TAMPA — Jim Hendry, a special assistant to Brian Cashman, likes to go to the Arizona Fall League in the final week.By then most of the prospects have played a full minor league season followed by an AFL schedule in searing heat before crowds measured in friends and families. It is a good time, Hendry reasons, to see who has a real passion for the game because most of the players have the glazed, exhausted look of hostages seeking an exit strategy.In the ninth inning of the fourth-to-last game, with his Scottsdale team up nine runs in the ninth inning against Salt River but also completely out of the running to make the playoffs, Slade Heathcott hit a three-hopper to Nationals third base prospect Anthony Rendon. “Safe,” Hendry said, the eyes of an old scout lighting up. “Safe. Beat out a routine grounder in a blowout. Freaking beautiful. That kid plays so hard. Trust me, that is not the norm out there in that league.”
IT IS a routine day in spring training, which means a lot of monotonous hitting and fielding drills.Batting practice is ongoing, which means the outfield is dotted with pitchers, coaches and outfielders laconically shagging balls and returning them to the infield.Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long watches a drive fly off a bat toward deep center, like hundreds — thousands — of others. So Long thinks nothing about it. Except out of the corner of his eye he sees a blur racing full speed in pursuit and then — oh my gosh — slamming full speed into the left-center field wall with a leap as the ball clears the fence.“Slade,” Long says when Heathcott’s group comes in to hit, “I love your passion, man, but it is batting practice. You have to throttle it down.”“You know what he told me?” Long says later, recalling the conversation. “He started telling me about how hard his grandfather still works in his 60s and how people have two or three jobs, and if he can’t play hard all the time, it would just be wrong.”By the way, it is not the first time the Yankees have asked Slade Heathcott to throttle it down — except on much more important issues.
BEFORE he left his teenage years, Heathcott had pointed a rifle at his stepfather, experienced a gun pointed at him during a drunken escapade, lived out of his pickup truck for part of his high school years with his father in jail and his mother having left town, enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and received $2.2 million as the Yankees’ 2009 first-round draft pick, 29th overall.”But Heathcott will tell you the key date of his teenage years — his life — was April 4, 2010.”He will mention the date several times in a conversation in which he calls an reporter nothing but “sir” and never loses eye contact. He will talk with a passion about April 4, 2010, that will, by comparison, make beating out a routine grounder in a meaningless game or running into a wall in batting practice seem devoid of emotion.April 4, 2010, was the day Heathcott entered Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa and, he says, surrendered to Jesus Christ, beginning a transformation from “making dumb, immature decisions” to “trying every day to be, well, the All-American guy.”Boy, do the Yankees need that version of Slade Heathcott, All-American.THE Yankees are in a transitional moment in their history. The old guard of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera has nearly flickered out. Their logical heir, Robinson Cano, is a free agent after this season and possibly could flee, particularly because the organizational mandate is to get under the $189 million luxury-tax payroll threshold in 2014.There will be no way to meet that goal and stay an elite contender unless the Yankees start generating cost-efficient, difference-making prospects from their system, such as Jeter and Cano once were.Which is why Heathcott is so vital. He is expected to be part of a Double-A Trenton outfield composed of all prospects, with Tyler Austin and Mason Williams. But it is Heathcott who begins the year carrying the most responsibility.Though Heathcott has yet to play above Single-A, the Yankees have not dismissed the possibility he can make it all the way to The Show this year. The AFL generally is viewed as a league of about Double-A quality and filled with among the sport’s best prospects, and Heathcott finished third with a .388 average in 18 games.But talent never really has been the concern with the lefty-swinging Heathcott. His skills have been likened in some areas to a young Grady Sizemore. The man who drafted him, Damon Oppenheimer, cited Kirk Gibson as comparable because of the feverish passion with which Heathcott plays on every pitch on both sides of the ball.The cost, though, of this all-out style has been a knee surgery in high school and two shoulder surgeries in the pros, all of which have limited his playing time severely.Then there are those troubling incidents from his youth that have made Slade Heathcott a human red flag.“He has a huge upside but also a lot of risk,” an NL personnel man said. “I am happy he found God and wish him the best, but given the past, it is scary because those demons are always lurking. I am rooting for the kid, and if it all comes together he could be the next big player for the New York Yankees.”
THE Yankees insist they are not that concerned. Their director of mental conditioning, Chad Bohling, visited Texarkana, Texas, twice to interview Heathcott, friends and coaches before the draft. He reported to Oppenheimer that this was a good person who had made mistakes.“If we only draft milk-and-cookies kids, we probably won’t find the guys talented enough to make it to the New York Yankees and make an impact,” Oppenheimer said. “With that said, I think he has done a lot of growing up with us, and what more can I say than this: I would trust my kids with him.”Heathcott comes from dysfunction. He describes his stepfather, Jeff, as in a bad phase on drugs during Heathcott’s junior year in high school. It was during that time when Heathcott pointed a rifle at his stepfather in the family home. He cites “immaturity and terrible decision makings” to explain the alcohol stupor that led him to get lost, break a window in a home, slash his upper arm doing so and have the house owner pull a gun on him.He talks about that immaturity a lot to describe trying to find the answer in a bottle, a condition that followed and haunted him in his early time with the Yankees — which is why the organization hooked Heathcott up with Sam Marsonek, a former first-round pick of the Yankees who admits to a similar background before finding God.Heathcott entered Alcoholics Anonymous and, soon after — on that fateful April 4, 2010 — the church. “That,” Marsonek recalls now in a phone conversation, “was the moment that God changed his heart. He gave [Heathcott] direction, guidance and purpose to where it is not just about Slade anymore. Before, he was a reckless kid starving for attention. He didn’t get it at home growing up. Once he found out what he was here for, it changed his focus from himself to trying to serve the Lord.PLENTY of scoundrels have used religion for cover or found temporary salvation before descending back to their demons. Nevertheless, Heathcott now is nearly three years into this transition, and so far the transition has left the Yankees believing a talented kid will be able to handle New York, The Show, The Major League Life.“I still make mistakes,” Heathcott says. “But I am accountable for every one of my actions, then and now. All of the times I was getting in trouble, that was God’s way of molding me into the person he wants me to be.”THE Yankees obviously want that to be in New York — as soon as possible. They see five-tool skills, a lefty swing that keeps maturing, keeps suggesting brilliance. They also see that relentless nature. The fire, the fervor, the fury for the game.The Yankees want to believe the problems are in the past, that Heathcott is living the life he talks about. “I don’t get caught up in where I will be and when I will be there,” he says. “The Good Lord will put me where I need to be — on the field and off.”