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PhoulBallz Interview: Lehigh Valley coach Wes Helms

Wes Helms, image- Jay Floyd
Former big league third baseman/first baseman Wes Helms took the dive into professional coaching this season as a coach in the Phillies organization for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

The 42-year-old owns a .256 career average with 75 homers and 374 RBI in 13 season in the majors.

With big league playing time for four organizations, Helms got to play with, against and for some legendary names.  I talked with Helms recently about which coaches inspired him, his path to a second career in professional baseball, which former Phillies teammates he keeps in touch with, his large souvenir collection and much more.  Read ahead for that full interview. 

-You're new to this club this year and it's your first coaching in the Phillies' system.  What was your coaching background prior to taking this role?

My last year playing was 2011.  I promised my wife I'd be home until my youngest got in school full time.  I waited till he was in the second grade.  So, this is actually my first gig coaching in the pros, but I coached high school the last five years.  I coached third base and did the outfield and assisted with the hitting.  The head coach there was the coach for 24 years at Auburn, Steve Renfroe.  A very good coach.  We worked awesome together.  For me, coaching, yeah the speed of the game is different there than it is here, but I was coaching third base, I was developing players, as I am here, so I had my feet wet a little bit.  Only difference is up here the guys are faster, bigger, stronger, so you just gotta adjust back to that.

-Was this something that you foresaw as a player, getting into coaching?

Yeah, I knew I wanted to coach when I got out of the game, especially toward the end of my career.  I loved the game so much.  I studied the game when I played it.  I kinda watched all the superstars, watched all the guys that weren't superstars, just to see how everybody went about their business, because I know what I did, but everybody's different.  So, I kind of got everybody's outlook on what they needed to do everyday.  So, I would always keep that in my mind and I knew when I got out of the game I knew I wanted to come back and help the pros in either the minors or the big leagues get better.

-I've talked to plenty of coaches that will tell me they had coaches when they played that they took bits and pieces from to put together their own coaching style.  Are there coaches or managers that you had that influenced you as a coach?

The two big ones were Bobby Cox and Joe Girardi.  Bobby Cox, when we were in Atlanta, I was actually in Florida when he retired, I went over there and brought him a bottle of wine and sat down and talked to him for a while because he was my first manager in the big leagues.  And he told me straight up.  He said, "Wes, you're gonna coach one day."  He said, "The biggest advice I can give you is don't care if the player likes you, but make them respect you."  And he said, "Like and respect are two different things.  If you try to manage for players to like you, then you're not managing to win the game." And he said, "Gain that respect from your players first.  They'll like you.  They may not like decisions you make, but they'll like you if they respect you."  That was one of the biggest things.

And then Joe Girardi in Florida in 2006, when we had that young team and we almost made the playoffs and everything.  He always told me, "You need to be in the game when you stop playing.  You need to be in the game.  The game needs guys like you to be around.  You're a hard worker.  You love the game.  You love to win.  You love all aspects of what the game brings."'  And he said, "The game needs you."  And he kept putting that in my ear, so those were the main two guys that planted the seed.

-What was your "in" with the Phillies when coming back to coach?  Did you mention to someone you were interested?  Did the team contact you?

It's actually funny.  Right when I stopped playing, the Phillies were the first team to call me.  They called me and asked me what my plans were.  And I was like, "Listen, I want to be at home with my family.  I haven't even thought about it yet.  And it kind of fizzled out a little bit.  And then I got a phone call from (Phillies minor league director) Joe Jordan back three years ago and he asked me what my plans were.  And this was back in December, and they needed a person in Clearwater, for the (Class A Advanced) Clearwater team.  And he said, "We'd like to offer it to you first if you want it."  And I said, "Let me talk to my wife."  And we actually talked it over while we were driving to Disney World actually.  And we talked it over and she said, "Wes, if you can give it two more years..."  She goes, "That's all I need."  That would allow my youngest to be a little older and then my oldest would be almost driving.  And, so, I did and after the two years, they brought me to big league camp last year as a special instructor and that got the juices going.  And I talked to Joe Jordan last year in spring training and I talked to (field coordinator Doug Mansolino), I talked to all the guys and that kind of got the juices going and after the season, Joe Jordan and I made contact again and he offered me this job.  And I knew it was time.  I was ready and they were ready to have me?

-What's the biggest challenge as a parent of a young child to be on the road with a schedule as demanding as a pro baseball player?

