T.R.’s Memoirs: These two pitchers are the most underrated players in Texas Rangers history (Part I)
(AP photo/Bill Janscha)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers over 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com and is sharing his “memoirs” with this newsletter. In this two-part installment, Sullivan looks back at the Rangers careers of right-handed pitcher Rick Helling and left-hander C.J. Wilson. What they did for the Rangers is fading in club history but deserves to be remembered by those who followed the team.
Rick Helling and C.J. Wilson are the two most underrated and underappreciated players in Rangers history.
Their time in the Arlington spotlight was relatively short, and recognition of their accomplishments is fading with time. Just go into any DFW sports bar and ask who was the last Rangers pitcher to win 20 games in a season and see how many people have the correct answer.
If any at all.
How many people remember Helling was the last Rangers pitcher to win 20 games. Probably as many who know Wilson had the best ERA-plus of any left-handed pitcher (minimum 500 innings) in club history. No, it was not Kenny Rogers or Cole Hamels.
Helling and Wilson were at the top of the Rangers’ rotation for four of the club’s seven division champions, and it is not a stretch to say the Rangers don’t win without them.
Yet the history of the Rangers over the past 30 years is far more filled with laments and bewailing about the lack of pitching rather than recognizing those pitchers who were instrumental in getting Texas into postseason. Helling and Wilson are on the top of that list.
There are multiple reasons for their lack of recognition.
For one, they weren’t spectacularly overpowering. Fans didn’t keep track of their strikeout totals by posting K signs on the outfield walls. Helling barely topped out over 90 mph on his best days. Wilson could hit 94 and set a personal best with 206 strikeouts in 2011. But he was still a pitcher perceived to be more reliant on guile than power, and there is no doubt Wilson had a great feel for pitching. So did Helling.
Secondly, they were not overly successful in postseason. It’s not that they were bad but …
Helling was done in by a lack of run support more than anything. Unfortunately, what Rangers fans remember both about the two 1998-99 division championship teams was that they 1.) were swept by the Yankees in the division series and 2.) scored just one run over three games in each of their three series.
Wilson has just one win over nine postseason starts for the Rangers. Some of those starts were better than others, and there was some tough luck mixed in as well. But his postseason work was easily eclipsed by Cliff Lee and Colby Lewis.
Helling and Wilson were replaced by high-priced, high-profile free agents, signings that were deemed momentous for the Rangers and all but assured Helling and Wilson’s departure would not cause any gnashing of teeth.
Then there were their unique personalities.
Helling was from North Dakota and possessed a strong trait of Midwest stoicism. He took the ball every fifth day, pitched his guts out and was always accountable afterward. He was modest when he won and not prone to making excuses when he lost. Helling was also not prone to popping off in the media.
Wilson was never hesitant about expressing his opinion about anything and it didn’t have to be about baseball. Wilson had plenty of insights and opinions about almost any subject.
Unfortunately, he would do so in a manner that was often perceived — fair or not — as being condescending, irritating or downright abrasive. Know it all? Oh, yeah, plenty of people considered him just that.
Long after Wilson left Texas, whenever his name came up in conversations — especially the manager’s pregame media sessions, somebody would invariably say.
“C.J. Wilson … the guy who thinks he’s the smartest guy in baseball.”
Me? I enjoyed dealing with both Helling and Wilson. I have a high regard for both of them.
Both are retired and seem to be doing well outside baseball, and away from the Rangers. Wilson, whose long list of interests includes auto racing, now owns a car dealership in California and tweets about cattle and Bitcoin. He has not been back for any special Rangers events.
Helling is a special assistant for the Major League Baseball Players Association, but it’s behind-the-scenes work. His residence is in Minneapolis, and most of his trips to Arlington are for the union. He was the Rangers Alumni of the Year winner in 2015.
Both Helling and Wilson do not deserve to be consigned to the back shelves of Rangers history. Their personalities are different, but both took a tortuous route to reach the pinnacle of success with the Rangers.
They deserve to be remembered.
Olympian from North Dakota
The Rangers took Helling out of Stanford University with the 22nd overall pick of the 1992 draft. He pitched just one season at Stanford.
He was born and raised in Devils Lake, N.D., spent three years at Lakota High School as a three-sport star before being recruited by Bishop Shanley High School in Fargo for his senior year.
Hey, why not? He was North Dakota’s leading scorer in basketball and was good enough to play linebacker as a freshman at the University of North Dakota. But baseball was No. 1, so Helling pitched two years at a junior college in Illinois before going to Stanford and pitching his way into the first round of the 1992 draft.
He also pitched his way onto the U.S. Olympic team and made two starts against gold-medal winning Cuba in Barcelona that summer before signing with the Rangers.
