Baseball: Heilman hopes arm has some innings left

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hard to snuff out a fire that burned for nine years in the bigs.

Major League Baseball can create an itch that a true competitor never wants to stop scratching.

At 35, Notre Dame grad Aaron Heilman feels he’s too young to be called a former Major League pitcher.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander threw his last Big League pitch for the Diamondbacks on July 15, 2011. About a year later, late July, 2012, he had his first Tommy John (elbow) surgery. When problems arose, he had a revision done in September, 2013.

Now, five months into intensive rehab at his home in Geneva, Ill., Heilman is rolling the dice to do everything possible to give a career revival a fighting chance. It might not be next month. It might not be this summer. But Heilman isn’t quite ready to give up on baseball just yet.

“I’m kinda in that limbo area,” Heilman said Tuesday, while he was the guest of honor at Notre Dame baseball’s “Meet the Team” season kickoff. “The likelihood of coming back after two Tommy John surgeries within a year is slim. I don’t think I’ve ruled it out.”

Late in the 2011 season, while spending time in the Minors with a couple different clubs, Heilman was one of the veteran players interviewed by a national publication about the decision to retire. As a youngster, he got the advice from some older guys: When it becomes a job, it’s time to leave.

“(Baseball) is definitely a grind,” Heilman said. “Being away from your family (wife and daughter) becomes harder. Long road trips become harder. But, the enjoyment’s still there. I love going out there and laying it all out on the line and seeing who’s better.

“It’s definitely not a job. It never became a job for me. Unfortunately, I never played long enough for that to happen.”

Heilman, regarded as the best pitcher in Notre Dame history (43 victories, 435 strikeouts as a four-time All-American), was a first-round draft pick twice. The Twins picked him 31st overall in 2000. He went back to Notre Dame for his senior year and was picked 18th by the Mets.

He spent six seasons (2003-08) with the Mets, a year with the Cubs (2009) and the final two (2010-11) with the Diamondbacks. After beginning his career as a starter, Heilman was sent to the bullpen midway through ’05 and stayed there.

“I don’t think that itch to compete ever goes away,” Heilman said. “It’s been so much a part of my life, since I was 6 years old playing catch with my dad in the backyard (in Logansport, Ind.), baseball’s been everything my life has revolved around.

“After you’ve played several years, you start thinking, ‘What am I going to do afterward? What piques my interest? What am I going to do to keep myself busy?’ Unfortunately, sometimes that comes quicker than you would like.

“I was thinking I still had four or five years left in my arm. Unfortunately, it didn’t think so. I’m optimistic. I’ve started throwing again. Things are going well.”

Despite having every pitch critiqued in the largest media market in the world; despite being demoted at the peak of his career; despite having wacko fans like a blogger whose entry “10 reasons why I despise Aaron Heilman” still circulates on the Internet; Heilman counts his six years in the Big Apple as his best memories.

“I love New York,” he said. “Coming up through that organization, you don’t know any better. You’re inundated with it from Day 1 of spring training. They’ve got eight beat writers and everyone’s trying to get a story.

“You learn to be professional about it. They’re there to do their job and get a story. You’re there to explain what happened and what went wrong. For the most part, I never had a problem with the media there. If you stand up and say, ‘Hey, I messed up today,’ they can only write one story. When guys make excuses or don’t talk, that’s when things get out of hand.”

Heilman chuckled. He recalled a situation that put a lot into perspective.

“The first time I came back to New York (while pitching for the Cubs), I’m walking out to the bullpen in about the third or fourth inning,” Heilman said. “I think New York was in last place. This guy, in the seats (near the bullpen), stands up. He’s got this huge six-by-eight-foot sign, it says ‘At least we don’t still have Heilman.’ I laughed. I had to give it to him.

“The fans in New York were very fickle. When things were going well, they loved ya.”

That’s enough to keep trying to scratch the itch.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

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Notre Dame fan Mike Williams of South Bend interacts with former Irish pitcher Aaron Heilman during the program’s meet the team dinner Tuesday at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)