Baseball Volunteers awoke echoes of Todd Helton and 1995.
It was the year the local first baseman/pitcher (Central High) hit .407 with 20 home runs and 92 RBIs for the University of Tennessee. From the mound, he went 8-2 with a 1.66 ERA and recorded 74 strikeouts in 76 innings.
It was a year where Tennessee doubled as the champion of the Southeastern Conference, regular season and tournament. The Vols went to the College World Series for the first time in four and a half decades. They finished third.
Helton was named National Player of the Year, the only volunteer to win the highest honor.
In fact, Todd was a more efficient relief pitcher in 1994. His ERA was 0.89. He went 47.2 consecutive scoreless innings. Coach Rod Delmonico, not easily impressed, said it was pretty good.
In addition to talent, Helton was unique, the answer to a trick question about Tennessee football. He was the starting quarterback when Peyton Manning was a backup.
The dual sport was no surprise. He was Gatorade Player of the Year in football and baseball as Central High Bobcat.
Fame? Legendary – shared with Chris Burke, RA Dickey, Rick Honeycutt, Condredge Holloway, Jeff Pickler, Luke Hochevar, Sam Ewing and other All-Americans.
Fortune? The Colorado Rockies have provided a few, first-round pick, eighth overall, 17-year career, five-time All-Star, three Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger awards.
Tennessee Records? Time takes a toll. Saturday afternoon in Starkville, senior catcher Evan Russell hit his 38th home run to tie Helton’s career record. He will undoubtedly break it in the upcoming Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.
Already, these fun, sometimes loud, and almost always entertaining volunteers have done serious damage with bats and balls. They are #1 in national polls. They have a 49-7 record. They are 25-5 against league foes. They hit 137 home runs.
They play baseball with an attitude. They seem to be natural irritants. They were charged with showboating. They talk a lot. Sluggers celebrate in a canoe in an old fur coat.
Tony Vitello always seems keen on coaching opportunities.
After a loss to Auburn, he said, “It’s pretty good for our guys to know they’re not invincible. I think the way they act sometimes, people might think that. It’s just a confident group that likes to compete. But everyone has to remember from time to time that you can be humiliated very, very quickly.
Humiliated? Not often.
The Vols swept across Florida in Gainesville and reappeared in Gator football helmets. Some did not appreciate the stuffing. Vitello did his best to explain.
The showers available were in a football locker room. Baseball players are often jealous of football players. The Vols spotted the old helmets and put them on.
“They were on a euphoric ascent and just clowning around,” the coach said. “I said don’t do it again.”
Vitello said the Vols were confident. He left fiercely. They expect to win. They show no sympathy for the losers. They beat Iona, 29-0, and Belmont, 18-0. They beat Auburn, 17-4, and Mississippi State, 27-2. Perhaps they are a reflection of their leader. He is aggressive.
The coach is smart, very smart – but he ran into a referee in an argument, got suspended, took full responsibility and turned the awkward situation into a smile and a gesture of kindness.
Vitello sold chest reruns with fans, $2 each, and donated the proceeds to the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that helps service members in need.
There’s never been anything like it in Tennessee.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]