By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – As any player starts the climb through the minor leagues, getting closer to the majors, he finds out he has a lot more friends and family members back home supporting him than he probably knew existed.
In the case of Cardinals’ pitching prospect Ryan Helsley, there is a tribe of people back in Oklahoma cheering him on from afar – literally.
Helsley is a member of the Cherokee tribe, and back home in Tahlequah, Okla., following his success has become an almost daily activity. Helsley is one of only a few Native Americans selected in the history of the baseball draft, and he would be one of only a few to ever play in the major leagues if that happens.
“A lot of people are watching and looking up to him and talking about him and bragging about him around here,” said Jeff Turtle, who was Helsley’s baseball coach at Sequoyah High School. “Cherokee Nation is based right here, where our school is. This is a big thing to all Indian people, and we are all really proud.”
The 23-year-old Helsley, the Cardinals’ fifth-round pick from Northeastern, Okla., State in 2015, knows how important his performance is for the people cheering for him back home.
It is part of his motivation to succeed.
“I’m super proud of the fact that I’m Native American,” said Helsley, a non-roster invitee to the Cardinals’ spring training camp. “I’m happy to be able to represent the Cherokee Nation. I don’t think about that stuff a whole lot because I have to focus on each day and take one step at a time, concentrating on what’s ahead, but I definitely keep that in mind.”
When Helsley pitched in a couple of spring training games which were on television, Turtle and others in Tahlequah became even more excited as they realized what they were watching.
“When we saw him on TV, I didn’t know if we would ever see that,” Turtle said. “Throwing to (Yadier) Molina, I was like ‘gosh’. We were all kind of excited about that. We’re all trying to watch as much as we can.”
Emerging as a prospect
For different reasons, the Cardinals have been watching Helsley closely as well. He has quickly shot up the rankings as one of the organization’s best pitching prospects even though he was virtually unknown before he was drafted.
A multi-sport athlete in high school, Helsley played football, basketball, baseball and even ran track during the baseball season. Turtle has taught at the high school for more than 20 years and thinks Helsley likely is the best athlete ever to go through the all-Indian school. Scouts watched some of his high school games, but Helsley went undrafted and decided to stay near home for college at Northeastern State.
A future in professional baseball was not really part of his thought process at the time.
“I wanted to go to a four-year school and get my degree and start a normal life,” Helsley said. “I was not planning on getting drafted, but luckily God blessed me with talent and hopefully I can put that to good use and use the platform to glorify Him an help my family enjoy the moment.”
Turtle was not surprised that Helsley had more success in college, where he was a draft-eligible sophomore because of his age.
“He never got to concentrate and focus on one thing until he got to college,” Turtle said. “I knew he had a really good arm and was a really great athlete and I thought once he concentrates on this, he would have success.”
The Cardinals first noticed Helsley in the fall of his sophomore year. Aaron Looper, at the time one of the Cardinals’ area scouts and now their national crosschecker, made it a point to be at his first game in the spring of 2015. He made another trip later that spring to watch him again.
“My first impressions were that he was a strong and athletic pitcher,” Looper said. “He had a good arm and showed a good changeup that day. During his second outing he showed better command, a little more velocity and an improved breaking ball.”
Looper saw enough that he invited Helsley to come to St. Louis for a workout before the draft. Even though he was not wearing the Cardinals’ uniform, pitching on the mound at Busch Stadium was a special thrill for Helsley, who attended a game at Busch as a fan in 2011 when he was playing in a youth tournament in the area and considered himself a Cardinals’ fan.
Playing against small school opposition, however, it was hard for Helsley to know how he compared with other college pitchers – not only from his area but from across the country.
“I was mostly a fastball guy since I went to a smaller school and didn’t really need much else to get a whole lot of outs,” Helsley said. “Once I got into pro ball I learned that no matter how hard you throw guys can hit it. That’s why they are here. My off-speed and secondary stuff has come a long way, but I still need to get better.”
Looper and the Cardinals have had a high level of success finding pitchers from smaller colleges. He was the scout who convinced the Cardinals to draft Trevor Rosenthal out of a junior college in Kansas.
“The level of competition shouldn’t affect my evaluation of a pitcher’s current stuff or projection,” Looper said. “His frame, athleticism, fastball, and feel for his fastball were his strengths. His off-speed consistency was the main thing I felt he needed to improve.
