IT WOULD HAVE BEEN easy for Wes Helms to be something short of professional this spring training. After all, the Phillies already had sealed his fate when they signed free agent Pedro Feliz in January to play third base, leaving Helms to play out the spring knowing full well he'd likely be in another uniform once the season started.
But the veteran infielder never complained about his situation, right through the moment the Phillies dealt him to the Marlins on April 5. And yesterday he exchanged handshakes with his former teammates and manager Charlie Manuel before the series opener between the teams.
"I've always been taught by my mom and dad, especially my dad, that no matter what the situation is, be a professional and everything will work out," said Helms, a career .263 hitter who batted only .246 for the Phillies in 2007 after signing a 2-year contract in November 2006. "And that's the way I handle everything. It might not work out, but I'll feel better about myself if I handle it like a man. I'm not going to be a kid about it. Charlie and those guys were nothing but great to me. I have no complaints about that. I did not produce like I know they wanted me to, but they still treated me with nothing but respect."
Helms said he is happy with his situation in Florida, where he is a veteran influence on an upstart team that entered last night's game leading the Phillies by a half-game in the National League East. Though he is hitting only .233, he has had several clutch hits, including a three-run home run in the seventh inning on May 17 that helped lift the Marlins to a 7-3 win over the Royals.
"I gave it all I had [in Philadelphia], I just couldn't find a rhythm," said Helms, who struck out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth last night. "Coming back here, sinking back into that role I had in 2006, it's kind of been easier for me to find my rhythm again. I don't have that pressure to try to be that everyday player."
Charlie Manuel has been around professional baseball for about 45 years, meaning he's seen a lot of good players. But yesterday he said he doesn't think he's ever seen one as good as Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, who hit his 18th home run of the season last night.
"I think the way Utley goes about the game and his mind-set on the game and everything about it . . . I think he's the best player that I've been around," Manuel said. "And I've been around a long time. I used to think Kirby Puckett was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I see how Utley goes about his business day in and day out - how he prepares and how he plays. He's tremendous. His dedication, his determination."
Former catcher Mike Lieberthal will officially retire as a Phillie before tomorrow's game . . . Jayson Werth swung the bat for the first time since going on the disabled list with an oblique injury. *