Helling made the Rangers’ rotation to open the 1994 season and jumped off to a fast start. He was 3-0 with a 3.29 ERA after 7-0 shutout over the Twins on May 6.
“He’s a tough young man,” manager Kevin Kennedy said. “He has a lot of intestinal fortitude. He doesn’t give in and has no fear out there. He believes in himself.”
Then it all fell apart. Helling allowed 19 runs over 11 innings in his next three starts and that was it. He was sent to the minor leagues and did not come up the rest of the year. Kennedy said he liked Helling’s character but said he needed to pitch down in the strike zone.
You have to remember that 1994 was the first season for the Rangers in the Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers were expecting to win the division title. Club president Tom Schieffer said it was time to win. General manager Tom Grieve said, “We have no excuses for not winning this year.”
The Rangers didn’t have time to see if Helling could get the ball down. They had less patience in 1995, when he opened the season in the rotation again but was sent down after just three starts. He started 1996 in the minors but was called up for a memorable start May 25.
The Rangers, off to a fast start after winning their first seven games, were in first place but had lost 6 of 8 going into a Saturday night game in Kansas City. Manager Johnny Oates had tried to rally his team with a rare postgame meeting the night before, but now needed Helling to make a spot start in place of injured Kevin Gross.
Helling allowed one run in eight innings in a 2-1 victory over the Royals.
“Wow, what a shot in the arm that young man was,” manager Johnny Oates sad.
“I know I’m capable of pitching up here,” Helling said. “I’ve been through some tough times. One day you are a hero, the next day, nobody thinks you can pitch in the big leagues.”
It was a big win for the Rangers, but that was it for Helling. He was sent back to the minors and — with the exception of one more spot start — spent the rest of the season at Triple A Oklahoma. He was the American Association Pitcher of the Year and also threw a perfect game.
Aug. 13. It also came five days after Rangers general manager Doug Melvin acquired pitcher John Burkett from the Marlins for minor-league pitcher Ryan Dempster and a player be named. Acquiring Burkett proved to be a huge addition for the Rangers on their way to their first division title.
The Rangers announced Sept. 3 that Helling was the player to be named later, chosen by the Marlins from a list of 10 players offered by the Rangers. Helling took a parting shot at the Rangers.
“I definitely think it’s good for me,” Helling said. “Nothing against Doug and Johnny, but they didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in me.”
Helling didn’t exactly endear himself with Marlins manager Jim Leyland either. Helling, after making the Marlins’ Opening Day roster i 1997, was 2-6 with a 4.38 ERA in eight starts and 23 relief appearances for a team trying to win a spot in postseason.
But the Marlins needed a left-handed reliever, so on Aug. 12 Helling was traded back to the Rangers for lefty Ed Vosberg.
“I can honestly tell you this is the last place I thought I would be traded to,” Helling said.
The Rangers were on their way to a disappointing 77-85 record. Helling finished the year with them, going 3-3 with a 4.58 ERA in eight starts and two relief appearances.
The following spring, he won a spot in the rotation. This time it was for good. One of the best trades in Rangers history was ready to pay off.
A winning pitcher
On Monday, Sept. 21, 1998, the Rangers and the Angels opened a three-game in Anaheim. The two teams were tied for first place in the American League West with seven to play going into the final week of the season.
Todd Stottlemyre, acquired from the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, pitched the Rangers to a 9-1 victory in the opener. The following night, Helling did the same, throwing a three-hitter over eight innings in another 9-1 victory. Burkett’s 7-1 win over the Angels on Wednesday gave the Rangers a three-game sweep, and the division race was all but over.
Helling’s win was his 20th of the season, joining Ferguson Jenkins and Kevin Brown as the only Rangers pitchers to ever hit that mark in a season. There hasn’t been one since. Helling proved his mettle by going 13-4 with a 4.20 ERA over his final 21 games as the Rangers battled to the end to win the division.
By this time, Oates had learned to pronounce his name right instead of saying “Hilling.”
The Rangers faced the Yankees in the division series, going up against a team that won 114 games. Helling pitched Game 2 and gave up three runs in six innings. He allowed eight hits, walked one and struck out nine in a 3-1 loss. He threw 90% fastballs even though he was hitting no higher than 90 mph.
“I remember that game well,” Helling said told me many years later. “That’s what I talk about with young pitchers. You don’t have to throw hard if you can locate your fastball with good movement. That’s what I did that night. You have to give credit to [catcher Ivan Rodriguez]. The fastball was really working, and he kept calling it.”
Helling had a similar outing one year later, again in the division series against the Yankees. This time Helling gave up two runs in 6 1/3 innings, allowing five hits and a walk while striking out eight. He left after throwing 124 pitches.
