In baseball, everything is connected.
A roster evolves until it finds its shape or runs out of time. Players are shuffled in and out, sometimes more frequently than others, and spaces are filled by guys without long-term deals just looking for enough exposure to keep their jobs. But nobody thinks about that when they’re 22, at the start of their baseball journey.
Such sprawling, realistic thoughts were likely not on the mind of 22-year-old Wes Helms when he stepped in to face Mets reliever John Franco in 1998. As a rookie September call-up in his first at-bat for the Braves, he was probably thinking something more along the lines of "Oh god don’t **** this up Wes," or "I hope you're watching, coaches who said I'd never make it," or "I can't believe Bobby Cox is secretly just a pose-able wax statue."
The Braves were a comfortable 12 games up on the Mets in the NL East, so calling this is a playoff "race" was probably liberal. Helms and his minor league compatriots had gotten their gigs largely to rest the starters that had authored Atlanta’s 91-win season to this point. They’d used 286th overall pick on Helms in 1994; might as well get some swings out of him. But with the score 5-4, Helms was technically stepping into a "key spot" for anyone interested in actually winning the game, and Cox slipped him into the action to pinch hit for relief pitcher, Rudy Seanez,
Franco, a 37-year-old veteran who would pitch in Major League Baseball until he was 44 in a career that would last over 20 years, was, with his all-star years far behind him, pitching to keep his current job or audition for another one. It went well, as he lit the greenhorn up on three pitches, with Helms watching the last one go by for strike three.
And thus began the career of Wesley Ray Helms, a man once referred to as "not an everyday player." It was an unremarkable affair with only a brief, single season stop in Philadelphia - but a massively important season nonetheless. Small was his impact, but his name will be recalled with a casual, unaggressive nod for years to come, as he was part of the team that brought a playoff berth to this city for the first time in 14 years. A new generation was blessed with the crisp, sleet-drenched magic of playoff baseball, and each name on the roster that allowed for it will hold a special, if in some cases purely novel, place in our hearts.
The Phillies seem to agree, to the point that Helms has been invited to spring training this year, but not as the lineup power source he was theoretically brought in to be in 2007. This time, he’s a special guest instructor, along with the likes of other names of the era, Chad Durbin and Brad Lidge. Donning the Phillies red-on-red pres-season colors to dole out tutelage on, I suppose, hitting occasional doubles, one may catch a glimpse of Helms in the Grapefruit League attempt to recall his abbreviated legacy with the Phillies.
Well, we don’t really have to guess at what it was, as Mike McNesby pretty much lays it out for us in his book, "Hard to Believe!":
"Helms’ legacy is that of a moderately expensive stopgap who failed to deliver on promises of ‘18-20 home runs at Citizens Bank Park.’
Many projected him to be another David Bell. That’s selling Bell short."
Can we leave David Bell out of one Philadelphia sports conversation, please?
At dawn of 2007, the Helms era started with a pathetic whimper as the Phillies lost ten of the first 13 games in which he appeared - he'd hit .255 in 47 AB with two doubles. He'd make two errors during a Cole Hamels start in San Francisco on May 6, one of which allowed a run to score, the other also allowing a run to score and keying a rally to tie the game. Things weren't looking up for Helms, who at that point was projecting to make 31.4 errors on the season, a number over twice the league average, as explained by another man named Mike who bothered to figure that information out for future historians. Thank you, Mike.
Helms remained in search of his first Phillies home run, and he came close to it on May 14, in a real dirty inning for the Brewers. With the Phillies down 6-2 in the eighth, they loaded the bases, allowing Chase Utley to draw a wild pitch and then single, scoring all three runners in that classic way that Utley would drive a pitcher slowly insane, and then capitalize on his newfound madness. Now 6-5, a Carlos Ruiz fielder's choice tied the game, and it was Helms, up next with the bases loaded, who launched a fly ball to right that dropped maybe two feet shy of grand salami land. It wound up a single, but gave the Phillies the lead and gave Helms a hero moment around which people could rally for him - don't forget, this was a time when we actually wanted and went out of our way to like the players.
