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."