Expectations can be a facsimile of reality. The idealistic thoughts appear more fortuitous than the actual situation. Adaptability becomes a challenge and external factors ultimately transform career direction. Obstacles provide a different meaning to life. Perspective is gained for minimalist gifts bestowed upon of us each day and profession does not define your identity. Slade Heathcott, a Yankees prospect for the six seasons has faced a myriad of experiences which altered his perception and his eventual path in the pursuit of a big league career.
The state of Texas is synonymous with its rich football culture and heritage. From Tom Landry to Mack Brown, the sport of the fall became the dominant choice for fans in the region. Recent success of the Texas Longhorns and Texas Rangers has fostered a burgeoning baseball community. The demand for a career in either sport led Heathcott to consider a career on the gridiron before eventually taking his talents to the sandlots after leading Texarkana High School to a 4A baseball championship during his senior season. A torn ACL squashed Heathcott’s NFL dreams as a linebacker, but the Texarkana product recovered to bat .457 with the amateur draft within reach, but youth and angst off the field nearly ended his career before it started.
As a high school adolescent, Heatchcott encountered several encounters with the legal system, many stemming from an ongoing struggle with alcohol. Heathcott’s challenges with sobriety and academic stature forced him off the school’s baseball team before returning as a senior. The opportunity to reform could have been relinquished in an instant when disputes between Heathcott and his father led to the former pointing a shotgun at the man who raised him. The uncharacteristic incident served, as a turning point and Heathcott’s reformation would commence shortly after. The New York Yankees, in need of a centerfielder in the 2009 amateur draft took a chance on Heathcott with their first round selection after extensive research and envisioned a cornerstone roaming the green pastures of the most celebrated position in American sports.
During their scouting of Heathcott, the Yankees saw an individual capable of developing into a franchise mainstay after years of empty drafts. As part of Heathcott’s rehabilitation the club tapped former pitching prospect Sam Marsonek as his advisor and confidant. Marsonek would introduce Heathcott to a church in Tampa near the Yankees spring training complex when he would discover religion and devote his spiritual life to Christianity. As his personal life began to improve, Heathcott’s baseball career would be interrupted by injuries, thanks to maximum effort and intensity on every play. The promise of scouts and analysts were realized as Heathcott batted .279 or better in three minor league seasons with an on base percentage exceeding .340 in each of those years, but knee surgery would erase with his 2014 season with the exception of nine games in Trenton and cost him a spot on the 40 man roster. A non-roster invitee to Yankee camp this spring, Heathcott returned with vengeance at the plate. At Spring Training in Tampa, Florida, Heathcott spoke to Baseball Essential about his past struggles and his future expectations.
Baseball Essential: Your path to professional baseball is a somewhat unusual where you faced many challenges in your personal life as a youngster in Texas. How much did baseball help you overcome those obstacles?
Slade Heathcott: I think there are a lot of things in my life that’s helped me overcome things I have gone through. Everything happens for a reason. After being injured so much and over the past two years not really playing that much opened my eyes about how much I want to play this game and make a living.
BBE: In 2009 you led your team to a Texas state title in your senior year of high school after returning from major knee surgery. What did that season mean for your confidence and was that the moment when you saw yourself making a career in the sport?
SH: I guess when I got drafted it was a reality that sank in. I was told a few months before but it then it clicked when I got drafted when I realized I am one step closer to my dream of playing professional baseball.
BBE: In June of that year, the Yankees drafted you in the first round with the 29th overall selection. Take us through draft day and what goes through a player’s mind as he prepares to take the next stage in his career?
SH: I was actually with my high school team. We were headed to Round Rock for the state playoffs. That day I was on the bus with the team. I had a practice at Baylor and we drove the rest of the way. We actually got to the hotel twenty minutes before the draft started so I really did not have much time to think about things. I met with scouts and people and really enjoyed the process.
BBE: During the 2010 season you found religion and used it to improve your life. What impact does believing in something greater have in a person’s life?
SH: April 4, 2010 I accepted Christ in my life. I realized this life is a lot more than just myself and my career. I want to be able to handle my business and being around Jeter I realized the way athletes should go about their business both and off the field and he showed me there is a lot more to this life than just this game.
