But those sojourns were the basis of some great memories for Jason Helsley and his son Ryan.
They’d make the 400-mile drive to Busch Stadium in St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. Ryan’s been chasing a dream of playing in the big leagues ever since, and his dad’s been there with him, from Wiffle Ball in the backyard to his son’s signing as the 161st overall in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft in 2015.
In a little case of good karma, Helsley (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) was drafted by the Cardinals and he posted a 1-1 record for the Johnson City (Tenn.) Cardinals team last summer.
“Growing up, I got to watch the Cardinals play and win a World Series up there. They became the team I liked and always wanted to watch,” Helsley told ICTMN. “It’s really cool to be in their organization now. It’s been a childhood dream to play baseball and to be able to be drafted by your favorite team is special. You don’t see that very often.”
Helsley is a 2013 graduate of Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., and went to the local college, Northeastern State University. He was the first NSU player drafted in the first five rounds of the MLB Draft. In his final collegiate season, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-hander finished fifth in the nation with 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Since Johnson City plays just 60 games from June to Sept. 1, there’s only a few months to catch somebody’s eye if you want to move to the next level. In college, he had a 4.06 ERA in 126.1 innings, but and cut that in half going against his first professional hitters. Helsley pitched 38 innings in the rookie league and finished with an ERA of 2.11 with 34 strikeouts, 18 walks with 32 hits allowed.
“I’m pretty pleased with my progress,” said Helsley, who is just the third Cherokee citizen to be drafted in the pros. “I felt like I had a good first year … had a chance to get my feet wet. I just need to keep working hard this offseason and in spring training to make a couple of my pitches better and become more developed.”
He has a big-league fastball that clocks anywhere from 94-96 mph, but it’s the complementary pitches that set it all up, he says. “I can top my fastball off at 98. “I try to get ahead with the fastball and make them chase the breaking stuff. I have a two-seamer, four-seamer, changeup and slider I like to mix in. I think I’d like to develop a cutter.”
As intimidating as a 98-mph fastball sounds, he’s finding professional hitters can make the adjustment and get around on it. “It’s definitely more mental pitching at this level,” said Helsley, who threw three complete games in college and finished with 151 strikeouts. “I learned that right away. It’s definitely more of a mind game out there. You have to be calm and cool and be able to collect yourself.”
Helsley walks in a proud Cherokee tradition. Sequoyah High and New Mexico State alum O.J. King was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth round in 2002. He played minor league ball. J.R. Sellars was initially drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in 1966 and again by Cincinnati in 1967. Family obligations didn’t allow him to pursue a career, but Sellars said that seeing Helsley out there is an inspiration to the Cherokee Nation and Native kids everywhere.
“It’s a great influence. I never had a chance to pitch professionally, but I still run into young people who watched me play,” said Sellars, who’s now 71 years old. “As I think [Helsley’s] a big influence for a lot of the Cherokee Indian people. That influence also teaches the kids how to live every day like they should live.”
Helsley’s name is associated with many numbers. In college, he made 21 starts during his two years at NSU, compiled a 14-8 record and had a 4.06 ERA in 126.1 innings pitched. He also threw three complete games. But the number Sequoyah High School athletic director Marcus Crittenden remembers most is the 3.5 grade point average he carried in the classroom throughout high school.
“Ryan’s just an outstanding young man. He’s a really, really good guy all the way around,” Crittenden said. “He’s an excellent role model that graduated in the top 10 percent, which is tough here. He helps out our elementary students in the after-school program. He loves to give back. He donated several items to our display in the trophy case – autographed pictures, baseball, baseball card, newspaper article. He is a great ambassador for Sequoyah High School, Cherokee Nation, the state of Oklahoma, Tenkiller School.”
Pitchers and catchers report to the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. on Feb. 17. From there, Helsley will get his next assignment. He knows it’s about work and more work, and chasing the dream. “It’s pretty awesome getting paid to play a kid’s game,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always had that dream and not everybody gets to do that and I’m just really thankful to everyone who helped me along the way.”