He relied almost completely on his fastball, putting it in locations that were tough on the Yankees. Who cares if he couldn’t hit 90 on the gun?
That was the essence of Rick Helling during his four years at the top of the Rangers’ rotation. He didn’t have overpowering stuff, but he could command his fastball and get swing-and-miss on his slider. More than anything, he got by on heart, guts, balls and courage.
Helling made 137 starts for the Rangers over four years from 1998-2001 and went 61-32 a 4.73 ERA. His .571 winning percentage is seventh best in club history. The Rangers were 82-55 when Helling took the mound.
He also never missed a start. He threw 14,766 pitches in those four years, third-most in the majors. His 107.8 pitches per game were sixth-most. His 17 pitches per inning were ninth-most.
Here is what you need to remember.
Helling was pitching in the American League at the absolute height of the steroid era in baseball. He was doing so while pitching at the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington.
If you go back and study those years and understand what Helling was up against, then you realize what Helling did for the Rangers was remarkable. All he did was win.
“I had some ability, but I didn’t have tremendous ability,” Helling said. “But what I had was durability and accountability. That’s what I believed in. I took pride in taking the ball every fifth day. The most important thing to me was my teammates knew I was going to be out there every fifth day.
“Some nights were better than others, but every fifth day I would try to find a way to battle and hopefully find a way to win. It was always about winning or losing. I didn’t care about my ERA, and I know I won a lot more than I lost. I’m very proud of that.”
The stand against steroids
Helling’s legacy in baseball goes far beyond what he did for the Rangers. Helling was active in the Major League Baseball Players Association. He started out as the Rangers’ player rep and moved up to the executive board.
Helling used his pulpit to become the first player to sound the warning that steroids were becoming a serious issue in the game. Helling first brought it up in 1998, the year when baseball was celebrating Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Those two electrified the country with their chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record and both smashed it completely. McGwire hit 70 home runs and Sosa hit 65, flying by the record of 61 set by Maris in 1961.
While baseball basked in the glow of an exhilarating summer, Helling had the courage to point out there was something rotten in the state of baseball.
“There are always those who will cheat no matter what and some who never will,” Helling said. “But there were a lot who were caught in the middle — being swayed to cheat in order to keep up and compete. It was unfair to put stress and pressure on guys who wanted to play the game clean but felt they had to cheat to keep up with the guys that were cheating.
“I never saw anybody do it. I never saw anybody stick a needle in his butt. But you would see guys who were throwing 87 mph one year and then come back the next year throwing 97-100. You knew something wasn’t right. That’s not normal.”
Helling brought up the subject of steroids every year in offseason union meetings. He carried enough respect in the game that other players stopped and listened to what he had to say.
As former pitcher David Cone told writer Tom Verducci, “[Helling] was the first guy who had the guts to stake and up at a union meeting and say that in front of everybody and put pressure on it.”
As time passed, more and more people started feeling the same way, and ultimately there was a huge backlash against performance-enhancing drugs of all kinds. Helling was the first player to take a real stand.
“I’m sure some guys weren’t happy that I said that, but it was the right thing to do,” Helling said. “I would do it all over again. Now the game is in a good place. We have drug testing in place. Guys are getting caught. Some were caught without testing, but I think you have a whole generation of players who want to play the game clean and fair.”
My debate with A-Rod
Helling’s final year with the Rangers was in 2001. On a team that went 73-89, Helling was 12-11 with a 5.17 ERA. After the season, Helling was arbitration-eligible and new general manager Jon Hart didn’t want to go there.
After averaging 15 wins a season for four years, the Rangers simply released Helling. Instead, they signed Chan Ho Park to a five-year, $65 million.
The following spring, Alex Rodriguez and I talked baseball. A lot. No matter what anybody says about Rodriguez, the guy knows baseball and loves to talk about it in great depth. He and I had many great baseball discussions during his three years with the Rangers.
That spring, Rodriguez and I argued at length about Helling versus Park. I said the Rangers would have been better off keeping Helling. Rodriguez loved the Park signing.
“The difference is Chan Ho has great stuff,” Rodriguez said. “He is nasty.”
Helling signed with the D-backs and was a 10-game winner on another division-winning team. Park was 9-8 with a 5.75 ERA and became the biggest free-agent bust in Rangers history, setting the franchise back for years.
At some point during the 2002 season, Rodriguez approached me and wanted to talk about Helling and Park again.
“T.R. … you were right,” Rodriguez said.
The 2002 season was also notable for the Rangers for another reason. The Rangers had a young left-hander causing a stir in the Florida State League. The Rangers had selected him the previous summer in the fifth round out of Loyola Marymount.
Enter Christopher John Wilson.