The first time Coach Larry Elliot noticed Eric Helfand’s strong throwing arm, Elliot was standing in the third-base coaching box.
Elliot’s Mira Mesa team was facing Patrick Henry, and Mike Eicher was on first base. Elliot wasn’t doing anything in particular when all of a sudden, Helfand, the Patrick Henry catcher, snapped a throw to first base.
Although the runner was safe, the play was very close, Elliot snapped to attention.
“I can still see that throw,” Elliot said. “It was on a line about two feet off the ground. He didn’t even get out of his crouch. He just threw it from his knees.”
Helfand has gotten the attention of more people than just Elliot this season. The senior has gained a reputation as one of San Diego County’s hottest baseball prospects because of his outstanding arm.
Recently, Helfand was listed as a possible first- or second-round draft pick by Baseball America magazine. The publication listed its top 58 prospects, college and high school, and Helfand was the only San Diego high school player among them.
There were others in the county who had higher batting averages than Helfand’s .400 mark this season. And there were others who hit more than the pair of home runs Helfand hit while leading Patrick Henry to a second-place finish in the City Eastern League.
Pro scouts know they can teach young prospects how to hit but they can’t teach how to throw hard.
That’s why Helfand (5-feet, 11-inches, 180 pounds) has gained so much attention.
“He has a great throwing arm, and the beauty of it is that he gets rid of the ball so quickly,” Patrick Henry Coach Bob Imlay said. “He’s shut down many a running game this season.”
Helfand’s performance is reminiscent of that of another Patrick Henry catcher, Matt Nokes, now with the Detroit Tigers, who played for Imlay in 1980 and ’81.
“Matt was one of those guys who just went out and worked harder than anybody else, and so is Eric,” Imlay said. “He has that attitude that he’s never good enough. He always thinks he needs to improve, and that’s the attitude you need.”
Helfand was surprised to see his name on a list of the nation’s top recruits. He’s always thought of himself as a good player, but not that good.
“Boy, look at this list of guys,” Helfand said as he sat in the dugout during a recent practice. “There’s some pretty good names here. It’s kind of overwhelming when you think about it.
“I’m just going to go out and do the best I can. This list really doesn’t mean anything.”
Except that it means people are looking at Helfand.
“Whether a young kid is going to make the major leagues is something you can only guess at,” said Elliot, a former outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets. “All the kid can ask for is a chance, and I think this kid will get a chance. He certainly deserves it.”
Helfand said he is unsure whether he will sign a pro contract if one is offered after the season. He has already made an oral commitment to attend the University of Nebraska.
“It’s harder to say whether I’d sign because I just haven’t been presented with the circumstances yet,” Helfand said.
One thing that’s certain is that Helfand has had a terrific season behind the plate. He threw out 14 of the first 16 runners who tried to steal against him this year, and after that, people pretty much stopped running. He picked five runners off first base.
Helfand was born in Erie, Pa., but grew up in San Diego. He was Patrick Henry’s junior varsity catcher as a sophomore, and he caught in the bullpen when the varsity advanced to the 3-A championship game that year at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
He’d love to get back to the stadium this year. Patrick Henry is preparing to face Santana today in the first round of the playoffs.
Helfand is more widely recognized now than he was at the beginning of the season. Because of a shoulder injury, he didn’t play much his junior season.
“That’s why he’s snuck by everybody,” Imlay said. “Nobody remembered him from last year.”