On the last night of August, the eve of the last month of the regular season, I found myself at my first Colorado Rockies game of the year. I’d spent most of the previous months traveling, missing entirely the early months when the Rockies made a strong start behind timely hitting and unexpectedly successful pitching, and missing entirely the Phillies’ visit to Denver, which had become a new Pennsylvania-transplant-in-the-West tradition for me. And though I was going to see baseball—taking my parents and my brother to their first game at Coors Field, because they’d come two thousand miles to visit for a week—and because baseball is always preferable to not-baseball, the air was shifting.
Most people crave autumn, but August’s finale guts me. Always the heartbreaking close of summer, no matter the weather, always the beginning of the end of baseball season, which is the beginning of the long dark. While everyone else gets excited for September because finally the games feel like they mean something—and the NL Central race really is a brilliant thing this year—I hate it. I hate the rapidity with which the season careens toward the new Wild Card play-in, that one do-or-die game that embodies the stark fact that there are now a dozen fewer games each day. And as elimination wields its knife, more games are cut away with each passing series. I start proselytizing: the playoff series sweep is loathsome, three or four games where we might have had five or seven. What joy is there in that? I am preaching to the unconvertible, but I preach.
But: the calendar still said August. The midday was ninety degrees and the kind of blinding mountainous bright that confounds life-long mid-Atlantics. We walked around Denver, we ate delicious Mexican food, we looked up at blue, blue sky.
The weather at Coors Field refuses to stay invisible. By invisible, I mean the way three June nights at San Diego’s Petco Park dissolved into absolute room temperature—air and skin one and the perfect same. Summer and baseball knit themselves into a seamless circular whole beside the bay. In Denver, the mountains in the distance draw the eye, won’t let you forget their present permanence. They’re either sharp and clean and distractingly immense over the stadium’s left field shoulder while you sweat into a puddle, or vanished entirely behind some clouds they’ve shrugged off, and the dry heat meets something it doesn’t like, and the hour before those 6:40 starts becomes a whip of wind and rain and spectacular lightning. It seldom lasts long, and the concourse above the bullpens is a great place to wait for the probable rainbow after a short rain delay. But when those clouds roll in, it’s simply a matter of waiting for the thunderous shoe to drop.
This night promised the same, no matter its sunny start: at 5:30, as we crossed Blake Street, the rising wind dragged every thin pinprick of water sideways into our faces, and the sky matted gray. We hurried into the stadium, but once inside, I didn’t want to wait under cover. The outfield’s open concourse called.
On August 27, Hunter Pence awkwardly, beautifully, kale-poweredly destroyed a Chad Bettis fastball that cleared the left-field bleachers, bouncing from the concourse into the brick wall beside the Blue Moon kiosk. Until Evan Gattis’ September Sunday shot against my Phillies, Pence’s home run was the longest of the season. And that was the game, given the geographical proximity—only a few days earlier—I wished I’d been present for.
Honestly, there are a lot of other games all through the season and all over the North American stadia map that I’d have rather seen than this one between the Reds and Rockies. Colorado’s lineup is beleaguered by injuries such that our seats, chosen for their potential proximity to Carlos Gonzalez’s territory, left us looking at Corey Dickerson’s hapless back all night. The centerfielder cutting in on shots to the gap would be not Dexter Fowler but Charlie Blackmon.
But the game hadn’t even begun yet. Anything was possible, as ever, and we were in the place where Hunter Pence had hit a baseball a half a mile. As a fan of the most improbable player in the game—the aforementioned goofy-eyed stork, a man able to hit a baseball thrice in one gangling swing—I figured I should try to embrace that.
So in the windy drizzle, I lingered a little where Pence’s home run bounced, paying some homage to my favorite player, who was no longer part of my favorite team, or in the building. Watch baseball long enough and this light melancholy becomes a permanent thing: attention and affection fragments because of trades, passion fades with the increased tolerance offered by better access to more games and more players and more excellent baseball writing. (All of which serves to remind those of us who need the least reminding just how terrible the Phillies’ front office is and how angry I am that Ruben Amaro, Jr. made me agree with Jonathan Papelbon.)
And yet, in part because of that fragmentation and now more than ever, all baseball is good baseball. It didn’t take long for this game to forge its own tensions, its own potential pleasures, even without the member of the Rockies most worth watching out there blowing bubbles in left field. And we had History to hope for, all capital-lettered and round-numbered, with each Todd Helton at-bat. He entered the game with 2,499 hits. The night before, in the series opener against the Reds, Helton hit two three-run home runs to bring him to that brink. He then struck out in his final at-bat of the night, stranding two more runners. I’d been a little selfishly glad about that—it meant we had a chance to see the hit that would come next, to see something.
Brandon Phillips drove in the game’s first run with a triple as the second batter in the first. Joey Votto drove him in, and Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio couldn’t recover. The Reds clubbed him for six runs, sent him to the showers before the middle of the fifth. The outlook for a Pirates-helping Rockies win and the sky were both bleak. The weather held, stuttering out only a few dull drops every half inning. Phillips was also, by the end of the fifth, merely a single away from hitting for the cycle. None of us had ever seen anyone hit for the cycle in person before. And still, despite striking out and flying out, Todd Helton had another half a game for that historic hit. We primed our phones and cameras. In the spaces between innings, we deleted blurry photo after blurry photo—we’d had our fingers on the shutters, just in case that swing was the one, and had been maybe a little overeager in our attempts to capture it.
