Beltin'! By smashing pitches at a better than .400 clip, the Rockies' strapping Todd Helton has crashed the upper echelon of hitters

June 04, 2000

The beer in his hand and the bereaved expression on his face
give Todd Helton the appearance of a man at a wake, which, in a
way, he is. Helton, the Colorado Rockies first baseman and the
hottest batter in the major leagues during April and May, is
sitting in front of his locker in the Coors Field clubhouse, his
feet propped up on a black suitcase full of dirty laundry from a
recent road trip. To hear Helton tell it, the suitcase might as
well be a casket containing his timing and mechanics. Poor Todd
has just gone hitless for the third straight game against the
Chicago Cubs, during which his batting average has sunk from a
league-leading .418 to a banjo-hitting .388. "It's like they're
throwing 120 miles per hour every time I go to the plate," he
laments. "I'm just not seeing the ball."

So clueless and adrift was Helton that he had only nine hits
(including a pair of home runs) in his next 12 at bats in a
three-game series last weekend against the Pittsburgh Pirates,
nudging his average to .415 and reclaiming the major league
batting lead. Last Saturday, Helton's solo homer in the ninth, a
413-foot shot to right off Pirates lefty reliever Jason
Christiansen, gave the Rockies a 7-6 win. "You've got to make
quality pitches, or he'll beat you," says Cubs catcher Joe
Girardi, "and he may beat you anyway. Look at his
numbers"--which also included 15 homers, 47 RBIs and a .793
slugging percentage--"those are Little League numbers."

Rockies manager Buddy Bell was amused by a report of Helton's
breast-beating. "All the great players are tough on themselves,"
he says. "That's just going to make him better." In only his
third full big league season, Helton, a 26-year-old Tennessean,
stands on the cusp of becoming one of the game's best players.

He's already one of its best stories. How many guys in the Show
have played quarterback in the Southeastern Conference? Before
signing with the Rockies, who drafted him eighth overall in 1995
and gave him an $892,000 signing bonus, Helton spent three years
on Rocky Top, playing two sports at Tennessee. In football, as a
junior he started three games in '94, throwing for 110 yards and
a touchdown in the Vols' 41-23 victory over Georgia in Athens.
Then he suffered a partially torn right medial collateral
ligament against Mississippi State. When Helton went down, onto
the field to replace him jogged a gangly freshman with a big
upside--a kid by the name of Manning. For all practical
purposes, the injury and Manning's arrival gave Helton the final
push toward a career in baseball. "I got along with Peyton
great," says Helton, a lefty who smiles as easily as he hits to
the opposite field. "We still talk once in a while." You could
say things have worked out for both of them.

You see the quarterback in Helton as he charges a bunt and
throws to second. "He makes that throw like he's making a jump
pass over the middle," says Cubs manager Don Baylor, who
skippered the Rockies from 1993 through '98. You see it also in
Helton's obsession with videotape. Ever since his first full
major league season, in '98, when he hit .315 with 25 homers and
97 RBIs, he has reviewed his every at bat, scribbling
observations in a notebook. "I started doing it to learn more
about the pitchers," he says. "But I ended up learning twice as
much about myself. I'd say, 'Jeez, I've made 15 outs in the last
four days rolling over the ball'--patterns I wouldn't have
picked up on if I hadn't written them down."

First-year general manager Dan O'Dowd arrived in Denver last
September with a blueprint and a flamethrower: Only nine players
remain from last year's Opening Day roster. Having inherited a
last-place collection of cliquish, apathetic underachievers,
O'Dowd has transformed the Rockies, who at week's end were 25-22
and in third place in the National League West, into what he
calls a group of "grinders with talent." The player who best
embodies this plugger's ethos is Helton, a pickup-driving
workaholic who married his college sweetheart, the former Kristi
Bollman, in the off-season. They honeymooned at the Rockies'
baseball fantasy camp. "She's, uh, very understanding," says
Helton, who remains unaffected by his wealth. (He's earning $1.3
million this season, the second year of a four-year, $12 million
pact.) He owns neither the pickup--it's a trade-out from a local
dealership--nor the four-bedroom suburban house that he rents
from St. Louis Cardinals closer and former Rockie Dave Veres.

Why not build your dream house, Helton was asked before a recent
game. "He doesn't have a dream house," said Rodney Helton, a
former Alabama linebacker who feels free to answer for his
little brother. "He's kind of focused on one thing."

It's this laserlike focus that has enabled Todd to methodically
erase one question mark after another during his brief pro
career. A player once thought to lack power, he hit 60 homers
over his first two full big league seasons. Coddled as a rookie
by Baylor, who kept him out of the lineup against tough lefties,
Helton through Sunday was batting .400 against southpaws this
year. Dogged by poor starts in 1998 and '99, Helton spent last
winter doing power cleans, squats, plyometrics "and a bunch of
other stuff I'm terrible at" with a Knoxville trainer named
Charles Petrone. Net result: By mid-May, Helton was approaching
the neighborhood of .400. "If he keeps improving at this rate,"
says Rockies righty reliever Jerry Dipoto, "we're going to have
another Roy Hobbs on our hands."

