There was an historic feel to the air in the Knoxville Convention Center Wednesday night, as a sold-out crowd of more than 1,300 showed up to honor one of Knoxville???s favorite sons. Todd Helton was the guest of honor at the 16th annual Tennessee Baseball Leadoff Banquet, and the event was highlighted by the retirement of Helton???s No. 3 UT baseball jersey.
In addition to his number retirement, Helton also became the 17th all-time inductee into the Tennessee Baseball Hall of Fame, enshrined by UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton.
???Todd Helton is the most decorated and arguably the greatest player in the history of the Volunteers program,??? Hamilton said. ???His legendary achievements at both the collegiate and professional levels are unparalleled by any player ever to don the Orange & White.???
First-year head coach Todd Raleigh spoke to the crowd in anticipation of the 2008 season and also introduced the current team. Prior to Helton???s number retirement and hall-of-fame induction, Raleigh read a proclamation by Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam that officially declared Jan. 30, 2008, ???Todd Helton Day.???
It was also announced Wednesday night that Tennessee is planning an ???All-Century Team??? promotion during the upcoming season. Baseball fans will have the opportunity to vote on UT???s All-Century Team at home SEC games as well as online at UTsports.com this spring. The 2009 season marks the 100th season of varsity baseball at Tennessee.
Another highlight to the evening was a nearly 30-minute question-and-answer session between Helton and Master of Ceremonies John Wilkerson. Among the topics discussed was the growing number of UT alumni in Major League Baseball.
???There???s getting to be more and more of them, and it???s exciting,??? Helton said. ???And we all have that one thing in common. Any stadium I go to???American League, National League, anywhere???I???ll see a person wearing some sort of orange UT paraphernalia. It???s like a fraternity, and not all schools have that.???
Well-known as one of the game???s purest natural hitters, Helton also spoke about his days as a standout pitcher at UT.
???I don???t know how I got guys out,??? Helton said. ???I didn???t have that good of stuff. I threw any pitch at any time. But I had a real distinct advantage because I knew how hard hitting was. Knowing that, I went right at guys.???
Helton likened the Colorado Rockies dramatic run to the 2007 World Series to his days as a collegiate star at Tennessee.
???We played like a college team (this past season),??? Helton said. ???Every out was important to us. That made it really memorable and fun.???
Though he was unable to attend the event in person, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle sent his congratulations to Helton via a video message that was played during the banquet. Vice President of Scouting Bill Schmidt and National Cross-Checker Ty Coslow represented the Rockies organization at the event.
In addition to numerous family members, many other locals with ties to Helton???s past were present at the event. His former coach at Knoxville Central High School, Bud Bales, was on hand with many of Helton???s high school teammates. Former Vols assistant coach Larry Simcox, Helton???s infield coach at Tennessee, also was in the crowd along with former UT head coaches Bill Wright, John Whited and Mark Connor.
Current Vols pitcher Aaron Everett, a junior pitcher from Loudon, Tenn., wore No. 3 the past two seasons and was given the option of finishing out his UT career in that number. Out of respect for Helton, however, Everett appeared in a No. 9 jersey Wednesday night???marking a permanent switch that ensures No. 3 will never again be worn by a Volunteers baseball player.
Raleigh, Everett and rest of the 2008 Volunteers open UT???s 99th season of baseball with a three-game series against Morehead State Feb. 22-24 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. For season tickets, call (865) 656-1200.