There's nothing that replaces being a parent at home with your kids.  I don't care what anybody says.  I try my best to parent from here.  I talk to them on the phone.  But, I think the biggest thing-- it's hard.  It's hard to be away from your family.  I think the biggest thing for me is I was used to it as a player.  My oldest now, I was away from him when he was little, so now my youngest he is just now seeing what my oldest saw.  And it was an adjustment this year in spring training and once the first part of the season started he's asking, "When's daddy coming home?  When's daddy coming home?"  And for me to hear that, there was nights I told (hitting coach) Sal Rende and (manager) Gary Jones, I would come to the field sometimes and say, "Man, I'm miserable today.  My kids are asking me when am I coming home."  So, they were just helping me through it.  And I knew it was going to be a transition, because I'm a big family guy.  I love my kids and I love my wife.  But, what helped me was I have a great wife that did it when I was a player.  It's not like I have a wife now that didn't live through me playing, so for her to have experienced me being gone as a player all the time, she got spoiled when I was home, but now she just fell right back into that.  So, she's helped big time with the transition to that.  That helped me to see how she handled it.  If it was harder on her, that would probably hurt me worse.  But now everything's just kind of smoothed over and daddy will be home in September or late September, however far we go and we're gonna live it up this off-season and do it again.  But nothing replaces you being home with your kids.

-As an outsider, I have a little guy at home, he's two-and-a-half and I've been doing this for roughly 10 seasons, but before I was doing this, as a fan, I would wonder, why don't all guys who get a new team or a new job take their family with them to the new town, so at least they're home half the time?  That's probably not a real option for everybody.  So, for those that don't move their family, what makes it not an option?

Financially, probably.  I think in the big leagues it's a little easier because when you get traded, then you've got the money and you say, "Come on."  You get the flights and you get whatever you need.  In the minor leagues it's a little different, especially for the guys that haven't been to the big leagues yet, their financial situation ain't all the way there yet.  So, to say, "I'm gonna fly my wife out, fly my two kids out and ship everything."  It's expensive.  So, I think the financial thing would be the first thing and also it depends on the situation of the player.  You know, I was talking to Danny Espinosa the other day.  And he just got here.  I asked him if his family was coming out and they were just going to wait and see what happens.  So, you've got that aspect.  They might not know what's going to happen.  Are they going to be here for a while?  Are they going to be in Philly?  You don't know.  So, that is another way to look at it.  You don't know how long you'll be in that certain spot.  You don't want to fly your family out and then turn right back around and you go somewhere else or the team doesn't want you any more.  So there's maybe three or four other ways to look at it, but the everyday fan doesn't see that stuff sometimes.  It's hard, man.  It's hard on players.  It's hard on coaches.  And I just say it takes a special person to do what we do and keep a strong family at home.  It really is.  It's a lot of commitment and a lot of work.

-From the looks of you now, someone, like myself, might think you look in good enough shape to be able to compete at this level.  Do you get that a lot?

Yeah, I actually hit in the cage today and (assistant general manager) Bryan Minniti's here, and he was coming in there going, "Man, what did you do when you went home for six years to stay in such great shape?"  And actually, I got into cross fit.  My wife and I do it together.  When we drop the kids off, that's kind of like our time together.  We enjoy it.  And actually, we've done some competitions together.  I found a cross hit gym here that I go to usually about four times a home stand.  On the road, I usually try to, if we're gone a week, I try to get up and do something at least three days a week.  And I told myself when I stopped playing, 'cause I played with so many guys that I saw retire, then in two or three years, they just blew up.  They gained 40 or 50 pounds.  And I'm like, "Listen, as long as my body will allow, I want to stay in shape."  Because my motivation is I want to be able to be myself as a coach and as a dad, like I was as a player.  I want to be able to play with my kids when I'm 50, 60 years old.  I want to be able to coach and throw batting practice when I'm 60.  That's why Sal Rende's throwing batting practice when he's 62, because he stays in shape.  And there's something to it, so I always told myself I'm gonna stay in shape.  So, I do cross fit and eat well and I really try to watch my nutrition and everything.

-You've got career playing time with the Phillies. Are there any highlights that stand out from your days with the Phillies?