“He seemed to have his head on straight. He was also a great competitor so I didn’t worry about his makeup on or off the field.”
A smooth transition
Helsley began his pro career at rookie-level Johnson City following the draft, and skipped a level in 2016, pitching at Peoria, where he began to establish himself in the organization by going 10-2 with a 1.61 ERA in 17 starts. In 95 innings he recorded 109 strikeouts and only waked 19 hitters.
The success continued last season, when he began the year at Palm Beach, moved up to Double A Springfield and finished the year at Memphis, going a combined 11-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 24 games, 23 of them starts, still averaging more than one strikeout per inning. In his first 2 ½ years in the organization, Helsley had a combined record of 22-6 with a 2.22 ERA.
That performance earned Helsley the non-roster invitation to the major-league spring training camp, and on Feb. 24, he found himself on the mound facing the Mets in Port St. Lucie, where he gave up two runs in 1 2/3 innings.
“It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but I thought I competed,” Helsley said. “I took in the moment. My goal for the day was to go in there and throw strikes, not give up any free bags and challenge the hitters.
“I came in with a runner on second and one out, and I told myself to execute some pitches.”
Before the game, Helsley had a conversation with Bud Norris and the veteran pitcher has become one of Helsley’s go-to guys this spring for advice.
“He was telling me the most important thing was to breathe,” Helsley said. “He said the game can speed up on you, no matter who you are or how long you’ve been in the league, whether it’s 10 days or 10 years. He told me to take it one pitch at a time and not get too far ahead of yourself.”
Norris was happy to offer that advice, thinking back to his entry into professional baseball years ago with the Astros.
“During batting practice I was just doing my best to calm him down and give him little things to work on, to build a plan for that day,” Norris said. “I think he went out there and executed pretty well. … Pitching is a craft, it’s not a science, and you have to figure it out every day. A young guy like that, with a great arm, I just want to give him the knowledge that I have.
“I was pretty much a dear in the headlights when I came up with Houston. The guy I wanted to learn from was Roy Oswalt and when I first got called up he didn’t talk to me for a couple of months. Then one day he came up to me in batting practice and asked me a couple of things about the game the day before; why did you throw a 2-2 fastball to the eighth hitter? I told him I didn’t know. He said you could have thrown a slider and you should have thrown a slider on 3-2 because you had a pitcher on deck. He basically broke down the game for me at a different level and it really helped me.
“He (Helsley) has a lot to learn and I want to do anything I can to help him.”
Helsley pitched in two more games this spring, allowing two runs in three innings in part of his some control issues, before he was reassigned to the minor-league camp on Sunday so he can begin to stretch out his performances and be ready for the start of the regular season.
His assignment to begin the year is to be determined, but he likely will work as a starter as the year begins, even though John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations, already has identified Helsley as a potential closer sometime in the future.
“Any way I can help the team, I am willing to do that,” Helsley said. “I’ve pitched out of the bullpen a handful of times and I think I would be able to adjust.”
Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development, is bullish on Helsley’s future.
“Ryan was very consistent the whole year (in 2017),” LaRocque said. “He really was extremely focused and very productive. Moving into this year he knows he reached the level of the league (Florida State League) and went beyond it, and now he has to try to do it at the next level.”
Fans will be watching
No matter whether he is starting or relieving, Helsley’s fans back in Oklahoma will continue to be watching and cheering.
One of the reasons Helsley has so many fans is that he has stayed connected with the Native American community in his hometown. He spends the off-season working at an immersion school, where kindergarten students through eighth graders are taught in the native Cherokee language.
Helsley, who did not go to that school when he was that age, works after school as an English tutor. Helsley’s grandparents still speak the Cherokee language, and he knows some words, “but not enough toput sentences together.”
“They are trying to keep it (the Cherokee language) going so it doesn’t die out,” Turtle said. “A lot of our elders have passed on and they were the speakers. We don’t have that around much anymore.”
At the high school, classes are conducted in English but Cherokee I and II are electives, just like Spanish and other languages, and each student is required to take a language. Many of them choose Cherokee, Turtle said.
Helsley also works out with high school students, playing basketball in the gym, and giving both the young children he tutors and the older kids a role model to follow.
“He’s around all our kids; they see him, they talk to him,” Turtle said. “The kids know him, their parents know him, they see him on television. It’s neat for our kids. We’re all trying to watch as much as we can. If he gets to St. Louis it will be unbelievable.”