This story, by Michael Knisley, first appeared in the Sept. 4, 2000, issue of The Sporting News, under the headline, “The Road to .400”. Denver icon Todd Helton, amazingly in only his third full season with the Rockies, entered September batting .395 and leaving TSN to lay out his road to the magic mark.
The long, narrow box next to Todd Helton’s locker at Coors Field holds three bats, his latest shipment of Louisville Slugger lumber, each 34 1/2 inches long and weighing 32 ounces. The company’s name and logo are on the side of the box, and on the end, the opened end, is a handwritten message in Magic Marker: “Helton, Go Deep.”
But check the mailing label. The box, and the bats, weren’t sent straight from the factory in Louisville. The return address is Buffalo, N.Y.
The message, as well as the bats, are from Jeff Manto, who began the season with Colorado but was designated for assignment in late April and is now playing Triple-A ball for Buffalo in the Indians organization.
Right now, as August gives way to September, the most important person in Helton’s mesmerizing bid to become the first player to hit .400 in 59 years — other than Helton himself, of course — may be Manto. If Helton achieves the baseball immortality that a .400 batting average would bring, he’ll do it swinging a Jeff Manto model bat.
“Have you ever heard of a guy in Triple-A sending bats to a guy in the big leagues?” Helton says. “This is probably the first time. The factory won’t send me any of his bats, so I have to go through him. And I’ve only got three left.”
The factory, of course, happily will send along a fair share of Todd Helton-model bats, but what good are those if Helton won’t use them? No, a bat has to be right, has to be perfect, has to communicate with its hitter, and the Helton model, which is a half-inch shorter, apparently isn’t talking these days.
The Manto model, meanwhile, is saying such sweet things. It isn’t unlike Harry Potter, the child sorcerer in the enormously popular J.K. Rowling novels, finding the perfect magic wand. After all, Mr. Ollivander tells Harry in the first book, “The wand chooses the wizard.”
Just like that, Manto’s bat simply seemed to choose Helton. And when it did, it was as if red and gold sparks flew from the bat just as they do from the holly-and-phoenix-feather wand Harry finds in Diagon Alley. The first time Helton used the Manto-model bat, he went on a 13-for-20 rampage in late May. And recently, when he began to take it to the plate again, he blazed his way through a road trip (St. Louis, Montreal and New York) with 19 hits in 29 at-bats.
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“I go through really bad periods when no bat feels good in my hands.” Helton says. “And that means so much to me. I like a bat that feels good in my hands. When Jeff went back to Cleveland, his bats were left behind. So I picked one up in May, and, boy, did it feel good.”
But, of course, Manto’s leftover bats didn’t last, and Helton went back to his own model. Not that he wasn’t successful with it. As the week started, he was hitting .394 — which means there haven’t been any extended slumps this season — but when August began, the Helton model seemed to have lost that lovin’ feeling again.
“I struggled, and I struggled,” he says of a stretch in which he went 2-for-11 against the Cubs at the end of July and then had “only” three hits in an early-August series against Pittsburgh. “Finally, I said, ‘I’ve got to get some more Jeff Manto bats.’ I called him and said, ‘Send ’em!'”
So here they are, newly arrived and next to his locker and about to play a starring role in a September drama that may be every bit as compelling as the Mark McGwire-and-Sammy Sosa assault two years ago on baseball’s home run record.
Can he do it? Can he become the first player to hit .400 for a full season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941? Helton probably will need some Harry Potter-like magic to pull it off.
Unfortunately, we can’t analyze magic. But we can take a hard look at the who, what and where of the September ahead that may determine the fate of Helton’s quest.
Friday-Sunday, September 1-3
Milwaukee at Coors Field
This year: In six games, Helton is hitting .423 against the Brewers. Even Jeff D’Amico and his 1.94 ERA have felt the sting of Helton’s swing. He had a pair of hits, including a home run, against D’Amico on July 30. The only Brewer in the rotation to stop him this year is former teammate Jamey Wright. Helton is hitless in five official at-bats against Wright
Hidden factor: Larry Walker still will be on Colorado’s disabled list, which means the Brewers will have more opportunities to pitch around Helton. Walks, though, won’t hurt his average, so Helton needs to be extra-patient at the plate.