My biggest highlight-- I mean, I struggled some when I played for Philly. Actually, in that stretch between Milwaukee-Florida, Philly was probably my worst numbers I had, so you know, the biggest thing I can bring out of that is I played with all those guys that won the World Series.  And to see what they went through to get there in that '08 season to win it, like I can just remember starting that '07 season, grinding and grinding and grinding.  You know, no one ever thought we could make the playoffs and we made it the last day of the season.  And to see how these guys worked for that and to come out in '08 and to be there for spring training and be there for the first three weeks of the season and then get traded and to see these guys how they worked together as a team; that's what I took from it.  That's why they won the World Series.  They had good players, but they just grinded everyday together and they had some good guys in that clubhouse.  And to be part of that...I always say, "I didn't win the World Series there, but I feel like I was a part of that team because I saw the struggles they went through to get to that point."  So, that's what I thrived off of there in Philly.

-Do you still see or are you in touch with any of those guys?

Yeah, I actually texted with Ryan Howard not that long ago.  He was one of my buddies that lived in Atlanta.  They were-- I don't know where they were, in Florida or something and he started texting me.  And Chase Utley...and Jimmy Rollins I ran into in spring training.  But, Jayson Werth and probably Ryan Howard were probably the two that I keep up with.  I used to keep in touch with Pat Burrell, but that kind of fizzled out.  Once you get to a certain point, you know, it kind of fizzles out until you see them again.  But that was a fun team.  I'll tell ya.  That was a fun team to be on.

-Jayson Werth's in the news this week announcing his retirement.  And I feel like there were people that didn't even know he was still playing at Triple-A.  Does that make an impact on you when you see that, like, "Oh, one of my last teammates is finally out of the game"?

That's the part of playing baseball that stinks, when you're done and you start seeing all these guys you played with- they're done.  And then all of a sudden you look at the roster and you're like, "I don't know any of those guys."  But, it's getting to that point, now.  Chase Utley's at the end.  All these other guys are at the end.  And to see Jayson Werth-- I actually looked at Sal and said, "I didn't even know he was playing this year."  So, just to see these guys hanging it up, it's tough because I tell people all the time that the hardest thing I ever had to do in baseball wasn't facing a pitch at 100 miles an hour.  It wasn't facing Randy Johnson or whatever.  It was the day I had to take the jersey off.  That was the hardest thing that I ever had to do.  So, when I see these guys doing that's I know what they're going through.  It's tough.  Especially, when you play the game as long as they have.

-One last thing for you, and thank you so much for all the time, this is great.  Do you have a memento collection from your playing days?

I do.  When I played I tried to get as much as I could for my son.  I've got probably about 200 baseballs.  About 150 bats.  I have about 40-something signed jerseys.  My whole basement is nothing but signed jerseys and balls and bats.  I would always-- for instance when we played against the Yankees, I would go up to Derek Jeter and I would ask him, "Hey, would you mind signing a ball or bat or something for my son?  I want to put it with his collection."  And they would always sign it for you.  So, I have a really good collection of stuff.  You know, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee all those guys.  And it's in the basement now, so, you know, one day I can look back at that and be like, "Hey, I played (with them)."  And my kids are going to grow up saying I played with all these guys and my grand kids we can show them when they're watching the game, with how different it's gonna be then.  "Hey, my dad played with all these guys.  This is the way the game used to be and now it's this way."  So, there's a lot to it.  There's a lot to it when you collect memorabilia.  

-Everything's on display?  Nothing really tucked away?

Everything's on display.  I've actually got one jersey from each of my teams, framed, and then of course all my other jerseys are hanging in a closet and everything.  I kept all that stuff and I hung one of each of mine.  And then all the other people. 

-Did you ever ask a guy who, whether it was to bust your balls or for real, said no to an autograph request?

Not one person every turned me down.  Actually, funny story, this is going on that aspect.  I got my first call up in 1998 in St. Louis and that was during the (Mark) McGwire home run chase.  I get my first hit, get on first base and he actually looked at me and said, "Congratulations, man.  That's the first of many, blah, blah, blah."  And I said, "I really appreciate that, man.  I've enjoyed watching you play your entire career.  I love it.  This is unreal I'm standing beside you."  I went in the clubhouse after the game and there was a signed bat by him.  He sent it over.  So, that's the kind of stuff that happened with him.  But I never had one guy turn me down when I asked them.  I actually had a lot of guys say, "If I sign you something, you gotta sign me something."  That kind of shocks you when like, Albert Pujols did that.  Albert Pujols signed me a jersey and a bat for my son.  He said, "You gotta send me a signed bat over."  So, that was pretty cool.  

-That is really remarkable.  Thanks so much for the time and I wish you the best.

Thanks for your time.


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