COMMENTARY | If he continues to play like he did during his recent stint at the Arizona Fall League (.388 BA, .494 OBP), Slade Heathcott may find himself where another hard-living Oklahoman once roamed - centerfield at Yankee Stadium.
Although he'll likely head to Double-A, the 22-year-old prospect will finally get a chance to impress Yankees brass at spring training next month after missing the past two spring sessions due to injuries and they're sure to pay attention. This week, Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer told the YES Network that Heathcott could play in New York in 2013 and called the outfield an "impact player."
Growing up in Oklahoma, Heathcott's favorite player was baseball's original Oklahoma Kid, Mickey Mantle, someone whose past, sadly, Heathcott can relate to. If he makes the big league club this year, it will be quite a journey for Heathcott, whose teenage drinking nearly ruined his athletic career. It led to a drunk-driving arrest and low grades at school, where he was dropped from the baseball team. At one point, he was living out of his pick-up truck.
Nevertheless, scouts saw talent in the outfielder and, four spots after the Angels tapped fellow high school standout Mike Trout, the Yankees selected the Texas High (Texarkana, Texas) graduate in the first round pick (29th overall) of the 2009 draft. He was rewarded with a $2.2 million signing bonus.
These days, Heathcott draws inspiration from the Angels' Josh Hamilton, who has battled past his well-documented personal struggles to become one of the greatest hitters in the game. Like Hamilton, Heathcott has embraced religion and lives a life of sobriety after enrolling in an Alcoholics Anonymous program, a move sparked by the Yankees. It happened around the same time he blacked out and lost his passport the night before he was scheduled to fly to the Dominican Republic.
In an interview last year with the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, Heathcott recounted how a visit to a Tampa church in April 2010 led him down his current path, one that may eventually end in the Bronx. "God changed my heart," Heathcott said. "I know this is a process, something I will never reach but always strive for. But I am happier than I have ever been."
Often described as a raw talent, the 6-foot-1, 190 pound Heathcott has impressed scouts with both his speed, throwing strength (clocked in the low 90s) and power. However, it's his hustle and grittiness that has drawn the most raves. He flies down the line on every ground ball and breaks for every ball for ball hit his way.
He's also known for his intensity. In May 2011, after getting hit in the shoulder with the second pitch of a game, he incited a brawl between his Charleston Riverdogs and the Red Sox Single-A affiliate, the Greeneville Drive. Tensions between the two teams had been high since they last played a month earlier, so when Heathcott was hit, he didn't charge the mound. Rather, he shoved Greeneville catcher Christian Vazquez in the chest before charging after him. Despite being restrained, Heathcott was still able to wrestle Vazquez to the ground. He was suspended five games for the incident.
That season, Heathcott hit .271 with a .342 OBP for Charleston and was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star Team before he was promoted to the high Class-A Tampa Yankees. However, after one game, a shoulder injury ended his year. Last year, his shoulder led to a stint on the disabled list, but Heathcott hit a combined .302 with a .380 OBP in 65 games with Tampa and the Gulf Coast League Yankees.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.