Hitting a baseball came naturally for Todd Helton.
The Knoxville native hit .655 his senior year at Central High School.
He hit .407 his junior year at Tennessee.
He swung a bat like Steph Curry shot a 3.
But the transition from college to the pros wasn’t all that easy. In Class A ball in Asheville, N.C., Helton hit a humbling .252 as he switched from an aluminum bat to a wooden bat.
That was about the only season Helton struggled at the plate.
Drafted No. 8 overall by the Colorado Rockies in 1995, Helton was runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, was an All-Star five times, captured a batting title, won three Gold Gloves and held eight club records when he retired after a brilliant 17-year career.
Helton will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in a ceremony that will be televised Tuesday night on WBXX at 7 p.m.
“It means a great deal,’’ Helton said of his induction during an exclusive interview on SportsTalk, WNML radio recently. “I think it means the most to me because I get to go in with my uncle (Joel Helton) who coached me at Central.’’
Being a native of Knoxville also carries meaning for the man considered the greatest baseball player in UT history.
Helton had a .370 career average at Tennessee, but he also was an exceptional pitcher, leading the SEC with a 1.66 in ERA as a sophomore and setting an SEC record with 47.2 consecutive scoreless innings – a mark that still stands.
As a junior, he started four games, won all four and had four complete games in leading the Vols to the 1995 World Series – UT’s first appearance since 1951.
While Helton was a terror at the plate, his exploits on the mound are what he remembers most fondly.
“I had a lot of fun doing that (pitching),’’ he said, “being able to come in and close games out. I felt like I had control of the way the game was going. That’s something I missed when I went to professional ball, was pitching. I’m pretty proud of my pitching statistics in college.’’
Remarkably, Helton said he never pitched bullpen in college, never practiced pitching.
“I just went out there and did it,’’ Helton said.
After coming out of the bullpen his junior season, UT coach Rod Delmonico relied on Helton to start some crucial games late in the season and in the NCAA Tournament. Helton responded with complete games each time.
“I don’t know how I did it as for as arm strength and being able to pitch nine innings after basically closing the whole year,’’ Helton said. “We needed those wins to keep going. So coach Delmonico left me out there and let me go at it and I was able to do the job.’’
R.A. Dickey, a former star pitcher at Tennessee who won a Cy Young, said he’s convinced Helton could have retired batters at the Major League level.
Did the Rockies ever ask Helton to pitch?
“They asked me to pitch last game of season after 17 years,’’ Helton said, “but my arm was shot at that point. I had good memories of pitching and didn’t want to corrode it with throwing 78 miles per hour at 40 years old. So I didn’t do it.’’
In fact, after the Rockies drafted Helton, they told him to put away his pitching glove and focus on first base.
Helton wasn’t a wiz with the glove when he got to the pros.
“When I got to the big leagues,’’ he said, “I was considered a hitter with subpar defense.’’
That’s why, despite his hitting prowess, his .316 career average and 369 home runs, he says he’s most proud of winning three Gold Gloves as the best defensive player at his position in the Major Leagues.
“There was a lot of work with me winning a Gold Glove and becoming a good defensive player,’’ Helton said. “A lot of hard work. So I’m very proud of the Gold Gloves.’’
But his offense overshadowed his defense. He won a batting title in 2000 with a robust .372 average. He hit at least .347 three times and at least .320 nine times. He hit over 40 home runs twice. He is the only player in baseball history to have consecutive 100 extra-base seasons. And he’s one of only three first basemen to hit at least .315 eight years in a row.
Helton almost never made it to Colorado.
He almost never made it to Tennessee.
Out of high school, Helton was a second-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres. He agreed to sign and a Padres scout flew to Knoxville to get the deal done. But Helton changed his mind for family reasons, elected to attend Tennessee on a football scholarship after a stellar high school career as a quarterback and defensive back.
Interestingly, Helton said he enjoyed football as much as baseball in high school.
“High school football was a lot of fun,’’ Helton said. “College football, not so much. It’s more of a job. Playing in high school on Friday nights was a lot of fun.’’
Not signing with the Padres out of high school was a bit of a gamble.
Helton said he rolled the dice on himself.
“Turning down a half-a-million dollars out of high school is not an easy thing to do when you never had any money,’’ Helton said. “I sort of hedged my bets on myself. I figured if I was a second-rounder out of high school, I could be a first-rounder out of college, and it worked out.’’
Helton said the baseball coaching he got at Tennessee along with playing football “helped me so much as for as being a professional, showing up to work every day, working hard, keeping my mouth shut.
“That’s what I did for 17 years and I enjoyed the crap out of it. I had a lot of fun playing baseball, no doubt about it. I do miss it terribly.’’
What does he miss most about the big leagues?
“The competition,’’ Helton said. “I miss not going out and there and playing against the best in the world, seeing how you stack up every night, 162 games a season. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work, staying healthy and concentrating all that time about the job that had to be done. I miss the camaraderie in the locker room but overall it’s the competition that I miss the most.’’
Helton enjoyed sharing the spotlight in Denver for several years with his college football teammate Peyton Manning, who took the Broncos to two Super Bowls, winning one.
Helton also enjoyed a tribute his final season in the majors from Dodgers Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully.
“It was pretty special and something that definitely threw me off guard,’’ Helton said. “I wasn’t expecting it. He said a lot of nice words. I still have that on tape, not that I watch it. … It was out of this league the kind the words that he said to me.’’
Helton spoke of his close relationship with the late John Majors, who recruited Helton out of high school.
“I loved him,’’ Helton said. “I had a great relationship with him. He saw my first game in the big leagues, my first home run. When I was in Pittsburgh, we’d hang out. He was a special man who was an awfully great player and a great coach. He’ll definitely be missed by me.’’
While Helton is headed to the Knoxville Hall of Fame, many believe he should get a call from Cooperstown for induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. His numbers support the argument:
He’s the only player with consecutive 100 extra-base hit seasons.
He is one of four to have 400 total bases in consecutive seasons.
He is one of five to have 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 runs batted in, 100 runs scored, 100 extra base hits and 100 walks in a season, joined by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Each is in the Hall of Fame and none did it after 1931.
He is one of three first basemen to hit at least .315 eight years in a row. (Gehrig is one).
He is No. 8 all-time among first basemen in fielding percentage.
And he’s the only player to record at least 35 doubles 10 years in a row.
That’s more than enough to get him into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
It should be enough to get him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.