VOL. 132 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 17, 2017
Helton Providing Priceless, Free Service to Vols
BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Todd Helton stands behind the batting cage at Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium, eyeing swings and chatting with UT baseball players.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton acknowledges the crowd in 2013 during the last game of his career.
(AP Photo/Margaret Bowles)
He’s back in his comfort zone.
He’s back where his career blossomed during some glory days of UT baseball, back where he realized baseball – not football – was his sport.
Helton never thought retiring in 2013 after 17 years in Major League Baseball – all with the Colorado Rockies – would be so difficult.
So he came out of retirement. Sort of.
UT baseball coach Dave Serrano, in a pivotal sixth year with the program, hired Helton in late January as director of player development, a volunteer position.
“I’ve been away from the game for three years,” Helton says. “This is a way for me to kind of, personally, put my toe back in the water, get back in the game again, but more importantly, if I can help these guys at all, it’s a bonus.
“I love Tennessee. I’ve always loved the university, and they welcomed me back, which was good for me.”
Helton’s return to Knoxville and UT seems like a natural.
He was a star quarterback and baseball player – as well as an A student – at Knoxville Central High in the early 1990s. He became Central’s starting varsity quarterback as a freshman, coached by his uncle, the late Joel Helton. He played outfield, first base and pitched for legendary baseball coach Bud Bales, leading Central in hitting every year and striking out only once in four years.
After his senior year at Central, Helton was taken in the second round of the 1992 MLB draft. He turned down the chance to turn pro, instead signing a football scholarship with Tennessee.
Helton was a backup to Heath Shuler his first two years at Tennessee. In baseball, however, was a freshman All-American in 1993 and a consensus All-American in ’94.
Entering his junior year of football, 1994, Helton was the backup to senior Jerry Colquitt, who suffered a knee injury in the season opener against UCLA. Helton, ahead of freshman Peyton Manning on the depth chart, took over as the starter for the next three games before hurting his knee against Mississippi State.
Manning became the starter, a job he never relinquished.
Helton, meanwhile, turned to baseball, his future.
In spring of 1995, Helton hit .407 and led the SEC in home runs (20), RBIs (92), runs (86) and several other hitting categories, and led the league with a 1.66 ERA while compiling an 8-2 record with 12 saves.
Tennessee reached the NCAA Regionals all three years Helton was on the team – he was chosen twice to the NCAA all-tournament team – and in 1995 the Vols finished third in the College World Series.
Helton still holds numerous UT hitting records, has the SEC record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched (47.2 in 1994), and has a street named for him on campus –Todd Helton Drive, which wraps around the outfield walls of Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“We had a good group of guys, for one,” Helton says of UT’s baseball run in his days.
“Two, we had good pitching, and it’s the same as in the big leagues: You’ve got to have pitching, and what I’ve seen out of these (UT) guys, they’ve got some good arms. I think that’s the reason they’re going to go out and be competitive this year.”
Helton was a first-round draft pick (eighth overall) by Colorado in the 1995 MLB Draft, became a five-time All-Star first baseman (2000-04), a three-time Gold Glove winner (2001, ’02, ’04), and had his No. 17 jersey retired by the Rockies.
Helton never lost his UT connections – including Serrano, his pitching coach in 1995, and Larry Simcox, a UT assistant from 1991-2007, who’s now in his second year back with the Vols’ staff under Serrano.
“You know, I had Serrano as my pitching coach when I was here, so I was very familiar with him,” Helton adds. “I had (Simcox), he was my coach all three years, so I knew these guys well. I called them friends, so it was an easy transition coming in.”
His transition into retirement from MLB wasn’t so easy.
After plenty of planning, Helton announced on Sept. 14, 2013, he would retire at the end of the season. He settled down to life in Brighton, Colorado, and on his ranch, “The 17 Ranch,” about 45 minutes from Brighton, with his wife Christy and two daughters, Tierney Faith and Gentry Grace.
Helton savored life after baseball for a while – skiing and golfing, hunting and fishing, working the ranch, and being a father and husband.
Then he hit a wall. His retirement wall.
“To be honest with you, retirement is hard,” Helton explains. “I was mentally and physically prepared to retire for three years (while with the Rockies). I knew I was going to retire at the end of the 2013 season, and to be honest with you, it’s hard. Not really having anything to do is not easy.
“You want to have a purpose in life. You want to be driven. I think playing in the big leagues for 17 years, there’s a lot of excitement there, and you had to get up to go to the ballpark every day.
“I’ve missed that part of it, the competition, but it’s also been great to be around my family as well.”
Helton adds he still has “a couple of places” in Colorado, including the ranch, but he’s moved to Knoxville now, and his daughters attend school here.
“It’s been great,” he says. “Besides the weather, it’s been great. I expect a little more sunny days, but other than that, it’s been great. I live probably 5 minutes from where I grew up, so it’s kind of been strange being back, but it’s also been a blessing, too.”
Getting back to work has been a blessing, as well.
In his role as director of player development, Helton is responsible for maintaining alumni relations, assisting with on-campus recruiting, collaborating with UT’s coaching staff, and helping Tennessee’s current players with decisions about pursuing pro baseball careers.
Another big role for Helton is teaching the mental aspects of baseball.
“There are definitely some restrictions on what I can do (as a volunteer coach),” Helton explains. “I physically can’t teach them what to do, but I’m allowed to talk to them, and so much of the game is mental. I hope to help them out with that part of the game.
“You fail seven out of 10 times (in baseball), and you’ve had a good week, a good couple of days. It’s hard dealing in the failings, and I struck out a lot. I didn’t get the guy in (for an RBI) when I was supposed to. The game of baseball is learning how to deal with that, and coming back strong the next day.”
Helton says he chose coaching at the college level rather than the pros for a couple of reasons.
“Well, one, these kids, they’re more impressionable,” he points out. “Two, the travel isn’t as bad. Travel in the big leagues is just terrible, and I’ve had enough of that, so I can go on what road trips I want to go on in this position.”
Helton will be part of a do-or-die season for Serrano, who was given a year’s contract extension last May by outgoing Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart.
Serrano is 130-138 in five season as UT’s head coach, 48-99 in SEC regular-season games, with no NCAA tournament appearances. The Vols have reached the SEC tournament three times under Serrano, but have never been seeded higher than 11th and are 0-3 in tournament games.
Last year, Tennessee went 29-28, was 12th in the SEC at 9-21, and lost to LSU 5-4 in the SEC tournament.
Helton saw his move to UT as a chance to be a positive influence on a program and players he cares about.
“Absolutely,” he says. “After you’re out of the game and you’re around your family and you get to influence them, obviously, having young kids, but other than that, you go through a day, and at the end of the day you’re wondering what you’ve done.
“This is a way for me, with 14 freshmen on the team, to help the young guys not only get better, but hopefully go to the next level.”
While Helton is settling into his new role with the team, the players are getting more comfortable around Helton.
After all, not all college players get a chance to be mentored by a MLB All-Star and potential Hall of Famer.
“I think they’re realizing I’m just a regular guy,” Helton says. “Just another baseball player is what I am, and I think they’re starting to realize that, and we’re starting to joke around a little bit more.”
Tennessee begins the 2017 season with a three-game series starting Friday at Memphis.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.