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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.
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