Prognosis: This series won’t put him off the track leading to .400, especially not when it’s being played in Denver. Helton’s batting average at home this year is .425, and 19 of the Rockies’ final 29 games are at home.
Quote: “I’m going to walk him every chance I get. It’s his own fault for being so good. He’s not going to get pitched to. Put him right up there with (Mike) Piazza and Barry Bonds and those guys. Just go up there and take your walks. I tell you what I ain’t pitching to him.” —Braves RHP Greg Maddux
Monday-Wednesday, September 4-6.
Chicago Cubs at Coors Field
This year: The Cubs are Helton’s worst nightmare. In six games, he has two hits in 22 at-bats (.091). The only starter who’s given up a hit to him is LHP Daniel Garibay.
Hidden factor: The ex-Rockies Factor. Cubs manager Don Baylor knows Helton well from his days managing in Colorado, and part-time catcher Jeff Reed, who also played with Helton in Denver, is familiar with his swing. too. Hey, at least it’s a theory to explain that .091. Says Helton, smiling: “I guess I’m intimidated by Baylor in the other dugout. I liked it when he was in my dugout. But I will try to prove that theory wrong.”
Prognosis: If Helton begins to press, this is the series in which it will happen. He knows he hasn’t hit the Cubs. He desperately will want to in these games.
Quote: “I saw it from Day One. He constantly squares the ball, even if it’s a foul ball, even if it’s in the cage. The ball is never off the stick. It’s something you notice the first time you watch him. For me, it was like “Oooh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’. To see what he’s doing right now. I can’t expect him to do anything other than keep hitting the ball the way he has been.” —Teammate Jeffrey Hammonds
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Friday-Sunday, September 8-10
Los Angeles at Coors Field
This year: The Dodgers have pitched Helton tougher than any team on Colorado’s September schedule except the Cubs. He’s 3-for-19 (.158) in six games, with the hits coming against RHP Chan Ho Park, LHP Carlos Perez and RHP Eric Gagne. He’s 0-for-5 against RHP Kevin Brown and he hasn’t faced RHP Darren Dreifort this year.
Hidden factor: The Dodgers can’t stack the deck against Helton like most teams. As a matter of course, Helton sees situational relievers earlier in games than other hitters do, and he faces a lefty-lefty matchup from the sixth inning on in nearly every close game. But the only lefty on L.A.’s staff is Perez.
Prognosis: Because this series is in Coors Field, Helton should fare better than his .158 season average to date against the Dodgers. He’ll have to. He faces them again next weekend in Los Angeles.
Quote: “He’s seeing the ball about as well as anybody I’ve ever watched. He’s looking for location, and then just being quick with a quiet body and a real quiet approach to his swing. If you get the ball middle away right now, he just kills it. He stays back through it now on the offspeed stuff, the breaking balls. He’s not up there thinking fastball, fastball, fastball. he’s hitting what he sees.” —Cardinals advance scout Joe Sparks
Monday-Wednesday, September 11-13
San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium
This year: Helton has slaughtered the Padres. If he finishes over .400, he can thank starters RHP Adam Eaton (3-for-4 in two games), RIP Matt Clement (2-for-2) and RHP Brian Meadows (2-for-3 and since traded to Kansas City). In toto, Helton has hit .519 against San Diego, including .600 in four games at Qualcomm.
Hidden factor: The out-of-contention Padres should be in call-up mode for this series, which means they may be throwing minor-leaguers at him. Since one of his strengths is devotion to scouting, he could struggle against newcomers.
Prognosis: He won’t.
Quote: “He has the deadest head in baseball. No matter what he does, even when he lifts is foot and puts it down, his head does not move. When he takes his swing, the only thing you see is the top of his helmet … He’s got the Tony Gwynn ability, I think, to pick up a ball. I think he will hit .400.” —Atlanta (and former San Diego) hitting coach Merv Rettenmund
Thursday-Sunday, September 14-17
Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium
This year: See September 8-10
Hidden factor: Where the Dodgers stand may determine the quality of pitching Helton sees. If they’re still in contention, they’ll care. If they’re not, he gets the edge.
Prognosis: This series could be a big stumbling block. It’s in a pitchers park in a media cooker. Still, he has hit .362 on the road this year.
