Search

Historic Quest In trying to become the first hitter since Ted Williams to bat .400, Todd Helton of the Rockies is battling long odds, his psyche and 59 years of futility

Sept. 04, 2000
Sept. 04, 2000

Table of Contents
Sept. 4, 2000

Olympics 2000 [bonus Piece]

Historic Quest In trying to become the first hitter since Ted Williams to bat .400, Todd Helton of the Rockies is battling long odds, his psyche and 59 years of futility

Home runs are a matter of simple arithmetic. No one needed a
calculator to follow Mark McGwire down the stretch of his
record-breaking 1998 season. The home runs just added up. What
was gained could never be lost.

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 2000 issue Original Layout

What Todd Helton is doing this summer is more complicated. Forget
the pennant and wild-card races. The most exciting division in
baseball is the computation that goes on after every at bat by
Helton, the lefthanded-hitting Colorado Rockies first baseman.
He's trying to become the ninth man since 1900 and the first in
59 years to hit .400. The mathematics of that pursuit are as
daunting as the history.

"You picked up a point today," a reporter informed Helton after
he got two hits in four at bats in Colorado's 11-4 win over the
Pittsburgh Pirates last Saturday, raising his average to .393.

"I got a whole point," Helton said in mock excitement. "I'll
celebrate tonight."

His droll response was understandable, considering that Helton
had entered the series at Three Rivers Stadium last Friday on a
10-game tear in which he'd smashed 15 hits in 39 at bats--and lost
a point on his batting average. His 2-for-4 day on Saturday only
meant that he would have to put together nine more consecutive
games like it just to get to .400. Go figure.

On Sunday, Helton again went 2 for 4 in the Rockies' 9-2 defeat
of the Pirates, leaving him at .394. Based on his rate of at bats
per game through Sunday, Helton would need to hit .431 the rest
of the way (50 for 116 over 32 games) to finish at .401. Then
again, he's still at such a preposterously high level that he
could go 0 for 116 and finish at .315, his career average
entering this season.

Whether Helton hits .400 or not, he already has succeeded in
proving how difficult the task is. Ascending to .400 this late in
the season is like climbing Mount Everest: the closer to the
summit, the more treacherous it is to advance, the easier it is
to plummet. "What I've found out is that it is a little bit of a
psychological barrier," Helton says. "I try not to stare at the
scoreboard when I bat, but hitters usually know what they're
hitting."

Through Sunday, Helton hadn't finished a day at .400 since June
10. Yet he was at .390 or better in 28 games since then,
including 16 consecutive games at week's end. (The Coors Field
scoreboard in Denver had him at .400 after he singled in his
first at bat on Aug. 21, but that was only by rounding up from
.3995, a practice that baseball's official statistician, the
Elias Sports Bureau, doesn't apply for such a milestone.)

"When I don't get a hit now, being this close, it does get a
little more discouraging," Helton says. "I hit line drives at the
pitcher twice [last week] and was out both times. That hurts. But
I knocked in a run with one of them. I also realize I can't guide
the ball. I can't pull out a wedge and place the ball over the
shortstop's head. All I can do is swing hard and hopefully get a
hit."

The eight .400 hitters since 1900--including Ty Cobb and Rogers
Hornsby, who each accomplished the feat three times, and George
Sisler, who did it twice--are all in the Hall of Fame except Joe
Jackson. (He's not eligible for induction because of his ban from
baseball related to the fixed 1919 World Series.) No one has hit
.400 since Ted Williams batted .406 in '41 for the Boston Red
Sox. Thus the milestone has been out of reach longer than were
the single-season home run records of Babe Ruth (34 seasons) and
Roger Maris (37).

Since 1941 only three players have even finished with an average
better than .380: Williams (.388 in '57), the Minnesota Twins'
Rod Carew (.388 in '77) and the Kansas City Royals' George Brett
(.390 in 1980). The San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn hit .394 in '94,
but that season was truncated on Aug. 11 by a players' strike,
making his average the equivalent of ending the Boston Marathon
before reaching Heartbreak Hill.

"In a lot of ways Todd reminds me of George Brett," says Colorado
manager Buddy Bell, Brett's third-base contemporary during his
playing days. "Their passion, their work ethic and their respect
for the history of the game are similar. George was the greatest
hitter I ever saw, and he couldn't hit .400, so that should tell
you something about how hard it is."

