Former big-league baseball pitcher and North Dakota native Rick Helling visited Bismarck on Saturday to talk a little baseball with fans of the Northwoods League’s Bismarck Larks.
But he also made time to chat with the man probably most responsible, besides Helling himself, for a 12-year major league career.
Helling recalled how the first of his three World Series appearances – with Fargo American Legion Post 2 in 1989 – landed him on the bench at the University of North Dakota. Ultimately, he traded shoulder pads for a glove.
A University of North Dakota football recruit, Helling missed most of UND's two-a-day football workouts while playing in the 1989 American Legion World Series. When he finally reported to camp in Grand Forks, he was redshirted by Fighting Sioux coach Roger Thomas.
“I had a full ride to play linebacker,” Helling said. “That was the plan, I was going to be a football player. Baseball kind of screwed it up and it worked out for me.”
Without that first World Series, Helling may never have become a 20-game winner for the Texas Rangers in 1998, led the American League in games started twice (35 in 1999 and 2000), pitched an immaculate inning (3 strikeouts on nine pitches) or earned two World Series rings (Florida Marlins, 1997 and 2003).
And it was all because Helling didn’t like riding the pine.
“I got red-shirted because I missed all of the two-a-days and for the first time in my life I sat on the bench and watched. It was hard,” Helling recalled. “I understood why, but I didn’t like it and I kept getting calls all fall from scouts who said I should pursue baseball.”
The baseball seed had actually been planted at the Legion World Series. After pitching a complete game to beat Richmond, Va., 7-1 in Fargo’s opener, Helling was mobbed by “about 50 scouts” who asked who he was and where he was playing baseball.
"That’s how it started,” he said.
In two seasons with Post 2, Helling was 27-3 with a 2.13 earned run average. He set the team record with 15 wins in 1989.
A Post 2 teammate convinced Helling to transfer to Kishwaukee (Ill.) Junior College. Soon, Stanford was interested.
“I was lucky they were interested in me and they had used my junior college coach as a talent evaluator,” Helling said. “They called and asked about a guy pitching in the area and my coach said he had a guy that was better, and he might have the grades to get into Stanford; a kid out of North Dakota nobody had ever heard of.”
After one year at Stanford, Helling was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round with the 22nd overall pick.
“Getting drafted in the first round was amazing,” Helling said. “The dream is actually playing in the major leagues.”
Helling played on the U.S. Olympic team and in the Pan-American games.
“That’s childhood dreams that 99.9% of the population will never experience. Fortunately, I was able to turn those into a major league career,” Helling said.
Then he reached the show. His stop in Bismarck on Saturday was the 17th anniversary to the day – April 10 – of his big-league debut. He went four innings and got a no-decision in a game the Rangers won at Baltimore 8-7. He struck out the first batter he ever faced, Brady Anderson. Five days later, he started and beat the Orioles 8-3 for the first of his 93 career wins.
That became a pattern for the reliable Helling.
“I didn’t have a lot of ability, but I did have durability and accountability,” Helling said. “I took the ball every five days. I made a lot of starts and threw a lot of innings. My teammates knew when I was on the mound I would give us a chance to win.”
They knew more than that.
Helling didn’t finish the 1997 season with the Marlins. He was traded back to Texas that August. But he was voted by former teammates to receive a World Series ring. He didn’t start the 2003 season with the Marlins but joined them in August as a free agent and went on to earn a second World Series ring.
“I played about one full season with the Marlins,” Helling said. “I played a pretty important role. The second time around I was one of the few veterans and they valued what I brought to the team.”
Helling also brought representation in the union. He was a Players Association representative, and a member of the negotiating committee.
“The fact that people valued me enough and respected me enough to vote me into those positions meant a lot to me,” he said.
Helling played through an era tainted by the MLB steroid scandal. He reportedly was outspoken during negotiating sessions about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the impact they were having on the game. But his words went unheeded.
“It was a different time in the sport and things were happening that shouldn’t have been happening,” Helling recalled. “The main reason I spoke out was, I had friends who wanted to play the game the right way but they started feeling pressure to do something they didn’t want to do.
“It’s one thing if you’re a cheater and you’re OK looking at yourself in the mirror knowing you did something wrong. It wasn’t fair to a high percentage of guys, like me. My values and morals will not allow me to cheat. It’s not who I am. Then there is a small percentage of guys who will always cheat. In the middle, there was a big percentage of guys who didn’t know what to do.”
Helling said the game now, while different from the era he played in, is in a good place. It’s clean. And while some may not like the three-true outcome game (homer, strikeout, walk), it’s cyclical, Helling said.
“It’s the way the game is played now. It’s driven by algorithms and formulas and a lot of times teams are missing the human element,” Helling pointed out. “I honestly think it will come back around and somebody will value getting ground balls and putting the ball in play.”
That sums up the reason Helling was in Bismarck, as a promotion for the Larks. The Northwoods League's collegiate players hope to join the ranks of 253 of their predecessors who have gone on to appear in the major leagues.
“Any time I get asked to do something like this in North Dakota, I don’t think I’ve ever said no. As long as I can make it work with my schedule, I like to come back home and see familiar faces,” Helling said.
While many more Northwoods League players are on the way to the big leagues, there’s no guarantee that any will go on to match the feat Helling pulled off against the Detroit Tigers on June 20, 2006 while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“At the time, I didn’t realize it was happening until I struck out the second batter,” Helling recalled.
He got Curtis Granderson swinging and Placido Polanco looking to open the first inning, then faced his old catcher, Pudge Rodriguez.
“He had been my catcher in Texas and the second time in Florida, so I knew him better than anyone. I struck him out on three pitches. It was cool that it ended up being him,” Helling said, recalling his immaculate inning.
Helling retired in 2007, and in 2009 he was named special assistant for the Players Association, a job he still has to this day. In that role, he is responsible for 10 teams, to be around to answer questions on a daily basis.
“It’s actually a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week,” he said. “I have to be available for anybody with questions on or off the field relating to their careers. I’m there to help them out.”
It’s the latest chapter in a career that started on the bench at the University of North Dakota.
“People say all the time when they hear my story they could make a movie out of your story. Small-town kid from Lakota who turns into an Olympic athlete and a professional baseball player with a long career,” Helling said. “It’s pretty cool.”