- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000

PHILADELPHIA Each time Todd Helton gets a hit, it means more microphones, more questions, more exposure.

That's how it goes when you're the most compelling story in baseball, a 27-year-old Colorado Rockies first baseman trying to become the first player to bat .400 since Boston's Ted Williams in 1941.

The attention is new and somewhat undesirable to Helton.

"I don't want the spotlight. I don't care about it," he said during a recent series against the Philadelphia Phillies. "But it's a result of playing well, and I understand that. I won't hide from it."

Helton is no Mark McGwire; no one chased down Helton last spring to ask hitting questions. His .315 and .320 averages the previous two seasons were nice, but given the explosion of offense in today's game and his hitter-friendly home park, he went relatively unnoticed.

Now the former Tennessee quarterback is the first player to threaten .400 in September since Kansas City's George Brett in 1980. Unlike the expressive Brett or the amiable Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padres outfielder who made chasing .400 an annual pursuit, Helton is not comfortable talking about his hitting. The easygoing native of Knoxville, Tenn., has tried to prevent a McGwire-like media rush. He is happy to meet with reporters for 15 minutes on the first day of each series. He answers questions about hitting .400 thoughtfully, but after that he prefers to be asked about the game only.

"I think what's not realized in this whole thing is that a specific number is not my goal for the whole season or the rest of the season," Helton said. "It's to win as many games [as possible]. To do my part. And that's it. Wherever I end up, I end up."

Here's where he is: Beyond the .387 average, he has 33 home runs and 121 RBI. Helton leads the National League in hits (189) and doubles (53), but he will have to hit approximately .470 in the remaining 25 games to finish at .400. It's not far-fetched, considering he hit .476 in August.

Sure, his production is helped by the thin air of Coors Field, but Helton's swing is not just good in Coors. The left-hander is the National League's third-best road hitter (88-for-241, .365). He hit .655 (19-for-29) on one recent road trip.

"It's been incredible to watch," said Rockies second baseman Jeff Frye, who came to Denver in a trade from Boston, where he watched Nomar Garciaparra reach .400 three times in July. "Guys are sitting in the dugout in disbelief. He hits all line drives. There are no cheap hits."

Helton's run at .400 comes after a productive offseason. A first-round pick in 1995, he entered this season with a .267 average against left-handers and a .240 average in April. Improving both were offseason goals; the chase for .400 is a byproduct. He owns a .331 average against lefties this season. He hit .337 in April.

Colorado manager Buddy Bell could help Helton's chances of hitting .400 by resting him. But that won't happen.

"I've been asked if Todd would sit out on the final day if he's hitting .401," Bell said. "My answer to that is I think he would have a better chance of finishing at .403 than .399."

"I would be absolutely surprised if .400 were a concern for him. It's certainly a great feat, and I'm sure he would like to do it. But it's all done in the framework of a team concept."

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