As of Sunday, Helton, 27, who had missed only two games all
season, already had more at bats (465) than Williams had in 1941
(456) or Brett had in '80 (449). Brett missed nearly a month of
that season with an ankle injury and another week in September
with tendinitis in his right hand. After a slow start that left
him at .255 on May 23, Brett reached .400 for the first time on
Aug. 17. He was batting .401 as late as Sept. 4 (chart, left) and
.3995 as late as Sept. 19, but a 4-for-28 slump over the next
seven games ruined his chances. He batted .324 in September.

"I had as much fun as I possibly could," Brett says, "but all of
a sudden, I got close. With a few weeks to go I was still over
.400, and I did the one thing I probably shouldn't have done: I
tried to hit .400 rather than just go out and not worry about it.
When I got close, I tried too hard. I've always said that in
baseball, you can't try hard. You have to do everything easy."

When told of Brett's comments last Saturday, Helton said, "I'm
glad you told me that, because lately I feel I've been trying to
force things. I've been too conscious of getting hits rather than
just putting a good swing on the ball. It's reassuring to hear
him say that. I know what it feels like."

Williams entered his famous final weekend in 1941 batting .401.
"A batting record's no good unless it's made in all the games of
the season," Williams said during an off day, one of two straight
and nine that month, on Friday, Sept. 26, in Philadelphia. The
next day he went 1 for 4 against the Athletics, dropping his
average to .3995. Then, in front of 10,268 fans at Shibe Park, he
went 4 for 5 and 2 for 3 in a final-day doubleheader. Williams
hit .397 in September that year. Mindful of that history, Bell
says he may offer Helton the opportunity to take "one or two"
days off the rest of the season. Helton, however, vows that he
will play every game.

"People have asked me what will happen if Todd's hitting .401
going into the last weekend," says Bell, whose Rockies finish
with three games against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
(Helton has hit .292 in 24 at bats against Atlanta this season.)
"He's going to play, and I believe he would have a better shot at
hitting .403 than .399. One thing that makes him great is he has
absolutely no fear."

Helton's task is more difficult than Williams's was for several
reasons: the evolution of relief pitching ("Todd almost never
sees a tired arm and sees a lot of lefthanders late in the game,"
Bell says); vast improvements in fielding; and a more rigorous
schedule. Williams played only two teams outside the Eastern time
zone and none farther west than St. Louis. Because of injuries,
off days and 15 rainouts, only twice did Williams play more than
10 consecutive days that season--once for 15 days and once for 16.
This season the Rockies played 41 games in 42 days before an off
day last Thursday, crossing time zones 10 times. On the other
hand Helton benefits from advances in training, nutrition, jet
transportation and scouting, plus video aides.

Like Williams, who hit .425 at Fenway Park in 1941, Helton enjoys
a hitter-friendly home stadium. Coors Field may skew offensive
numbers more than any other park in history, with Helton among
the many players who have prospered there. Fly balls carry about
10 percent farther at Denver's mile-high altitude than at sea
level. In an attempt to compensate for that, Coors has a vast
outfield--but that leaves exaggerated spaces in front of and
between outfielders, which creates more room for hits to fall.
Helton is a career .381 hitter at Coors but .291 elsewhere. This
season he had hit .425 at home and .362 on the road.

Colorado was scheduled to play 19 of its final 29 games at home;
included are visits this week from the pitching staffs of the
Milwaukee Brewers (4.67 team ERA) and Chicago Cubs (5.04). Helton
was hitting .423 against the Brewers this season but a mere .091
against the Cubs. "All he has to do is keep his head above water
on the road, and he can do it," says Jim Leyland, who managed the
Rockies last year. "When he gets home, especially against
mediocre pitching, it's easy to get three hits a night there. I
think he's going to do it."

"Gee, thanks," Helton said, rolling his eyes at Leyland's
comments. Helton, like most Rockies hitters, doesn't like to
acknowledge the Coors advantage. "Is it a good park to hit in?
Yeah," he concedes. "So are Wrigley Field and Camden Yards. I
didn't design Coors Field; I just play there. But if I had
designed it, I'd be proud of it. It's a beautiful place to play."

