Economics major, Helling keeps own values

Durable and analytical, pitcher did not miss a start in five seasons

February 17, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - If it hadn't been for baseball, new Orioles pitcher Rick Helling probably would have gone to law school and tried to become a judge.

Brian Anderson, Helling's teammate last year in Arizona, calls him "The Rules Guy" or "Mr. By-the-Book."

"That's just how I've been raised," said Helling, a North Dakota native with an economics degree from Stanford. "I believe if you live your life the right way, good things happen to good people."

When the Orioles signed Helling to a minor-league contract three days before spring training, they not only landed one of baseball's most durable pitchers, but they also landed a person steeped in principle.

Helling, whose brother was killed in a drunken driving accident, doesn't drink or smoke.

"People can live their lives however they want," Helling said. "But for me, I've never seen the value in it. I'm a very analytical person. I need to understand reasons for everything, and nobody's ever given me a benefit for drinking alcohol. Is it going to make me stronger? No.

"I'm that way with every aspect of my life."

Helling, 32, wears his hair cropped short and still carries a linebacker's frame from his football days at the University of North Dakota. He's 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, but he doesn't overpower hitters with his pitches.

He's all grit and determination.

Orioles fans know something about durability, having watched Cal Ripken play 2,632 consecutive games. So they should appreciate Helling, who became a full-time starter with the Texas Rangers in 1997 and didn't miss a start for five years.

Helling's streak of 164 consecutive starts ended last season. In early July, he suffered a high ankle sprain in a home-plate collision with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Brian Jordan.

Helling tried to make two starts with his tender right ankle and gave up 10 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings before the Diamondbacks finally persuaded him to go on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

"It was hard," Helling said. "I could understand if I blew out my arm, or did something where I couldn't pitch, but your ankle? I still have a football mentality, and the way I looked at it was, `I don't care how bad it hurts, it's just my ankle. I'll just go out and pitch.' "

Helling finished the season 10-12 with a 4.51 ERA. Take away those two starts with a bum ankle, and he had a 3.05 ERA over the final four months. He allowed two runs or fewer in 15 of his 30 starts, a better percentage than teammate Curt Schilling.

But Helling hit the free-agent market again this offseason and saw his value plummet. He had an interesting perspective, having served as the American League players representative during last summer's labor negotiations with the owners.

Helling is very proud of the fact the two sides helped avoid a potentially devastating work stoppage. "I don't think people realize how monumental it was," he said.

But to reach a compromise with the owners, players had to make concessions.

Owners got their payroll tax, and that's one reason the market was so dry when Helling became available.

After making $6.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year as Arizona's No. 3 pitcher behind Schilling and Randy Johnson, Helling found himself without a job one week before spring training.

The Orioles finally signed him without giving him any guarantees. If Helling makes the Opening Day roster, he'll make $1 million. He can earn up to $1 million more in incentives based on his number of starts.

Beginning with his 11th start, he would make $50,000 for every one he makes until he reaches 30. Last year, he had a similar deal with Arizona that paid him $80,000 per start.

"This offseason was long, and it was very taxing for me mentally," said Helling, who went 20-7 for Texas in 1997. "Last year, I thought I signed late with Arizona, and that was in early January. This year it was another month later.

"I'm very happy I ended up here. Baltimore's got great tradition. Hopefully, I can come here and do a great job for the Orioles."

Helling has always loved Camden Yards. He passed through there with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and made his first major-league start there against the Orioles two years later.

Now he'll compete for a spot in the Orioles' starting rotation with six other experienced starters: Omar Daal, Scott Erickson, Pat Hentgen, Jason Johnson, Rodrigo Lopez and Sidney Ponson.

Helling has given up an average of 34.8 home runs over the past four seasons, and this could be problematic at hitter-friendly Camden Yards. But the Orioles know they'll get his best effort every time he takes the ball, and they hope some of that rubs off on their younger pitchers.

"Any time you have people like that around, as long as they're still effective, it's a positive thing for major league pitchers," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "We're not going to add anybody just for the sole reason that they're a positive influence. They're going to have to go out and physically be able to perform, but with [Helling's] work ethic, it's a good addition."

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