Hellickson calm amid excitement back home
Down-to-earth rookie sensation a hit in Tampa Bay -- and Iowa
ST. PETERSBURG -- About 1,380 miles from Tropicana Field, a group clad in Rays jerseys gathers every five days.
One week, they'll meet up at a local sports bar. The next time, they'll take a chance on a national chain restaurant. But they never miss a turn.
The process in determining the location is never complicated. They just try to find the emptiest places that can accommodate a party of about 80 people.
This is the scene in Des Moines, Iowa -- the birthplace of Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.
"His fan base is getting bigger," said Hellickson's father, Steve.
Every time Jeremy makes a start, Hellickson's parents -- his mother is Leanne -- coordinate a watch party to support the 24-year-old. Fifteen percent of that night's sales are donated to the booster club at Hoover High, where Hellickson went to school.
No doubt Hellickson's fans will all be together again on Friday night, when the rookie, winner of six of his past seven starts, faces the Orioles in Baltimore.
"[The atmosphere] is so much more exciting when Jeremy is pitching," said Randy Thompson, owner of Plaza Lanes Family Sports Complex. "Of course, we have all the TVs turned to him with the volume. It's pretty exciting. It's almost like being there. We're all yelling and screaming."
The noise bouncing around in the sports bar isn't reflective of Hellickson's persona, however. The right-hander feels more comfortable in the shadows than in the spotlight.
"I don't know," Hellickson said. "Since I've started playing pro ball, I think for the most part, I've been [even-keeled]. Up here it's a whole different ballgame. If they know you're struggling out there, or know you're upset, they can take advantage of that very easily."
Leanne has seen that quality in her son since he was a child.
Last week, when Hellickson became the first player since Florida's Dontrelle Willis in 2003 to earn both the American League Pitcher and Rookie of the Month honors, he let out his excitement in a very efficient manner.
"It was a good month," he said.
Leanne didn't even get a call from her son after he accomplished the rare feat of winning both awards.
She recalled a story from Hellickson's days in Tampa Bay's Minor League system, when his subdued manner of doing things paid off as things started looking down for him. He gave up five home runs in his first start in Double-A for the Montgomery Biscuits. As the calls rolled in to Steve and Leanne, asking what had happened to their son, Hellickson ignored it all. When his mom approached him about the nightmarish start, the then-21-year-old had already forgotten about it.
"I definitely [think his personality works for him]," Leanne said. "When you get upset, it doesn't do you very good. If he's done bad, it just rolls off his shoulders."
Hellickson's makeup has been effective for him in his short time with the Rays this season, during which he has carved out a stellar 2.64 ERA to go along with a 7-3 record. Over his past six starts, he has been even better with a 1.34 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP, making him a legitimate contender for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
The scary part is that Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't believe he has reached his full potential.
"His numbers are fantastic," Maddon said. "I really believe as he gains more experience, you are going to see him get even better. He has not been as sharp with his fastball command as he can be. Once that arrives, heads up.
"When that pitch becomes a strike, he is going to give the other teams all kinds of fits because he can pitch backward. He can pitch hard in like a 1-2 count, he can pitch soft in a 2-0 or 2-1 count. He can do all those kinds of things that really mess with a hitter's mind."
Just don't tell Hellickson about his bright future. He doesn't want to hear it. Ask him where all his awards and trophies are kept, and he won't know the answer.
"I don't even think he knows where they go, to tell you the truth," Leanne said.
They are held in her parents' house for now, in what she calls the "shrine." But all of that doesn't matter to him. It's only natural for Hellickson -- after all, it runs in the family.
"I'm kind of like Jeremy," Leanne admitted. "I'm kind of laid-back. I don't like to be in the spotlight."
But one thing Hellickson won't ever downplay is the unwavering support those Des Moines sports bars emit from more than 1,000 miles away.
"It's nice," he proudly said, finally cracking a smile. "Both my sets of grandparents [and my family] support me as much as they can. I couldn't ask for a better supporting cast than what I have."
Anthony Chiang is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.