A Life in Baseball: Terry Helget’s legacy as player, umpire earn him HOF nod

Photo courtesy of Terry Helget Terry Helget takes a swing during an amateur baseball game as part of the Essig Bluejays.

SLEEPY EYE — Terry Helget lives, sleeps and breathes baseball.

The 48-year-old Sleepy Eye resident has spent pretty much his entire life around the ballpark — from his days as the bat boy for the famous Stark Longhorns amateur baseball team to his All-Conference years at New Ulm Cathedral and his time playing Division III baseball at the University of St. Thomas.

Upon returning to the New Ulm/Sleepy Eye area, Helget played an illustrious 28-year career with the Essig Bluejays amateur baseball team and has made a name for himself as one of the best umpires in the state — he has been umpiring Division I baseball games for the Big Ten Conference, Summit League and Horizon League since 2007 as well as Division II and Division III national tournaments. Helget also played a key role in the effort to bring lights to the Essig Ballpark, which came to fruition in 2015.

For his lengthy résumé and contributions to the sport of baseball, Helget earned the nod for the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame and will be inducted in September.

The Minnesota Amateur Baseball Association was sent a compilation of 68 recommendation letters endorsing Helget’s candidacy as a deserving individual for induction, which led to its decision to enshrine him in its hall of fame.

Photo courtesy of Terry Helget Terry Helget poses with his family. Front row from left: son Jay, wife Tammy, daughter Mallory. Back row: Terry, daughter Maddy.

Bryce Pack, the activities director at Red Rock Central High School and the commissioner of amateur baseball’s Region 2C, wrote in his recommendation letter that Helget always played the game the way it should be played.

“He was very competitive but played hard and always by the rules,” Pack wrote. “When I was an umpire working behind him when he caught I knew it would be an enjoyable game to work. He very seldom questioned calls but when he did he was very professional about it, never showing you up or causing a scene.”

Dan Wolfe, who is currently the head assistant women’s basketball coach at Gustavus Adolphus College, taught Helget in middle school within the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools and later coached him on the boys’ basketball team at Cathedral. Wolfe wrote that Helget is a man of strong moral character.

“Terry does things for the right reason and without falling to the pressures of being politically correct,” Wolfe wrote. “Rules need to be followed by everyone no matter what their status is. He does not discriminate when it comes to doing the right thing and following the code of conduct as a student, athlete or official.”

Legendary New Ulm baseball coach James Senske began his recommendation letter by stating that Helget is “almost overly qualified” to be inducted into the hall of fame. Senske wrote that Helget was always a highly sought-after umpire for postseason tournaments and as the Section 3AAA coordinator, Senske had difficulty hiring him because of his previous commitments to other section tournaments.

Photo courtesy of Maddy Helget Terry Helget works the bases as an official at an MSHSL baseball state championship game at Target Field in Minneapolis.

“Quite frankly, he was the best umpire you could hire,” Senske wrote of Helget. “His mechanics, game control, and professionalism were impeccable.”

Legendary Waseca baseball coach Tink Larson echoed Senske’s sentiment in writing that Helget was one of the best umpires in the state.

“The only thing that could hold him back would be if he were a jackass, and he’s the exact opposite,” wrote Steve Kloeckl, manager/player for the Searles Grizzlies amateur baseball team.

Influential members within the local baseball community such as Bruce Woitas, Bob Weier, Bob Fink, Verne Radloff, Bob Sturm, Alberta Marth and even the National Coordinator of Baseball Umpires for the NCAA George Drouches — all had immensely positive things to say about Helget’s commitment to baseball and what he has meant to the sport as a player, manager, umpire and exemplary figure.

Humble bat boy-turned-ballplayer

Photo courtesy of Terry Helget Amateur baseball is a family affair for the Helget family. Terry Helget poses with his family. From left: brother Kyle, Terry, son Jay, father Marlin.

Terry Helget’s ties with Essig are strong, but his origin in the sport dates to his days as a bat boy for the Stark Longhorns teams that consisted almost entirely of Helgets.

“I always kind of figured I would eventually play for Stark and so did everybody else because that’s where my dad [Marlin] and everybody else played,” Helget said. “He was one of seven boys in his family — no sisters — and they all played baseball for Stark and they had four cousins that were as good or better as they were… At one time, there was probably a dozen Helgets on the roster at any given time.”

When he was young, Helget chased foul balls and memorized which helmet and bat belonged to which player as the bat boy for the Longhorns.

“That was the transition from wood bats to aluminum back in the late 70s — now we’ve gone to the other side again,” Helget said. “So I knew which guys had aluminum bats and which ones had the wood bats — Jackie Robinson’s was my dad’s style, for instance.”

As a kid, Helget was always throwing, whether it was rocks or small apples he found on the ground or tattered baseballs against the walls of barns or sheds on the farm.

Photo courtesy of Terry Helget Terry Helget poses with a trophy as part of the New Ulm Legion baseball team that qualified for the 1985 American Legion World Series in Kokomo, Indiana.

“Baseball was definitely my love from an early age,” he said. “It just kept growing, I guess.”

Helget went on to play varsity as a freshman at New Ulm Cathedral, working his way to a starting spot at catcher as a sophomore and eventually earning All-Conference honors as a junior and senior. He was also part of the New Ulm Legion team that qualified for the 1985 American Legion World Series in Kokomo, Indiana.

With all his success behind and at the plate, Helget went on to play at St. Thomas. However, he found he was somewhat at a disadvantage from the get-go.