Truth is, Helton resembles Robert Redford less than he does
character actor Bill Paxton, who played the sadistic older
brother Chet in Weird Science (and who uttered in that role the
timeless line, "You're stewed, buttwad!"). While it may look
natural, Helton's sweet swing is the product of years of
practice. Most nights during grade school, junior high and high
school, after finishing his homework, he would hit balls into a
net in the family garage under the watchful eye of his father,
Jerry, who had jerry-rigged a tee from the hose of an old
washing machine.

As a senior at Knoxville's Central High, Helton was selected in
the second round of the 1992 draft by the San Diego Padres, but
he stayed home to play football and baseball for the Volunteers.
While a football scholarship was his meal ticket, his passion
was always for baseball. Many was the autumn afternoon that he
would excuse himself from films or meetings, sneak down to the
batting cage and take his cuts. Tennessee baseball coach Rod
Delmonico recalls the day during walk-on tryouts that Helton, a
freshman, grabbed a bat and started driving ball after ball out
of the park. Says Delmonico, "Our equipment manager, who was
feeding the pitching machine, came to me all excited, and said,
'Did you see that guy hit? He was pretty good!'"

He was better than good. Following a brilliant college career in
which, in addition to playing first base, he served as the Vols'
closer--"He was the best pitcher I've ever coached," says
Delmonico--Helton signed with Colorado and reported to the Class
A Asheville (N.C.) Tourists. The transition from college to the
pros proved tougher than he'd expected. Helton had never been a
pull hitter, but the short porch in right at Asheville's
McCormick Field beckoned like a siren. "I tried to hit it every
time," says Helton.

Instead, he hit .254, with one home run and countless ground
balls to second. The Rockies' roving hitting instructor at the
time was Clint Hurdle, who dubbed Helton's unhappy first pro
season "The Summer of 4 to 3." Helton had gone from college
football to college baseball to Asheville within six months. "He
was drained," says Hurdle.

Rejuvenated by an off-season in Maui, where he played some
baseball and more golf, Helton returned to the mainland and tore
up the minors for two years, hitting .352 in 99 games at Triple
A Colorado Springs in 1997 before being called up to the Rockies
to finish the season. It helped that Baylor had put the word out
to coaches in the Rockies' organization that no one, but no one,
was to "mess with this guy"--that is, try to make Helton pull
the ball. Having seen Helton's silky swing and natural power to
the opposite field, Baylor was reminded of another first
baseman, a former teammate of his. When Don Mattingly came up to
the New York Yankees, says Baylor, "he couldn't pull the ball
either."

After Helton's rookie year Baylor was replaced by Jim Leyland,
who retired after one catastrophic 72-90 season in which
Colorado's clubhouse, according to one insider, featured "more
backstabbing than a beauty pageant." Hitters blamed pitchers for
not doing their jobs; pitchers ripped hitters for lack of
support. When outfielder Darryl Hamilton and shortstop Neifi
Perez nearly came to blows during a midsummer screaming match,
teammates sat and watched. "No one cared," says one witness.

Helton was miserable. "I was letting external events, things
that guys were saying, affect the way I played," he says. On a
quiet morning in Milwaukee last August, he and Hurdle had a
heart-to-heart in the bowels of County Stadium, a colloquy known
in Rockies lore as the Milwaukee Talk and one that spurred
Helton to finish the season with a .320 average, 35 homers and
113 RBIs.

The Talk ranged from Helton's attitude to his body language in
the on-deck circle. Recounting the discussion for the Rocky
Mountain News, Hurdle recalled telling his pupil, "Every time
the pitcher looks on deck, you should be looking at him. You
don't let him breathe."

When you get a chance, watch Helton when he's on deck. He stands
a few steps beyond the circle, insinuating himself into the
pitcher's field of vision while boring holes in the poor fellow
with his stare. All this may not be necessary. He's already on
the pitcher's mind. "You come to Colorado, the first guy you
talk about is Todd Helton," says Cubs righthander Kerry Wood.
"We try to stay down in the zone and not give him anything to
hit."

"By the same token," adds Cubs righty Jon Lieber, "you don't
want to get behind in the count, because that makes him a much
better hitter."

Either way, you're stewed.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER

Hell of a Hitter

After Todd Helton (above, right) went 3 for 4 with a double and
an RBI in the Rockies' 11-2 win over the Pirates on Sunday, he
had a batting average of .415 for this season and .327 for his
391-game big league career. Here's how Helton stacks up against
some of today's other top hitters at the same point in their
careers.

PLAYER, TEAM AVG. HR RBI

Todd Helton, Rockies .327 80 268
Mike Piazza, Dodgers .323 92 306
Tony Gwynn, Padres .321 11 152
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox .318 83 293
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners .312 77 254
Bobby Abreu, Astros-Phillies .311 42 201
Vladimir Guerrero, Expos .309 84 252
Jason Kendall, Pirates .309 22 153
Derek Jeter, Yankees .302 29 192
Edgar Martinez, Mariners .299 28 136

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)