Baseball Volunteers have awakened the echoes of Todd Helton and 1995.
That was the year the home-grown (Central High) first baseman/pitcher hit .407 with 20 home runs and 92 runs batted in for the University of Tennessee. From the mound, he went 8-2 with an earned run average of 1.66 and recorded 74 strikeouts in 76 innings.
That was a year Tennessee doubled as Southeastern Conference champion, regular season and tournament. The Vols went to the College World Series for the first time in four and half decades. They finished third.
Helton was named national player of the year, the only Volunteer to earn the top honor.
Actually, Todd was a more effective relief pitcher in 1994. His ERA was 0.89. He notched 47.2 consecutive scoreless innings. Coach Rod Delmonico, not easily impressed, said that was pretty good.
In addition to talented, Helton was unique, the answer to a trick question about Tennessee football. He was the starting quarterback when Peyton Manning was a substitute.
Dual sports were no surprise. He was Gatorade player of the year in football and baseball as a Central High Bobcat.
Fame? Legendary – shared with Chris Burke, R.A. Dickey, Rick Honeycutt, Condredge Holloway, Jeff Pickler, Luke Hochevar, Sam Ewing and other all-Americans.
Fortune? The Colorado Rockies provided some, first-round draft choice, eighth overall, 17-year career, all-star five times, three Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger awards.
Tennessee records? Time is taking a toll. On Saturday afternoon in Starkville, senior catcher Evan Russell hit his 38th home run to tie Helton’s career record. He’ll undoubtedly break it in the forthcoming Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.
Already, these fun-loving, sometimes boisterous and almost always entertaining Volunteers have done serious damage with bats and balls. They are No. 1 in national polls. They have a 49-7 record. They are 25-5 against league foes. They have hit 137 home runs.
They play baseball with an attitude. They seem to be natural irritants. They have been accused of showboating. They talk a lot. Sluggers do dugout celebrations in an ancient fur coat.
Tony Vitello seems always alert to coaching opportunities.
After a loss to Auburn, he said: “It is pretty good for our guys to know they are not invincible. I think the way they act sometimes, people might think that. It is just a confident group that likes to compete. But everyone needs to be reminded now and then that you can be humbled really, really quick.”
Humbled? Not often.
The Vols swept Florida in Gainesville and reappeared in Gator football helmets. Some failed to appreciate the prank. Vitello did his best to explain.
Available showers were in a football locker room. Baseball players are often jealous of football players. The Vols spotted the old helmets and put ’em on.
“They were on a euphoric rise and just clowning around,” said the coach. “I said don’t do that again.”
Vitello said the Vols are confident. He left out fiercely. They expect to win. They show no sympathy for losers. They beat Iona, 29-0, and Belmont, 18-0. They beat Auburn, 17-4, and Mississippi State, 27-2. Could be they are reflections of their leader. He is aggressive.
The coach is smart, very smart – but he bumped an umpire during an argument, got suspended, took full responsibility and transformed the awkward situation into a smile and a gesture of kindness.
Vitello sold chest-bump replays with fans, $2 each, and donated proceeds to the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that helps military members who need help.
Never has there been anything quite like this at Tennessee.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com.