanup spot, flip-flipping spots with Holliday, a move designed to split up Colorado's lefties and righties and force opposing managers to burn their bullpens.

Even though he's carrying more weight around, Helton shouldn't feel the need to carry the team as he has in the past.

"We're beginning to have other star players around him. He just has to fit in now," O'Dowd said. "He doesn't have to carry the whole train. He doesn't have to be the caboose. He can just be a part of the train that links up to take this thing where it needs to go."

(Copyright 2007. The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)