The wind whips across the city, carrying wisps of snow across
the flat streets of Fargo. One step outside, and the moisture in
your nose freezes with your first breath. The electronic
thermometer at the Norwest Bank states the obvious: -17[degrees]
F. It's Jan. 6, in Fargo's brief winter dusk. In Hornbacher's, a
grocery store on Broadway, people are greeting one another
cheerfully: Coldnuf fer ya? In the parking lot, cars are running
with nobody in them. And people wonder why Darin Erstad and Rick
Helling--two well-paid major leaguers, two men who could live
wherever they want in the off-season--choose to winter in North
Earlier in the day Erstad and Helling had been on a fruitless
ice-fishing expedition to Prairie Lake. Now they are at a back
table at the Fargo Cork, the city's leading steak-and-walleye
house. Erstad is examining the menu. "Couscous?" he says
incredulously to a waitress, his food vocabulary strained. He's
24, a core player on the emerging Anaheim Angels, a 6'2",
210-pound first baseman and outfielder who's one of the best
young players in the game. He has a tiny mouth and thinning
blond hair, and when he questions something, a pair of inch-high
lines form between his eyebrows. "What the...what's that?"
Helling is 28 and worldly. He has pitched at Kishwaukee Junior
College in Malta, Ill., and at Stanford, from which he graduated
in 1993; in Spain, where he pitched for the U.S. Olympic team;
and in every major league park. Last year he was 20-7 for the
Texas Rangers. He is 6'3" and 220 pounds, and has a perfectly
round head, ears pinned back to it, with an unbelievable amount
of information inside it. He's not a big reader, but if he hears
something, he retains it. Helling has heard about couscous
before. "It's like rice," he tells Erstad, "like African rice."
"I'll have a baked potato," Erstad says, "with everything on
In the history of baseball only a dozen North Dakotans have made
it to the bigs, but three of them were prominent in 1998:
Erstad, who made the American League All-Star team; Helling, who
helped lead the Rangers to the American League West title; and
Roger Maris, who, you may have heard, had his longstanding
single-season home run record broken by not one but two players.
"My father idolized Maris," Erstad says over dinner. "I came to
appreciate him more last year, reading up on him. I didn't want
to see his record broken."
"I played on the same American Legion team Maris played on,
Fargo, and went to the same high school, Shanley," says Helling.
"Everywhere I played I'd hear, 'You should have seen the shot
Maris hit here when he was 15.'"
Erstad and Helling are friends, but not close ones. Only in the
past two or three years, as big leaguers, have they had the
chance to spend time together. They have the same agent, Jeffrey
Moorad, and work out at the same gym in Fargo, the Red River
Valley Sports Medicine Institute. As kids they met only once, at
a distance of 60 feet, six inches. Helling grew up in a tiny
farm village, Lakota (pop. 898), and moved the 137 miles
southeast to Fargo, a city of 74,111, for his senior year of
high school. Erstad grew up in Jamestown, a farm town of 15,571
people about 90 miles west of Fargo. In 1989 the Fargo American
Legion team traveled to play Jamestown's Legion team. Fargo
drove into town in its gleaming bus, which had air-conditioning,
reclining seats and a TV. When Helling, Fargo's star righthanded
pitcher, emerged from the bus, most of Jamestown took notice.
Helling was 18 but already filled out, a man. Before his first
at bat, Erstad, then 15, knelt in the on-deck circle, watching
in amazement as Helling blew hitters away. Helling struck out 18
in that game, including every Jamestown batter except one.
Erstad was hitless in four at bats--he can still remember each
of them--but didn't whiff.
In the majors Helling has faced Erstad 11 times, and Erstad can
recall not only each at bat but also nearly every pitch. Fargo
continues to dominate Jamestown: Erstad was 0 for 7 against
Helling before he broke the string by singling in a game at
Anaheim during September's division race. He then went hitless
in his final three at bats of the season against Helling. "I
follow Darin in the paper, I root for him to do well," Helling
says. "I don't mind if he gets a single off me, as long as he
doesn't drive in a run or score himself or cost me the game."