Helton’s chase was one of the bigger stories of the season’s slow September petering out, but felt somewhat less significant. I’m not particularly a fan of The Toddfather, although I would consider myself a fan of his work in the Rockies’ ROOT SPORTS commercials—maybe all those years of filming dorky television spots finally hones some acting chops. It’s not possible to consider the Rockies and ignore what Helton’s done for them and meant to Colorado sports—and really, the whole mountain west. This is part of why he skates on doing stupid, stupid things that should carry a lot more consequence than they ever do.
The only other time I found myself in a circumstance similar to this muted Helton-mania was in Casper, Wyoming’s Mike Lansing Field, back when the Rockies’ rookie-ball team was the Casper Ghosts. In 2010, Helton was working his way through lower back stiffness, and since the Ghosts weren’t far from the parent club and since Todd Helton probably didn’t need a whole lot of work to figure out baseball again, his rehab stint was there. Thanks to his weekend presence, the Ghosts crushed their attendance records, and the crowd got everything it could have wanted, including a game-winner and the collectible fruits of his absolutely infinite patience for photos and autographs. We took bad pictures then, too.
If BaseBa’al were a kind and benevolent deity, Todd Helton would have put number 2,500 deep into the right field seats. He didn’t. Helton whiffed three times in his 0-for-4 night, the Rockies as a team were only barely better, and the apparently literate dudebro behind us—after explaining to someone, loudly, his graduate work on Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kant—kept shouting at Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick in German. Throw out the contextual sophistication, and shouting You’re a little girl as an insult cries out for an elbow in the teeth just as loudly in German as it does in English.
In the seats in front of me, though, four little leaguers scarfed enough Dippin’ Dots to re-freeze half the glaciers in Greenland. They turned their baseball caps inside out and upside down appropriately and discussed the Rockies’ connection to the Manning brothers: Peyton was once a backup to Todd Helton, and former Rockies outfielder Seth Smith was a backup to Eli.
Boy 1: Is that true?
Boy 2: That’s a fact.
Boy 3: True that.
Boy 4: *sage nod*
I wasn’t the only one eavesdropping. Before the ninth inning began, after Corey Dickerson hit a two-run homer that almost made up for his rough night in the outfield and which was the first—and, it turned out, last—sign of purple-and-black life since the fifth, a woman sitting in front of them turned around and told the kids she enjoyed their engagement, their informed commentary.
The boys made a collective eyebrow-raise. One said, “Does that mean you don’t?”
But she was serious and somehow taken aback that twelve-year-olds’ default assumption was that she was smart-assing them. “It’s a compliment,” she said, “so thank you.” She was glad they were paying attention, and the whole section seemed to echo agreement. In contrast to the multilingual, erudite ass yelling his head off all night, a little genuine Let’s-go Ro-ckies went a long way.
In the bottom of the ninth, down five runs, we stood on the peanut shells and ice cream cups and hoped for history, if not victory. The little leaguers ignored the wave’s patchy, wretched shuffle around the stadium. They folded their hands over their mitts over their rally-capped heads and watched as Todd Helton stepped in to face Sam LeCure. With even the weather stalled and impotent, Phillips’ cycle incomplete after a ground-out in the eighth, we all already knew how this one ended.
The next day, Todd Helton did get that milestone hit, and the Rockies won, powered along by Michael Cuddyer’s impressive afternoon. I wasn’t there for it, was hiking with my family in Rocky Mountain National Park, which my dad wanted to see more than baseball. That was September 1, and the weather still offered summer. Estes Park was still dry and the news was only its regular abstracted kind of awful, not the hundreds-unaccounted-for awfulness that crushed through the state soon afterwards.
Everyone knew Todd Helton would eventually get that hit because there was a whole month of baseball left. My family’s reasoning proved wise by any measure, holding up a view of Longs Point from Jewel Lake at 9,800 feet, the sky hourglassing into treeless peaks so pale they seemed another reflection of air, preempting and doubling the lake’s mirror. It was better than a baseball game at which nothing of any consequence could really happen, and it was better because how could such a view be anything less? By all measures of intellect, I couldn’t argue.
The game, too, was recorded and catalogued the way every game is. If I wanted to re-watch the entire thing, I could. If I wanted to put Helton’s hit on replay for seventeen hours, I could do that, too. It wasn’t something I could possibly miss, but it was never about Helton’s hit. Choosing to venerate round numbers is, in itself, a silly thing. Hit 2,501 will still be one more hit than Helton’s ever had, as will the next, and the next. Sometime near the end of September, Todd Helton will get the last hit he’ll ever have because he’s made that announcement and seems likely to stick to it.
For the next two weeks, baseball will wax sentimental about everything he does and has done. It’s been the same—more amplified still—for Mariano Rivera, whose Yankee season seems more a farewell tour than anything else. The rocking chair Mariano received from the Twins is emblematic of the excess, and it would be ridiculous if it weren’t also so actually awesome. I want to roll my eyes, but—it’s a rocking chair, made of actual broken bats. People on my Twitter feed were talking about how Helton never pitched in a big league game—the cry was let him. Why not? We deny our heroes nothing as they leave.
And there I’m caught. For so many players, not just those who will more quietly hang up their cleats in November but everyone involved, the unspectacular contest we witnessed was one more game, one more game in one more August. It didn’t really matter that I’d been back to school/work for two weeks by then—there were the little leaguers who were still reveling in those nine innings of summer. The feeling spread.
It was my last live baseball of the season. I didn’t get to see anything I wanted, and statistically, that’s more usually the case than the alternative. But I might have—we always might—and that’s a fact.