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Rick Helling hopes Twins are fit


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Spring Training: Rick Helling hopes Twins are a fit

By WILL GRAVES, [email protected]

February 24, 2004


FORT MYERS ? The package will come sometime early this spring, possibly by Federal Express, though there's a chance it could be hand-delivered by a member of the Florida Marlins front office.


In it will be Rick Helling's past, or three months of it at least ? a World Series ring earned during a glorious 12-week stretch run with the Marlins last fall that ended with a champagne celebration in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after the Marlins won their second world title in six years.


Helling doesn't know exactly what the ring will look like, gaudy probably, but then again, World Series rings aren't known for their subtlety. All Helling hopes is that the package gets delivered to the Minnesota Twins clubhouse than his native North Dakota.


If it goes to Minneapolis, it means he has a job. If it doesn't, well, let's not think about that just yet.


Helling arrived in Fort Myers last week to join the Twins in spring training as a non-roster invitee, with both sides hoping Helling can make the squad as a fifth starter.


It's the second time in his career Helling will start over after winning a title with the Marlins.


He signed a free-agent contract with the Texas Rangers following Florida's 1997 World Series win, a victory tainted by the now-infamous salary purge that scattered the vital ? and expensive ? parts of Florida's roster to the wind.


But Texas didn't work out, neither did stops in Arizona or Baltimore, which designated him for assignment on Aug. 15 despite a 7-8 record in 24 starts for the Orioles.


Florida picked Helling up on Aug. 20, and he contributed out of the bullpen down the stretch, going 1-0 in relief in the regular season and pitching 82/3 innings of solid relief as the Marlins shocked the world in the playoffs.


Unlike 1997, however, there was no firesale following a championship, just a numbers game.


Helling wanted to start, but the Marlins are loaded with young and (relatively) inexpensive young arms.


"I was looking for a starting job," Helling said. "They looked pretty set in their rotation, so we just moved on."


Enter Minnesota, a team that lost three starters from last year's American League Central Divison championship squad. The Twins signed Helling with the hope he'll do what he's done throughout his career ? eat up innings and get on the mound every fifth day and do his job.


"He's an innings eater," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "He's a horse, a workhorse."


A workhorse looking for a place to resurrect a career that seemed destined for stardom in 1998, when he won a career-high 20 games with Texas but has leveled off in the five years since.


Helling is just 59-55 since the '98 season.


A power pitcher by trade, Helling re-dedicated himself to his body over the winter, hiring a personal trainer for the first time and trying to tone up his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.


"He's been a power pitcher his whole career," Gardenhire said.


"He still has the pitches, but when you lose a little velocity you have to learn to get the ball down in the zone and adjust."


With such a young staff ? at 33, Helling is the oldest pitcher in camp ? Helling thinks he'll be able to do what he did with the Orioles last year, be a veteran who can help kids like 24-year-olds Carlos Silva and Johan Santana learn the ropes.


It's a role he's comfortable with, so long as he continues to go out and do his job. While he isn't complaining about being released by the Orioles, it stung in the sense that he thought he did what they asked him to do.


"Last year was a rebuilding year for them, but I think I did what they wanted me to do (which) is ease the transition for a couple of young pitchers," Helling said.


"They wanted me to be a veteran and give guys a chance to learn."


Helling isn't intimidated by pitching in the not-so-pitcher- friendly Metrodome. He's spent the majority of the last six years throwing in hitters' dens that can wreak havoc on a pitcher's ERA.


The Ballpark at Arlington in Texas, Bank One Ballpark in Arizona and Oriole Park at Camden Yards are places where every well-hit fly ball becomes a cringe- inducing adventure.


"They don't get much better hitter parks than the last three I've been in," Helling said. "For the most part, all you want is fair.


Other than right field (the Dome is fair)."


And there's something about the Twins that attracted Helling.


He sees a lot of similarities between the Twins and Marlins.


Like the Marlins, the Twins are largely built through their farm system. Like the Marlins, the Twins must deal with certain financial realities that force them to find creative ways to win: like signing a veteran starter who wants to prove there's some gas left in his right arm.


Helling knows the Twins aren't mentioned in the same breath as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox when it comes to title contenders. But nobody talked about the Marlins last season until mid-September, though the players knew they could do it all along.


"Nobody expected us to do it last year but the 25 guys in the clubhouse plus the coaching staff," Helling said. "If all it takes to win was have the best players, the Yankees would win every year. They've won their share, but maybe this year it'll be us."

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