Sunday, August 27, 2000

It's Helton chasing .400

Pressure building for Rockies first baseman

By Jeff Carlton
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Back when he was strictly bush league, the scouts, the coaches and the experts all said the same things about Todd Helton: a promising but not spectacular prospect, a decent hitter, a player who wouldn't hit for power in the big leagues. They were all wrong.

        Batting .393 entering today's game at Pittsburgh, Helton — now the Colorado Rockies' first baseman — is making the first serious run at .400 since George Brett hit .390 in 1980. The last .400 hitter was Ted Williams (.406) in 1941.

        To join the .400 club — just six players have reached that mark since 1900 — Helton will have to contend with an intense scrutiny players in earlier eras couldn't have imagined. Sports highlight shows, from ESPN's SportsCenter to local nightly newscasts, are beginning to showcase his every at-bat.

        Baseball writers question him at every opportunity: Are you feeling the pressure? Are you trying too hard? Do you think you will make it?

        “It's gong to be unbelievable for him,” said Brad Mills, Helton's manager at Triple-A Colorado Springs and now the Philadelphia Phillies' first base coach. “It seems like ESPN is televising his every at-bat. Under that kind of scrutiny, it's tough for anyone.

        “I'd tell him to eliminate the press and anything else that might make him lose focus.”

        Players and coaches say they haven't seen a media frenzy of this magnitude since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced for the home run record in 1998. So far Helton has been more Mark than Sammy — less “Baseball has been bery, bery good to me” and more “Just leave me alone.”

        “I think everybody's making too big a deal out of this,” Helton told the Denver Post.

        Helton must face — and tune out — these distractions as the season winds down. And he must do it alone, said Reds hitting coach Denis Menke, because teammates and coaches may do more harm than good by trying to help.

        “I wouldn't say anything at all to him,” Menke said. “Why put anything at all in his head that may distract him?”

        Helton's assault on .400 is impressive even to major-league All-Stars. Reds right fielder Dante Bichette, who played three seasons with Helton in Colorado, widened his eyes and shook his head in amazement while assessing Helton's chances.

        “He's a young guy, has a lot of energy and not a lot of worries,” Bichette said. “Man, I can't even imagine what it's like to chase .400. Of course, there's no one in our era who can give suggestions about how to hit .400.”

        Apparently, there's also no one who can identify a .400 hitter in the making. Helton's skills slipped under the radar of most scouts and coaches in the minors.

        Most saw him as a major-leaguer, Mills said, but nobody ever predicted a season like this. Mills said he saw big-league potential in Helton and thought he may have a few .300 seasons in him.

        “I never thought he would become the hitter he is,” Mills said last week before a game against the Reds at Cinergy Field. “The knock against him in the minors was that he would never hit for power at the major-league level because he couldn't pull the ball.”

        Helton uses the whole field, and he's doing it better than any other player in the league. And as for the knock against his power, well, Helton's 31 homers speak for themselves.

        The Rockies' schedule favors Helton's odds of reaching .400. After today's game in Pittsburgh, the Rockies play 19 of their final 32 games at hitter-friendly Coors Field. Helton is batting .425 at his home park and .357 on the road.

        Reds reliever Danny Graves, who played with Helton for Team USA during college, went on record during the McGwire-Sosa spectacle as saying he wouldn't mind giving up the record-setting shot. He said he feels the same about Helton, that he wouldn't mind giving up the hit that puts Helton over .400 so long as it doesn't cost the Reds a win.

        Other pitchers may not be so kind, bearing down on Helton, or worse, offering him nothing to hit. The same was feared in 1998 when it became clear Roger Maris' home run record would fall. Of course, McGwire eventually claimed the mark for himself.

        “But the scrutiny is more intense this time because he is doing it all by himself,” Mills said. “Sosa and McGwire had each other to feed off of. Helton's all by himself.”


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