Neal Heaton was profiled by Sports Illustrated when he was a college pitcher at the University of Miami. The copywriters who made the headline of the article managed to make a pun “The Heat is On with Heaton.”
For the record, the article was written 2 1/2 years before Glenn Frey song was released.
The article followed Heaton and his coach Ron Fraser as the pitcher could not be beat and the coach had images of a college World Series dancing in his head.
Someone reading the article would assume Neal Heaton was heading to stardom. And when you consider how many profiles of can’t miss players turn into busts, the fact that Neal Heaton pitched a dozen years in the major leagues and made an All Star Team would denote that the article wasn’t far off.
Heaton was from Queens and dreamed of playing for the Mets. The Mets did indeed select him in the January phase of the 1979 draft but he opted to take his talents to Miami.
He was a legit college star and focused on his pitching, even playing summer ball in Alaska.
Think about that: He went from Miami to Alaska to play baseball. You really can’t have a stranger travel itinerary than that!
The Indians eventually selected him and he spent only 1 1/2 seasons in the minors before he was inserted into Cleveland’s rotation. He had a decent rookie year in 1983 but was hit hard in 1984 and 1985.
In 1986, the Indians had a surprise winning season, but the 26 year old Heaton was not there for the end. On June 20th, he was sent packing to the Twins for John Butcher.
In his second game with Minnesota, he threw 5 1/3 strong innings in relief during an 11-2 blow out from the White Sox. 4 days later, he threw a 3 inning save.
A week later, the Twins gave him a start and he responded with a complete game, allowing 1 run over 9 innings against Baltimore. He took the hard luck 1-0 loss but looked like a solid addition.
Going into the 1987 season, Heaton looked to be a part of a Twins rotation with Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven. Instead he was sent packing to Montreal in a deal that brought Jeff Reardon to the Twins bullpen. The 1987 season would end with Reardon clinching the final out of the World Series for the Twins. Heaton, who would win 13 games for the Expos but post a mediocre 4.52 ERA, would be nowhere near the celebration.
After a down year in 1988 with the Expos, Heaton found himself in Pittsburgh for the 1989 season. Used as a long reliever and spot starter, he had a good season, throwing to a 3.05 ERA over 147 1/3 innings pitched. By the end of September he was inserted into the rotation and pitching well with hope for a spot in the 1990 starting staff.
1990 was an interesting year for the Pirates. After years on non contention, they finally had a solid core of players and hope for a Division Title, their first since 1979.
Heaton won his first 6 decisions in 1990 and by June 24th had a record of 10-2 with a 2.89 ERA. The Pirates were in first, battling the Mets and Expos, and Heaton earned himself a spot on the 1990 National League All Star team.
He won only 2 games in the second half, although his ERA for the second half was lower than the first half, oddly. Manager Jim Leyland shifted Heaton to a long relief role down the stretch, making only one start after August 20th. He did not pitch in the NLCS loss against the Reds.
In 1991, he was almost exclusively a reliever for the Eastern champs but again did not make a post season appearance. Between 1992 and 1993, he bounced between the Royals, Brewers and Yankees before finally calling it a career.
After his playing days, he has coached in several baseball academies in New York, helping other kids make it to the show.
Neal Heaton did indeed make it. But what if he didn’t? According to the SI article, if he didn’t make it in baseball, one of his ambitions was to be a shark hunter. He casually described how he and his brother caught a mako off of Long Island.
Could Neal Heaton have had a life where he was Quint from Jaws? I’d like to think so.
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