SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton has played more Cactus League games than he'd bother to count. Because of back problems that have bothered him on and off for a decade, the number of games Helton plays during the spring is becoming fewer.
Nonetheless, games like Wednesday's 8-6 loss to the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium -- Helton's 2012 debut -- are special.
"I was definitely nervous," said Helton, who lifted a soft single to left field off Tim Lincecum in his first at-bat, scored a run, and finished the day 1-for-3. "Timing was the worst part, but my body felt good. But timing will come."
For Helton, 38, the limited time on the field -- experiencing nerves and struggling for timing in the batter's box -- is pure fun. The rest of it, not so much.
The Rockies are in the second year at their complex at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. One of the key features of the 75,000-square-foot space the club has to itself is a state-of-the-art weight room and athletic training areas, which Helton has to use because of his age and his back. For Helton, who underwent back surgery in 2008 and must constantly manage pain, the opulent facilities are places to put himself through necessary discomfort.
Another feature is a plush theater where the team conducts strategy meetings. Helton appreciates the place as much as any, but what goes on inside isn't exactly his idea of a good time.
Helton, don't forget, was a football star in high school and was the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee immediately before Peyton Manning. But the writer George F. Will once dismissed football as "the worst elements of American society: violence punctuated by committee meetings." That's just what happens on the field. Helton once said the off-the-field meetings that coaches insisted on having helped drive him to the baseball diamond.
Now he rolls his eyes at the way football ethos has encroached into baseball thinking, but he tolerates it.
"I do enjoy being out there on the field, that part of it," Helton said. "I don't enjoy all the other auxiliary meetings and stuff that we have, housecleaning-type things that take so much of our time. There are too many meetings."
But Helton will put up with the headaches and backaches for an opportunity to lift the Rockies.
"I really haven't put the cage work in that I should at this point, because I'm saving it for the end of spring," Helton said. "Anybody wants to go out and hit three home runs the first game. I did, too. But it's going to be a process. At least now I know things to work on."
Manager Jim Tracy smiled at the irony that Helton, a player the Rockies need to handle carefully, had to go from first to home, on Michael Cuddyer's triple, the first time he reached base in a Cactus League game.
Such plays can't be avoided. Tracy trusts Helton with what can be controlled.
"Todd Helton has a pretty good idea of where he's at, what he needs to do and how he needs to do it," Tracy said.
Last season, Helton rebounded from an injury-affected .256 performance in 2010 to hit .302 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs. But unlike 2007 and 2009, the previous two years that he was mostly healthy and hit better than .300, the Rockies did not make the postseason. Helton, whom the Rockies shut down after Sept. 13 to give his back extra rest, ended up calling it "the biggest disappointment that I ever went through," because the Rockies went 73-89 after being expected to reach the postseason.
However, it didn't take long into the offseason for Helton to feel young again.
Part of the reason is he isn't so old, thanks to some of the moves the Rockies have made. First baseman Jason Giambi is back for another season at age 41. They signed third baseman Casey Blake, who turns 39 on Aug. 23 -- three days after Helton reaches that age. Non-roster pitcher Jamie Moyer is attempting a comeback from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow at age 49. Cuddyer, 32, second baseman Marco Scutaro, 35, and catcher Ramon Hernandez, 35, also give Helton teammates in his relative age group.
In seasons before the Rockies' surprise run to a National League title in 2007, Helton often received a heaping helping of blame for the team's losing.
But when the team matured into a winner, players Helton helped on and off the field through their Minor League careers had matured and were taking ownership of the team's culture, and the team found a young, natural leader in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Veteran additions such as infielder Jamey Carroll and relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, whom Helton said was one of the best leaders he'd ever been around, were powerful voices alongside his.
Helton believes the 2012 Rockies have the potential to be as gritty.
"If a headache does come up, there is a bigger group, a bigger voice, that can correct the problem with minimal work," Helton said. "It's not just two guys yelling like two old guys -- a 'that's the way it used to be' type thing. This is the way it ought to be."
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.