"This is what I've told Todd," says Colorado hitting coach Clint
Hurdle, who was a teammate of Brett's in 1980. "There's nothing
negative about what you're doing. Todd's real sharp. He's learned
so much quicker than most people to worry only about what you can
control. Everything else, you let go."

Helton has improved in each of his three full seasons in the big
leagues. With a slope-shouldered physique reminiscent of those of
Stan Musial and Don Mattingly, Helton is an all-fields hitter
with power who walks often and rarely strikes out. Through Sunday
only seven batters in baseball who could qualify for the hitting
lead--none of whom had more than 12 home runs--had been tougher to
fan than Helton, who had 32 dingers while whiffing only once
every 13.0 plate appearances. He had failed to make contact on
only 9% of the pitches he had swung at this season. "It's like
he's got radar in his bat," says Colorado reliever Gabe White,
who joined the Rockies in April after a trade from the Cincinnati
Reds. "He can swing at pitches that are real pitcher's pitches
and still get the bat on the ball. He can foul it off and get to
the pitch that he really wants to hit. He can hit .400. If he's
done it this late into the season, he can do it."

Helton, too, has begun to believe. Until the series in
Pittsburgh, he had dismissed talk of hitting .400 as "too early."
Then before last Saturday's game, Helton was close enough to the
summit to say blankly, "I think it can be done."

The .400 watch is beginning to build. Last Friday the Rockies
arranged a news conference with Helton in the visitors' dugout at
Three Rivers Stadium. Eight media members showed up, about 25
fewer than attended a press gathering for McGwire in the same
stadium at a similar juncture in the 1998 season. Helton stood
and answered questions politely but with the bored, glazed look
of someone shaving. The press is in the process of discovering
him.

"Can you sing Rocky Top?" one reporter asked Helton, a former
University of Tennessee quarterback, referring to the Volunteers'
fight song.

"I can but I won't," Helton retorted.

Later, after the group had dispersed, Helton said of the growing
scrutiny, "It's August, and there's a lot of time left. I never
thought I'd be doing this, so who knows what's going to happen?
If I don't do it, it won't be because I was distracted."

Helton already has carried the chase longer than anybody else in
20 years. That alone says much about him and .400. "There's a
reason nobody's done it since 1941," says Bell.

Hitting .400? It's hard as Helton.

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO (HELTON)B/W PHOTO: SI PICTURE COLLECTION (WILLIAMS)B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBISCOLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GOLDSMITH Achingly close In 1980, tendinitis in his right hand hampered Brett in his late-season push to join Hornsby in the .400 club.COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO

Extra Credit

If Todd Helton finishes with a .400 or higher average, he'll
have accomplished at least one other feat: hitting more doubles
in his .400 season than the eight other members of the .400 club
did in any of theirs. (At week's end the Rockies slugger already
had 50 two-baggers.) Here are the best performances in the major
offensive categories during a .400 season and Helton's projected
numbers in those categories.

CATEGORY RECORD (PLAYER, TEAM, SEASON) HELTON
(PROJECTED)
Hits 257 (George Sisler, Browns, 1920) 232
Doubles 49 (Sisler, 1920) 63
Triples 24 (Ty Cobb, Tigers, 1911) 3
HRs 42 (Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals, 1924) 41
RBIs 152 (Hornsby, 1922) 147
Walks 145 (Ted Williams, Red Sox, 1941) 106
On-base pct. .551 (Williams, 1941) .484
Slugging pct. .756 (Hornsby, 1925) .716

Into Thin Air

In the past quarter century four players--not including Tony Gwynn
in the strike-shortened season of 1994--have flirted with .400.
Here are their respective high-water marks after June 1, their
last dates hitting above .400 and their final batting averages.

PLAYER, TEAM, YEAR HIGHEST AVG. LAST DATE FINAL
(DATE) AT .400 AVG.

Rod Carew, Twins, 1977 .411 (June 29
and July 1) July 10 .388
George Brett, Royals, 1980 .407 (Aug. 26) Sept. 4 .390
John Olerud, Blue Jays, 1993 .411 (June 22) Aug. 2 .363
Larry Walker, Rockies, 1997 .422 (June 9) July 18 .366

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

"I try not to stare at the scoreboard when I bat," says Helton,
"but hitters usually know what they're hitting."