Quote: “I don’t know if he can do it, but I tell you what: He’s taking me to places that I haven’t been in a long time, just watching him. His work ethic, the joy of playing the game. … I got to watch George (Brett) chase .400, too, and Todd has the same passion and respect for the game I saw in George.” —Rockies hitting coach Clint Hurdle
Tuesday-Thursday, September 19-21
San Diego at Coors Field
This year: See September 11-13
Hidden factor: Don’t count on RHP Trevor Hoffman to keep him from .400. Even one of the best closers in the majors throws up his hands when he faces Helton, who is 3-for-3 (two doubles) against him this year.
Prognosis: If he’s just below .400 when this series starts, he’ll be just above it by the time it ends.
Quote: “Todd Helton might be the best-looking hitter I’ve ever seen since George Brett. I just watch him now. I don’t even watch our pitcher. I just watch him, just focus in on him. He is so smooth. Every swing is good. This guy seems like he hits a line drive every time he swings the bat. I wouldn’t bet against him hitting .400. I ain’t joking.” —Braves manager Bobby Cox
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Friday-Sunday, September 22-24
Florida at Coors Field
This year: No contest. Helton is hitting .458 in six games. He’s roughed up every Marlins starter he’s faced except RHP Reid Cornelius, who held him hitless in two at-bats last month. RHP Chuck Smith and RHP Alex Fernandez each gave up three hits to him.
Hidden factor: Fernandez is done for the year, so Helton can’t feast on those pitches again. This should be another series in which he’ll see arms he doesn’t know
Prognosis: He makes hay. A big series here will set up a dramatic final week.
Quote: “I’d definitely rather face somebody I’ve seen before. If they bring some guy up who throws 97 and has no idea where it’s going … no, I wouldn’t look forward to that. But if he’s just your regular righthanded Joe that they’re putting out there, that’d be fine with me.” —Helton
Monday-Thursday, September 25-28
Arizona at Coors Field
This year: He’s below-average against the Diamondbacks, batting .281 in nine games. He has handled LHP Brian Anderson (3-for-8), and has survived against LHP Randy Johnson (1-for-4) and RHP Armando Reynoso (1-for-5). He hasn’t faced RHP Curt Schilling.
Hidden factor: He won’t have to face LHP Omar Daal (traded to the Phillies for Schilling) against whom he has never hit well (3-for-16).
Prognosis: This series won’t hurt Helton’s average as much as you might think. Why? If the Rockies face Johnson, Helton won’t play. Manager Buddy Bell says that’s the one game his first baseman will get off in September.
Quote: “You don’t see him take lunges at the hall. He’s got his feet under his body all the time. and that makes it tough to read a guy. He stays on the ball, and it keeps him from taking funny swings. It’s hard to read a guy like that.” —Braves RHP John Burkett
Friday-Sunday, September 29-October 1
Atlanta Braves at Turner Field
This year: In six games, Helton is hitting .292. But he went 4-for-11 (.364) in the Rockies’ only other trip to Atlanta this season. He has figured out RHP Kevin Millwood, who gave him trouble until this season, by going 4-for-5 in two games this year. Maddux is tough on him (1-for-6). Helton is 1-for-3 against LHP Tom Glavine, 1-for-2 against RHP Andy Ashby (with Philly) and 0-for-2 against Burkett.
Hidden factor: If the Braves have clinched their playoff spot, how much of an edge will they take to the mound?
Prognosis: If Helton needs hits and Atlanta is playing to stay ahead of the Mets, he’s in trouble. He’ll be walked at least twice a game. But this much we know: He’ll be in the lineup, even if he has a chance to lose it all. Read on.
Quote: “If he’s hitting .401 going into the last day of the season in Atlanta, he will play. I think he has a better chance of hitting .403 from there than .399. That’s how much I think of this kid.” —Bell
Postscript: Helton batted .400 — in the final game of the regular season in Atlanta, going 2-for-5, but by that point his average across the season’s final month had dipped. Still, he led the National League with a .372 average, the best of his 17-season career, and managed to lead the NL in hits (216), doubles (59), RBIs (147), on-base percentage (.463), slugging (.698), OPS (1.162) and total bases (.405).