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College pigskin kept Helton from Padres

San Diego's 2nd-round pick in '92 opted to play 2 sports at Tennessee
MLB.com @AJCassavell

Todd Helton spent 17 years annihilating National League West pitching. Even so, he was always particularly fond of the San Diego Padres.

Helton, the longtime Rockies first baseman, batted .330/.423/.537 over 241 games against San Diego. In the most meaningful Padres game of the past dozen years, Helton homered off Jake Peavy and drove in two runs in the Rockies' 2007 NL Wild Card tiebreaker victory.

Todd Helton spent 17 years annihilating National League West pitching. Even so, he was always particularly fond of the San Diego Padres.

Helton, the longtime Rockies first baseman, batted .330/.423/.537 over 241 games against San Diego. In the most meaningful Padres game of the past dozen years, Helton homered off Jake Peavy and drove in two runs in the Rockies' 2007 NL Wild Card tiebreaker victory.

Video: SD@COL: Helton goes deep in Wild Card tiebreaker game

"He was so impressive," said pitching coach Darren Balsley, who spent a decade gameplanning against Helton. "He could use all fields, with power, was kind of a throwback hitter. ... There were times where I was just like, 'Hey, just hit it fair, dude. I don't even care if it's a hit, I don't want my guy throwing 12 pitches and getting the same result.'"

It could've all been so easily avoided.

Helton was almost a Padre.

Had he known about a budding superstar quarterback named Peyton Manning, perhaps Helton would've been a Padre.

In 1992, San Diego did not own a first-round pick. With the 55th overall selection, the Friars took a first-round talent out of Knoxville, Tenn., -- but one who had committed to play quarterback just down the road at the University of Tennessee.

"That's why he came to the second round," said Joe McIlvaine, the Padres' general manager at the time. "Teams felt like they wouldn't be able to sign him. We took that chance, and sometimes that's a good gamble."

Said Brad Sloan, the team's cross-checker at the time: "He was a good-looking hitter, and we knew he could be a good hitter in the Major Leagues. You don't imagine the guy's going to be a Hall of Famer. You don't do that with anyone. But he had a good swing, and he was a very advanced high school hitter. He had a much better chance than most."

McIlvaine had spent years scouting the southern part of the United States. He knew what he was up against when it came to two-way baseball/football stars. Scouting director Reggie Waller had assured McIlvaine this time would be different.

"The problem was this: He's from Knoxville, Tenn,, and he had a football scholarship to go to the University of Tennessee," McIlvaine said. "I asked Reggie three times, 'Reggie, are you absolutely sure you can sign this player?' ... You've got a southern boy in his hometown, and there's just so much alumni pressure.

"My experience with southern football players is that they go back to football all the time -- far more than any other area of the country."

The decision wasn't quite so clear cut for Helton. He mulled his options and was reportedly displeased with the recruiting tactics of Waller. The Padres had reportedly offered Helton a specific figure, and Waller came in $50,000 short of that number when the two sides entered final negotiations.

Legend has it that Waller offered to race Helton for the $50,000. It was believed to be a wry joke, but Helton apparently didn't appreciate Waller's humor.

McIlvaine didn't recall any of the specifics of the negotiations. (They were mostly in Waller's hands.) But he seemed to think there was little else the Padres could've done.

"It really sometimes isn't the amount of money," McIlvaine said. "It was a situation where he had so much pressure on him to go to the local university to play. If we had given him 50 thousand, still they would've upped the ante again. It was just a tough situation where it just didn't work, unfortunately."

It didn't work for the Padres. It worked out just fine for Helton.

As a senior in high school Helton was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennesee in both football and baseball. He backed up Heath Shuler during his first two seasons on the Vols football team, then earned the starting job in his junior year. But he suffered a knee injury and was replaced by a freshman phenom named Manning. Helton never started another game.

Tweet from @Vol_Baseball: #VFLs Todd Helton & Peyton Manning surprised Condredge Holloway @ his @Vol_Baseball jersey retirement! #OneTennessee pic.twitter.com/IpzYLHb6FR

McIlvaine recalled a phone call from Helton to the Padres' offices in which Helton explained that he'd have signed if he'd known Manning was bound to take his place.

"There's another guy here named Peyton Manning," McIlvaine recalled Helton telling him. "He's going to be tough to beat out."

Helton passed for 484 yards, four touchdowns and three picks during his time with Tennessee. He earned the Dick Howser Trophy as college baseball's top player in 1995.

Later that spring, the Rockies selected Helton eighth overall. The Padres, under GM Randy Smith, picked second that year. They took catcher Ben Davis.

Helton would go on to play 17 seasons, putting up borderline Hall of Fame numbrs with a.316/.414/.539 slash line and 369 homers.

"You've obviously got [Barry] Bonds," Balsley said. "But Helton was right there as one of the toughest hitters to pitch to in the division."

To think, it all could've been avoided.

"We just couldn't work the thing out," McIlvaine said. "We offered him good money. We offered him first-round money. He was a first-round pick, even though he was in the second round.

"But you've got a southern boy playing football in his hometown. I think if he had been in any other area of the country -- other than the south where college football is king -- I think we would've signed him."

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

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