“In Division III you don’t have scholarships, but up there if you went to Cretin-Derham Hall or Hill-Murray, you had a little bit of an advantage because those were their breeding grounds, so to speak,” Helget said. “I didn’t know that at the time. I just came in there figuring I’m an All-Conference guy from Cathedral, I’ll make my mark up there no problem. Well, I made the team no problem, but I found out that I was behind two other catchers who were both All-State.”

Because of this, Helget ended up playing more at first base than behind the plate as catcher.

“I caught a lot of bullpen,” Helget said with a chuckle. “I would say my time there, I maybe played a third of the games. I was not a standout by any stretch. I was a hard worker, did anything the coaches asked. I basically used those four years to get a lot more reps and get in the weight room and get stronger and that helped me for amateur ball.”

During his first summer off from college, Helget signed on to play amateur ball for the Essig Bluejays, beginning a career that spanned from 1988 to 2015.

In 800 games played, Helget notched 902 hits and had a .311 batting average. On the mound, Helget pitched 904 innings and amassed 871 strikeouts with a 2.96 career ERA. He made the All-Tournament team at state in 1992, 1998 and 2003, and made 18 state tournament appearances, having been drafted as a pitcher in 14 of them.

“Some of my greatest memories growing up are watching my dad play amateur ball, so it was very important and I really worked hard at it,” Helget said. “I have to say that I never wanted it to be said about me that when I was out on the mound or catching or whatever that if I looked around and saw my opponent to say, ‘Uh oh, he outworked me, I’m in trouble.’ I always wanted to say ‘I outworked everybody and I’ll take my chance.’ It didn’t always work out in my favor, but it was important to me.

“I think that work ethic helped me stay healthy enough to keep playing all the time.”

The years of amateur ball and umpiring took a toll on Helget physically, but he managed to push through and play until he was 46.

“Back in my dad’s generation, I would say quite a few guys played into their 30s for sure … and a few guys into their 40s,” Helget said. “My uncle Henry is exactly 20 years older than me and he joined our team and I played with him a few years. I remember thinking when I was 20 and he was 40, ‘Jeez, that’s an old guy,’ but I don’t think that way anymore.”

After contemplating hanging it up a couple times prior, Helget wanted to quit after the 2014 season. However, the project to bring lights to the Essig Ballpark compelled him to stay for one more season.

“My brother [Kyle] and a couple other people said, ‘We’re gonna get the lights thing done … And we want you to play under the lights one year at least,'” Helget said. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that would be all right.’

“Although it wasn’t that big of a priority at the time, looking back I’m really glad that I did that.”

In playing one more season, Helget said he had to kick it up a notch to surpass 900 career hits. He was 25 shy of that mark before the season.

“I had to get going; I had to show up a lot and play a fair amount and hit half decent to earn my spot in the lineup to get it and I got it late in the year,” Helget said. “When I was done, I remember looking at my wife [Tammy] outside the dugout at St. James and … I remember looking out at her and I mouthed to words to her, ‘It’s over.'”

Another spot

behind the plate

Interestingly enough, Helget said he never gave officiating a thought while he was playing. But he began umpiring in 1995 and eventually officiated football and basketball along with baseball for the Minnesota State High School League in 1999.

Helget got his start in officiating Division I baseball in 2007 for the Summit League, Horizon League and Big Ten Conference. As expected, getting to officiate at the Division I level is not something just anybody can do.

“At that level, they’re definitely not gonna put up with somebody who isn’t a student of the game,” Helget said. “They often talk about the game within the game, and that’s a big part of everything, whether you’re playing or officiating, understanding all the little things that go into it and why things happen and be ready for them when they happen.

“I kind of had that instinct from all my playing.”

Helget has also attended umpiring camps in Springfield, Missouri, that are run by the top Division I umpires who regularly umpire the College World Series.

“You learn a lot in a hurry from those guys,” Helget said. “Just by going there, it showed the people around here that I was interested in advancing.”

Eventually, coaches call into the assigners recommending advancement for the umpires who do well. Helget’s advancement was a product of his attentiveness to the game, which created opportunities for him.

Nowadays, Helget spends about two-thirds of his schedule umpiring Big Ten baseball games.

“I did a total of six Division I weekends this year; it’s a fair amount of travel,” Helget said. “I said to some people at one point, I went to church six Sundays in a row in six different states. It’s quite a change.”

Because umpiring in the majors is not an option — major league umpiring is a career path that starts early and is completely different from college umpiring — Helget’s ultimate goal is to umpire the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

“To get there, first I have to keep doing well … maybe a year or two down the line, I can work a Division I conference tournament and then hopefully do well enough there for a year or two and then get a Division I Regional, then a Division I Super Regional,” Helget said. “It’s not that likely, but it’s not improbable either. But it’s a little too early to tell if I’m going to be cut out for that.”

What matters most

Even if Terry Helget falls short of his ultimate goal, his résumé speaks for itself.

As far as the biggest reason for all his success, Terry said his wife, Tammy, is the one person who has helped make it all possible.

“She is the No. 1 reason and I can honestly say that without her, none of this — not one bit of it — would work, nor be even as close to as enjoyable as it is,” he said. “She has done a lot and sacrificed a lot for not only me, but for the kids. There were a lot of nights when the kids were younger and I was off officiating basketball four-to-six nights a week for a while. … Granted we’re making money helping to pay bills — but still, she’s done a lot.”

Without his wife and three kids — Maddy (22), Jay (20) and Mallory (16) — Terry Helget’s life in baseball may not have been as fruitful as it has been.

“A lot of guys quit playing now because they say, ‘Oh well I’ve got kids now,'” Helget said. “For me, that’s not a very good reason to stop playing. They aren’t as lucky as me, evidently.”