Erstad takes a different view. "Whenever he pitches, I want to
see the same line: eight innings, no runs, no hits, no
decision," he says. "I can't root for him to win. We're in the
same division! Is that mean?"
They took wholly different routes from North Dakota to the
American League West. The grandson of farmers, Erstad grew up
the middle of three children in a happy home. His father, Chuck,
is an insurance claims manager, and his mother, Dorothy, has
worked as a church education director. Darin has known nothing
but sporting success. He played football and hockey and ran
track during the school year, and played baseball all summer,
day after day, from morning until the lights were turned off.
Partly because the weather doesn't warm up until late in the
spring, many North Dakota high schools don't have baseball
teams--Jamestown High didn't--but in the summer it's not unusual
for games between big Legion rivals to be attended by several
thousand people. As a teenager Erstad played 60 or 70 Legion
games between the end of school and Labor Day.
"I feel kind of sorry for those kids who just play one sport
growing up, then in the off-season all they do is exercises to
improve the muscles you use for that one sport," Erstad says.
He's in his house now, in a Fargo development where the streets
form perfect squares. Erstad shares the house--a modest
split-level with a single color scheme, off-white--with three
other bachelors of his vintage. "Growing up in North Dakota, you
play everything. We always found a way to compete. Not just team
sports. Ping-Pong. Ice fishing. Sledding." The notion of living
anywhere besides North Dakota in the off-season doesn't make
sense to him. North Dakota is home. "Me and my best friend, we'd
go to the top of this hill and race our sleds right to this rock
before a bridge," he recalls. When sledding into a rock is your
idea of recreational sport, breaking up double plays seems like
After high school Erstad attended Nebraska on a baseball
scholarship, but as a sophomore he tried out for the football
team. He was the punter--he had a booming 42.6-yard average--and
also handled kickoffs and long-distance field goal attempts for
the Cornhuskers' 1994 national champions. He wore quarterback
shoulder pads, not the less protective kicker pads, always
hoping to get in on a tackle. There's little doubt that he could
have been an NFL punter. Baseball, though, was his first love,
and he became an All-America leftfielder. Erstad was picked
first in the '95 major league draft and signed a contract with
the Angels that included a $1.6 million bonus. The '99 season
will be his second under a four-year deal worth $7.25 million.
Last year, in his second full big league season, Erstad hit .296
with 19 homers and 82 RBIs despite missing 29 late-season games
with a strained left hamstring. Because of an overload of
outfield talent in Anaheim, he has spent most of his time at
first base, a position he barely played until he joined the
Angels but at which he has acquitted himself well. The Angels'
off-season acquisition of free agent Mo Vaughn, an All-Star
first baseman with the Boston Red Sox, could mean that Erstad
will move back to the outfield in '99.
During most of Erstad's time with the Angels, Anaheim hasn't had
a true leadoff man, so at times he has taken on that role, too,
even though he's a classic number 3 hitter. His speed enabled
him to steal a team-leading 20 bases last year, and he was the
hardest batter in the league to double up. Larry Bowa, the
Angels' third base coach, says Erstad is the most coachable
player he has ever tutored. In his work habits Erstad reminds
Bowa of an old Philadelphia Phillies teammate, Pete Rose.
Erstad will hear none of it. He's truly modest. "When I came up
and Rod Carew was our hitting coach, I'd try to avoid him,"
Erstad says. "I couldn't talk to him. No words. Most of us
growing up in North Dakota, we followed the Twins. Carew was
like God." In his house Erstad has framed pictures of Jackie
Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. He has a reverence for those who have
come before him: DiMaggio, Robinson, Maris, Carew, Helling.
