Legion baseball changed Rick Helling's life
GRAND FORKS -- Rick Helling's life changed forever because of American Legion baseball.
A 1989 Fargo Shanley High School graduate, Helling was set to play football at UND. But his sport switched after Helling and teammate Tim Sandy led Fargo Post 2 to a run to baseball's American Legion World Series.
Helling, whose baseball background includes stints at Lakota High School and the Devils Lake American Legion program, reported to the UND football program after the 1989 World Series and spent a season as a redshirt freshman.
But then he turned his attention from football to baseball and the rest is history, as the right-hander became the most successful pitcher ever produced in North Dakota.
When Grand Forks hosts the North Dakota Class AA American Legion baseball tournament, beginning Friday, it marks 30 years since that run deep into the 1989 Legion postseason.
"Who knows where I would have been now,'' the 48-year-old Helling said. "It's hard to imagine. I was hoping I'd be good enough to play pro football. But chances of that were probably pretty slim.
"I probably would have played football at UND, finished school and gotten a regular job. Maybe I would have become an attorney. It's crazy how if you come to a fork in the road, going left instead of right can change things.''
By 1994, Helling was pitching in the Major Leagues. He became the only North Dakota native to win 20 wins in a season, going 20-7 for the Texas Rangers in 1998.
In his 12-year Major League career, Helling won more games (93-81 record), started more games (234), pitched more innings (1,526.1) and struck out more batters (1,058) than any other North Dakota native. He pitched in the 2003 World Series for the champion Florida Marlins.
All this after deciding baseball, not football, was his future.
The attention of the professional scouts started to heat up after Helling pitched Fargo to a first-round win in the 1989 Legion World Series in Tennessee, a season in which he posted a 15-0 record.
"Some scouts saw me play in the region tournament and I think that opened some eyes,'' Helling said. "I pitched and hit well and was named the region MVP.
"Then we got to the World Series and I beat Richmond, Va. A bunch of scouts came to me and coach (Jerry) Harter, asking where I was going to play. They told me I might have a future in baseball. That's where it got started.
"I still think to this day that I was a better football player than baseball player back then. Football was my passion.''
At the end of his first semester at UND, Helling decided to join Sandy at a junior college in Illinois and switch from football to baseball.
The hardest part of leaving UND, he said, was telling head football coach Roger Thomas and assistant Rob Bollinger, who recruited Helling, of his plans.
"But they were awesome about it,'' Helling said. "They told me they wanted the best for me, that if baseball didn't work out they'd welcome me back. Now I see them and they laugh and say they thought I was crazy, giving up a full football scholarship.''
Helling played two years of baseball at Kishwaukee (Ill.) Junior College. From there, it was a year at Division I Stanford University before the Texas Rangers made Helling the 22nd overall selection in the 1992 MLB amateur draft.
In the meantime, Helling also made the USA team for the 1991 Pan Am Games and the 1992 Olympics.
"When I made the USA team in the summer of 1991, I think that's when I realized I could do something in baseball,'' Helling said.
"I went to tryout camp thinking I had no chance of making the team. I was only a few years removed from playing Legion ball in Fargo. But I made it and I guess it was then I felt there was maybe something in (baseball) for me.''
Helling retired after the 2006 season. That ended a vagabond baseball career that started growing up in Lakota, N.D., where as a sophomore Helling was starting third baseman on a Lakota team that won the 1987 Class B state high school tournament.
It included two years playing for the Devils Lake American Legion team before making the move to Fargo after his junior year at Lakota High School. He played two years for the Fargo Legion team.
Helling lives in the Twin Cities, working for the Major League Baseball Players' Association for the past 10 years. He also spent several seasons as an assistant high school football coach.
"It's amazing how time flies,'' Helling said. "One of the most fun times I've had in sports was playing with those (Fargo Legion) guys. We had a great bunch, and my Legion team shaped who I am.