BBE: During your time with the Yankees you were paired with Sam Marsonek, a former pitching prospect in the organization who served as a mentor for you. What kind of an influence did he have both on and off the field as you adjusted in the Yankees organization?
SH: Any interaction with Sam was off the field and during my heyday (2010 season), those days where I was immature, Sam kept pushing me to hang out with him and over time realized I was trying to fill the gap with partying. I did not have to go out and reach for that.
BBE: Your athletic background is of a two-sport athlete playing both baseball and football. What type of adjustments do former football players need to make once they choose a career on the baseball diamond?
SH: I think you need to cut down the aggression a bit in baseball since it is a process. We can only handle right now and being in the moment and not showing emotion on your sleeve.
BBE: From the 2009 Draft, outfielders such as Mike Trout, Randal Grichuk, and A.J. Pollock have advanced to the major leagues and flourished. Being in the same class do you feel any pressure or frustration at this point that you have not cracked the show?
SH: At this point of my life, no. I am thankful for all of the injuries I had. It has given be a new perspective and if I did not have those injuries I don’t know where I would be when I am today. Ideally we want things to go the way we want but we need to trust the plan in front of us.
BBE: During your time in the Yankees minor league system you have suffered a number of injuries that have kept you off the field. What type of rehab or strategies have you worked on to try to stay on the field.
SH: I injured my knee in February 2013. I has been the same knee injury. I spent time in Orlando and at Andrew’s institute in Pensacola. I completely changed the way I eat, sleep, and work out. I am in the best baseball I have been in. This is the first year I am going into camp healthy.
BBE: After having multiple knee surgeries, do you have to do things differently playing the outfield?
SH: Not at all. None of my injuries have come from playing hard. It is a common misconception. My injuries have come from things I cannot control. Things off the field with training that have caused me to get injured. I am now on a workout program I like and think is the best for me.
BBE: When you have been on the field you have put up some strong numbers, especially with your on-base percentage. What has been the highlight of your minor league career thus far?
SH: I had a lot of fun playing in the Arizona Fall League. There is never an excuse for not playing well. I learned about the greats watching others like Jeter that they always found a way to get things done. It is the approach I am taking.
BBE: Currently you are at Spring Training in the Yankees major league camp. Describe for us the atmosphere being surrounded by the club and has anybody given you any words of advice?
SH: I am having a blast. Being on back on the field means everything to me. I did not know if I was ever going to be back and feel as good as I do now. I try to watch people who I play with or against and much as I can to learn certain situations.
BBE: What expectations do you have for the upcoming season and what are currently working on down in Tampa?
SH: Just being in the moment right and having fun. Sometimes as players we make it like we had to play 150 games and this is a grind. After being out for two years and dealing with the injuries, this is not a grind. It is an absolute blessing. My only goal is to have fun and put in the work to be the best that I can be.
BBE: During the offseason you joined some of your teammates by creating a twitter account. What made you decide to become a part of social media?
SH: I had it in the past but I don’t think I was mature enough. I matured enough now to realize we have things we believe in and we are all entitled to that. The reason I got twitter is that I have been a negative influence in my life long enough. I want to be a positive influence as much as I can for as many people as I possibly can.
After witnessing the immediate success of former prospects such as Mike Trout and Jose Fernandez at a fledgling age in the major leagues, we often forget how difficult adjusting can be for most players. The average ballplayer takes roughly six years to develop in the minor leagues making gradual progress, before fulfilling his boyhood aspirations. In many cases such as Heathcott’s, obstacles and stumbling blocks often pervade the precocious visions and projections made by scouts when observing potential talent. These barriers can either detract from distant triumphs or empower rectification. Slade Heathcott is choosing the latter. Nearly a decade since his darkest moment, Heathcott is on a fortuitous path. His health, once a detriment to his prospect status is now an asset. Better training regiments coupled with strong self-confidence has enabled Heathcott to become the Yankees leading hitter statistically to open the Grapefruit League season. While many analysts project an outfield alignment featuring Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Aaron Judge within the next two seasons in the Bronx, Heathcott has the opportunity, if healthy to re-establish himself as a top Yankees prospect. At twenty-four years of age, the present is the time for Heathcott to make inroads, with Trenton or Scranton the likely destination for continued progress.