Erstad couldn't believe it when he viewed Helling's early
struggles in the majors from afar. "I was remembering the
pitcher I had faced in Legion ball," Erstad says. "He was a
giant." Helling had signed with the Rangers as a first-round
pick in 1992, after his junior year at Stanford. He was traded
to the Florida Marlins in '96 and then was traded back to the
Rangers the following season. By the end of '97 Helling's career
record in the big leagues was 11-16. A fastball pitcher who
throws strikes, he was a good minor league pitcher, a good
spring training pitcher, a good September call-up pitcher. But
there wasn't much to suggest he'd someday be a 20-game winner.
"The only thing I could guess was that something had happened to
his confidence," Erstad says.
Lord knows, most everything else had happened to him. Helling is
the youngest of four children, born nine years after the second
youngest, Rod. Like Erstad's forebears, Helling's grandparents
were farmers, and his parents, like Erstad's, left the farm
life. Helling's mother, Lorraine, is a seamstress. His father,
Milo, is a truck driver. When Rick was 10, Lorraine left Milo
and filed for divorce. She loved him, she says, except when he
was drunk, which was often.
On April 16, 1982, the oldest Helling boy, Randy, and five
friends were driving on a two-lane road--Highway 2, the road to
Minot--heading to a wedding reception. The driver had not been
drinking. Their car was struck, head-on, by a vehicle with a
drunk behind the wheel. The accident left five people dead: the
drunk driver, three of Randy's friends and Randy. Randy was 23,
a three-sport star in high school, the best athlete Lakota had
That day, Rick says, his boyhood was over, even though he was
only 11. "To this day, people tell me, 'You're good, but you
couldn't have carried Randy's jock,'" he says. This is meant as
a compliment, and Rick takes it as one. He's in his house now--a
modest split-level dominated by a single color, off-white--in a
Fargo development where the streets form perfect squares. He
lives there in the off-season with his wife, Tamaso, and his
mother. The notion of his residing anywhere besides North Dakota
in the off-season doesn't make sense to him. North Dakota is
home. "I've devoted my life to fulfilling the ambitions Randy
had for me," he says. "When I applied to Stanford, you had to
answer a question, Who is the person in history you'd most like
to spend a day with? I wrote down Randy's name. It'd be hard to
have just one day with him, but it would be better than no days
Last year Helling finally received what he had always wanted, a
chance to be a regular in a major league rotation, and he
responded with that 20-win season. He earned a mere $216,500 in
'98; now Moorad is negotiating with the Rangers for what Helling
hopes will be a three-year contract extension. His ERA last
year, 4.41, looks high. His trick: Give up fewer runs than Texas
scores. The Rangers scored a bunch--an average of 5.88 when
Helling started. Last year there were four 20-game winners:
Roger Clemens, David Cone, Tom Glavine and Rick Helling. Nice
company. Helling dedicated his breakthrough season to Randy's
memory. When the Rangers clinched their division and the
champagne came out, Helling never opened the bottle in the ice
bucket at his feet. He doesn't drink. He has his reasons.
At the Fargo Cork, in the warmth of a back table near a
fireplace, Erstad and Helling are having a good time, eating
their steaks, drinking their Pepsis and their water, reliving
sunny Legion days etched in their memories.
"You guys had those hats," Erstad says.
"You remember them?" Helling says. "That foam bill and the mesh
top and the adjustable strap?"
"They were awful. But you guys had the great bus."
"You guys had a nice bus, too."
"Yeah, but yours was the best."
On and on it goes, two old Legion ballplayers talking shop,
drifting through another dark and cold North Dakota evening,
ever closer to the arrival of spring.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD C. MODRA Cold fish On Prairie Lake last week, Helling (left) and Erstad went into the hole. [Rick Helling and Darin Erstad ice-fishing]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Hit and run Versatile in the field, the athletic Erstad has also exhibited pop at the plate and flashed speed on the bases. [Darin Erstad hitting]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER A little help from his friends With his teammates averaging 5.88 runs in his starts, Helling became a 20-game winner. [Rick Helling pitching]
Erstad was 0 for 7 against Helling before he broke the string by
singling in a September game.
"Everywhere I played," Helling says of his Legion days, "I'd
hear, 'You should have seen the shot Maris hit here when he was