EDITOR’S NOTE: In his fifth of 10 years of eligibility, Todd Helton surged within 2.8 percentage points of induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The following, which features the Rockies’ first general manager, Bob Gebhard, is excerpted from Denny Dressman’s book Walk-Off!
The most momentous player decision in the Rockies’ first quarter-century was made on June 1, 1995. It came together quickly, in late May as the third-year team was in the midst of losing six of seven to fall to .500 at 16-16 and out of first place for only the second time since the Coors Field opener.
“I was in Asheville or Salem, with one of our minor league teams,” said Bob Gebhard, recalling the moment he heard from Scouting Director Pat Daugherty. “Pat called me and said, ‘Why don’t you go over and see Todd Helton play?’ They were playing a night game, and I’m about 80 miles away. So, I said, ‘Sure.’ Pat always asked me to go out and see the top seven or eight that we might have a shot at.”
. . . . “So, I drive over to Knoxville,” Gebhard continued. “I want to get there for batting practice and whatever . . . I get caught speeding.”
By then, Todd Helton was everybody’s son in Tennessee—even bigger, at that point, than Peyton Manning. (Though not bigger than Manning would soon become with fans of the Volunteers.)
“Cop pulls me over and I get out. He sees my Colorado Driver’s License and says:
“Colorado? What are you doing here?”
The conversation that followed went like this:
“I’m going over to the University of Tennessee to see a baseball player.”
“You’re going to see Todd Helton, aren’t you.”
“Oh, I know him. High school quarterback, University of Tennessee. I live a few blocks away from his mother.”
They stand on the side of the road for half an hour, the police officer telling Gebhard at length what a great kid—what a great athlete—Todd Helton is.
“I finally said, ‘Officer, I gotta go. I’m going to miss batting practice.’ I’m thinking I’m going to get out of the ticket.
“He says, ‘Well, let me write your ticket up, then you can go.’”
. . . . that evening, at the game
“Second inning, maybe third, I hear, ‘Hi Bob. How are ya?’ It was the policeman and his wife, walkin’ in! I still had the ticket in my shirt pocket.”
Gebhard doesn’t remember the opponent, the final score or even who won. But he’ll never forget what he thought of Todd Helton.
“Of the guys I had seen who Pat pointed out as might be available . . . for me, Helton just jumped to the top. He was impressive. Great at first base.
“You could tell he had been a quarterback because he was a leader on the team. Pitcher got in a little trouble—Todd went to the mound. He was just kind of directing traffic, things you’d assume a catcher would do.”
It takes some luck along with great scouting, though, to land a franchise player. When Gebhard watched Todd Helton, it seemed unlikely the Rockies would wind up with him.
“We were kinda set on getting a pitcher, because they were so hard to find. Oakland drafted ahead of us, and they were set on Helton. But about four or five days before the draft, Sandy Alderson (Oakland’s GM) had a change of heart. He said, ‘We need some pitching, college pitching that can help us in a short period of time.’”
When Oakland’s turn came at number five, the A’s backed away from Helton and, as Alderson had told Gebhard he might, went for pitching. He took Ariel Prieto, a Cuban right hander who was pitching for an Independent League team in Palm Springs . . . After picks by the Marlins and Rangers who would turn out to be duds, the Rockies made Todd Helton their first top pick in history who was not a pitcher.
“He was also a pitcher (a school record 11 saves in 1995),” Gebhard acknowledged, “but we liked him as a hitter.”
(The 17th player chosen in the first round of the 1995 MLB amateur draft was future Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay from Arvada West High School, selected by Toronto. And the 507th player chosen—by the Montreal Expos in the 18th round—was a high school catcher named Tom Brady . . . )
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at denny