Saturday Morning Quarterback

From Rocky Top to Rocky Mountains, Helton made mark in Lebanon
Sep 21, 2013

 

 

One week ago, Todd Helton announced his retirement from baseball at the end of this season.

The face of the Colorado Rockies for more than a decade, he is the franchise leader in home runs and hits. He'll likely be the first Rocky to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame five or so years down the road.

But before he became a Rocky legend, he was a big man on Rocky Top, preceding Peyton Manning as Tennessee's quarterback while helping to put Vol baseball back on the map.

During his time at UT, he and the Vols made a pair of last-minute-scheduled trips to Lebanon to take on Woody Hunt's NAIA powerhouse Cumberland Bulldogs.

As a freshman he was the starting pitcher in a 1993 game which was moved to Ernest L. Stockton Field [it was named in honor of Hunt either that year or the next] after the Vols' field in Knoxville was deemed too wet by coach Rod Delmonico. The left-hander was gone from the mound by the time Shane Tipton scored the winning run in the 10th inning of Cumberland's 5-4 walk-off victory.

I wasn't here for the '93 game. I was here two years later when Hunt called me in early March wanting me to announce the Vols were coming in for a St. Patrick's Day game which had just been added to the schedule.

On a beautiful spring Friday afternoon, Vol Nation [officially 513 according to a typed boxscore I found in my filing cabinet] turned out. Many of them were no doubt from Lebanon and some may have even had Cumberland ties but were wearing Big Orange and rooting for the Vols.

As an aside: As a student at MTSU in the early '80s, some of my classmates wore their orange to the baseball field in Murfreesboro and cheered against their school as the Vols took on the Blue Raiders.

Back to '95: Helton played first base on this day and was also the Vols' closer on a staff which had R.A. Dickey as the ace. Dickey didn't make the trip to Lebanon and Helton wasn't needed on the mound as the Vols routed the Bulldogs 16-1. Helton went 4-for-6 with the longest home run I had ever seen hit out of Stockton Field.

Even today, Hunt considers it one of the longest he can remember going out of the stadium, especially to right field.

The blast cleared a small scoreboard which stood above the right-field fence at the time, flew over West Spring Street, soared above a pickup truck parked on the opposite side of the street and "into the trees", as Hunt recounted the other night. Mark Purvis, who played in the '93 contest and was an assistant coach in '95 before going on to a long coaching career at Mt. Juliet High, recalled the ball landing on a driveway and bouncing toward the garage or backyard.

"We were all in shock over how far it went," Hunt recounted to me two nights ago.

Both teams had great seasons. Cumberland went to its first NAIA championship game that season in Sioux City, Iowa. Trying to get to northwest Iowa, Hunt's son Ryan and I were a flight to Omaha and were joined on the plane by some orange-clad UT fans who were actually Omaha-bound for the Vols' first trip to the College World Series in over 40 years.

The day Cumberland lost to Bellevue in the NAIA final, Helton was drafted eighth overall by the Rockies and arrived in Denver to stay two years later. He became a five-time All-Star, a batting champion and an RBI king. He was part of Colorado's only World Series team.

Only New York Yankee fixtures Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have currently been with their team longer, and exclusively. Rivera is also about to retire and Jeter may be forced to by injury.

My, how the years have flown by.

"It seemed like it was no time ago he was playing against us," Hunt said. "I can't believe he's 40-years old.

"He's been what a pro should be like, a role model, played hard. He's not a clown. He just plays hard and goes about his business. He hasn't gotten the amount of credit he should have."

Though the Rockies had moderate success with a trio of sluggers called the "Blake Street Bombers" before Helton's arrival, he is the franchise's first home-grown superstar who will remain the face of the team long after he has hung up his No. 17 jersey [which should quickly be retired], much like Tony Gwynn is synonymous with the San Diego Padres and Cal Ripken Jr., and the Baltimore Orioles remained linked more than a decade after both retired.

But while he was at Rocky Top, Todd Helton made his mark on the field at the intersection of West Spring Street and South Tarver Avenue in Lebanon.

 

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