Helms wouldn't hit his first home run as a Phillie until June 13 against the White Sox, a game-tying shot off Jordan Danks. But the truth was, his ineffectiveness was maybe 19th or 20th on the Phillies' problems at the time. The pitching staff had been eradicated, from a mixture of injuries and dumbness subtracting the likes of Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Tom Gordon, and Brett Myers, as well the slump-infected Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. Helms could whistle awkwardly up to the plate, weakly ground out, and be back on the bench before anyone noticed. However, his output at the time, as oppose to guys like Burrell and Howard, was actually who we was. Helms lived in .240-.250 land for the rest of the season, occasionally popping his bat out there to double. From August 2 to the end of the year, he logged 12 hits in 53 AB and finished, exhausted and panting heavily, with a negative WAR.
Then came the playoffs. For a 31-year-old who spent his career wallowing in baseball craters like Milwaukee and Atlanta, it was surely a time of wide-eyed joy. Indeed, Helms' heroic walk in one of the only two post season at-bats of his career allowed him to score on a Jimmy Rollins triple in a game the Phillies lost by five runs. What a time to be alive and also playing post season baseball in Philadelphia.
The 2007 Phillies' magical playoff run came to an abrupt end when they ran into some mountains. But who was Wes Helms; this stalwart, morally sound 40-year-old man now choosing to spend March 2017 in a Florida town under constant threat of a Scientologist coup? Well, he had the land speed to hit the last Braves inside-the-park home run before Dansby Swanson hit one in 2016. He had the principles to come down publicly on Hanley Ramirez during the young star's 2010 lazy jog and subsequent hissy fit. He had the empathy to ask MLB for extra security for his former teammate, Scott Cousins, after Giants fans called for his blood when he broke Buster Posey's leg in a 2011 collision at the plate.
Speaking of atrocities witnessed by thousands, not even Helms' celebrations are without casualties. One in particular ended the season of the latest Phillies signing, Chris Coghlan (because in baseball, everything is connected), in 2010:
Perhaps this sort of veteran - outspoken when he felt strongly enough, respectful of his manager, protective of his teammates - isn't a sexy pick for guest instructor duty in Clearwater. But then again, Clearwater isn't a really sexy place. Spring training isn't really the sexiest time, either; a bunch of guys who used to be friends climbing over each other for disappearing roster spots, occasionally suffering season-ending injuries while a cool breeze blows their dreams right out of town.
Helms is a reminder of the Phillies being on the cusp of something, an acquisition added to an exciting core to round out what appeared to be the most promising team in ages. And now, he's back, to stand in the background of Comcast Sportsnet b-roll, on the receiving end of muttered Larry Andersen wisecracks. It's another exciting time in Philadelphia baseball, and Wes Helms is here. Think about what that means. Or, don't.
On April 1, 2008, Pat Gillick wanted to bolster the Phillies bullpen, claiming no interest in available lefties Mike Stanton or Steve Kline. Brad Lidge was coming off the disabled list - sort of a key addition, in retrospect - and Gillick had been eyeing up a veteran reliever recently let go by the Dodgers in order to fill out his pen.
The question was, who would get the boot after Lidge returned and Gillick’s veteran of choice joined the team? The 31-year-old third baseman who’d hit .246 with only five home runs and -0.7 WAR seemed a likely target, especially with the Phillies acquiring third baseman Pedro Feliz. Helms had miffed nine errors in 112 games as well, and the paltry output contrasted quite notably to the rest of the sharp, young, homegrown infield to his left.
And so, Wes Helms was sent to the land of the Designation for Assignment, and into his roster spot stepped veteran reliever Rudy Seanez.
Ten years prior, Helms had crossed into the batters box at Shea Stadium to take his first big league hacks and struck out looking in a pinch hitting performance for his teammate, Rudy Seanez. Now he was being knocked off a roster to make room for him.
Feet shuffle. The line moves. A locker is cleared out and filled up. One mediocre veteran replaces another. And the schedule plays out.
Because in baseball, everything is connected.
[Book excerpt from "A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth," by Curt Smith]