Slade Heathcott’s Inspiring Journey

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Slade Heathcott, playing for the Trenton Thunder.  Photo from Flickr

 

On January 14, 2019, there was a small piece of baseball news.  It wasn’t enough to push rumors of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s free agency off the front page.  It was barely more than a footnote.

Slade Heathcott announced his retirement from baseball.

You might have missed Heathcott’s career.  He only appeared in 17 major league baseball games, all with the New York Yankees in 2015.  It was a short, but memorable run.  In only 28 plate appearances, Heathcott put together a slash line of .400/.429/.720.  He hit 2 homeruns, collected 8 RBIs and garnered an OPS of 1.149.  Ultimately, though, he ended back in the minors, bouncing from team to team, spending time in the White Sox, Giants, and A’s organizations.

On January 14, Heathcott announced that his baseball career had come to an end and that he would now pursue a new path, aiming to become a commercial pilot.

The inspiring part of Heathcott’s story, however, are not so much the 17 games he spent with the Yankees as they are the rocky path that led him there.

Heathcott’s childhood wasn’t exactly ideal.  He grew up in Texarkana, Texas with his brother, Zane.  The two were raised by their mother, Kimberly, and their step-father, Jeff.  Jeff had his share of troubles, ultimately leading him to spend a portion of Slade’s high school years in jail.  In time, Jeff and Kimberly’s marriage began to fall apart.  Many nights ended in screaming and yelling.  Slade couldn’t take it anymore.

The tipping point came one night during Slade’s junior year of High School.  In bitter anger, Slade pulled out the family shotgun, a Remington 12-guage, and aimed it at Jeff.  He told  Gene Sapakoff at the Post and Courier (I highly recommend reading the entire piece); “I was ready to do it.  Had my finger on the trigger.  It was just a matter of where I was going to shoot him.”  Thankfully, Slade never pulled the trigger.

Early in Slade’s senior year of high school, his mother, Kimberly, moved to Alexandria, La., leaving Slade behind.  He spent the year bouncing from one friend’s house to another.  At times, he lived in his truck.  He was lonely.  He was probably scared.  Most of all, though, he was just angry.

To cope with the anger, he turned to the bottle.  Predictably, everything started falling apart.  He was arrested with DUI.  He tore up his knee playing football.  He got kicked off the baseball team for academic reasons.  But he kept on drinking.

One night, Slade went to a party, had way too much to drink, and left the party intoxicated.  Things spiraled out of control that night, ultimately leading him to having a gun pointed at his head.  He doesn’t remember many of the details, but eventually was able to piece the story together.  He told Sapakoff; “I didn’t know what happened until later.  I went up to a random house and started pounding on the door. Then I punched my arm through a kitchen window. The woman who owned the house said she just bought [a gun] from a drug dealer and was really afraid. She would have shot me but said she forgot she had unloaded the gun.”  He was able to get away.  The police found Heathcott that night a bloody, blacked out, mess.  They took him to the emergency room where he had a deep slash several inches up his right forearm.

Despite his troubled youth, Heathcott was receiving serious consideration as a first round pick in the 2009 draft.  The Yankees were doing their homework on him.  They sent their director of mental conditioning, Chad Bohling, to Texarkana or two separate occasions to interview Slade, as well as his friends and coaches.  His High School coaches believed that, deep down, he was a good kid, and they gave him a glowing endorsement.  The Yankees were concerned about the giant scar on Heathcott’s right arm.  “I told the Yankees a story about how I cut it trying to hop a barbed-wire fence,” Heathcott said. “They believed it.”  Ultimately, Bohling reported that Slade was a good kid who had made some mistakes.  The Yankees believed in this young man enough to select him with the 29th pick of the first round of the draft.

Heathcott went to Tampa to begin his minor league career.  Part of his development would include a week-long trip to the Dominican Republic.  The night prior to his planned departure, Heathcott went out drinking.  He told Sapakoff;  “Let’s just say that people in Tampa know if you’re a first-round pick and that even at 19 I could get into any bar I wanted to and not have to pay for anything.”  He blacked out.  When he woke up, he rushed to pack his belongings, but his passport fell out of his bag.  When he tried to explain himself, the truth about his alcohol addiction came to light.

The Yankees weren’t ready to give up on him.  They sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous and introduced him to Sam Marsonek, a high school coach and former professional pitcher.  “Sam started talking to me and took me to church.  At first none of it mattered. I didn’t grow up going to church so I wasn’t really paying attention.” 

In time, that all changed.  The Gospel began to touch his heart and change him from the inside out.  By the following spring, Heathcott was sober and, for the first time in his life, at peace.  He was able to pick up the pieces.  Marsonek explained to the Joel Sherman of the New York Post; “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.”  Yankees scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer added; “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.”

The knee he damaged playing high school football ultimately prevented him from being able to stay healthy and greatly hindered his development.  But, through hard work and dedication, he was able to make it all the way to big leagues for that memorable 17 game stretch.

Slade’s greatest mission, however, became to share his story.

His step-father, Jeff, was one of the people who was touched by Slade’s journey.  He, too, came to hear and believe the Gospel, and turned his own life around.  Now, the two text Bible verses back and forth to one another.  Jeff told Sapakoff; “It’s been tough for me.  Finding the Lord was the best thing that happened to me, and Slade was a big part of that. It just kind of fell apart for me for two years. It was just hard.”

Slade knows that it was God who made all these changes possible.  “The way I look it now, God gives us grace.  He was there for me even when I was not there for Him.”  He added, in an interview with Chad Raines; “God is my light in a very dark world. Without Him I would be lost, I wouldn’t see how amazing life can and is each second of each day, and I would have a gap in my heart that can only be filled by our awesome creator.”

Heathcott’s favorite Bible verse is Colossians 3:23; Whatever you do work heartily as for the Lord and not for men.  Heathcott explained to Chad Raines; That right there sums up how I view and how I try to attack each second of every day. In my opinion and belief none of us are entitled to anything, we all have to earn what we want in life. I know that every second I am on Earth it is a blessing. So with saying that, when it is time for me to go home I want to know in my heart I didn’t waste one day, that every single day I became better at every facet of my life. My daily goal is to make every second as productive as I possibly can, without passing by all the small amazing things throughout the day.”

Slade Heathcott’s baseball career has come to an end.  But now, he continues a new chapter, striving to serve God in each and every moment.

Steve Cishek – Colossians 3:23

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Steve Cishek, Relief Pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.  Photo by Laura Smith

When God first gave the Ten Commandments to His people, He also provided the following instructions; And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).  For Seattle Mariner’s pitchers, Steve Cishek, perhaps we should say it a bit differently; write them on a piece of paper, tuck them in your pocket, and carry them to the pitcher’s mound.

Every time Cishek takes the mound, he carries with him a small, square, laminated piece of paper, tattered and wrinkled on the corners.  On that piece of paper are the words of his favorite Bible verse, Colossians 3:23 – whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for a human master.”  Before facing his first batter, he reads these words.  

Cishek explained to mlb.com’s Jenifer Langosch;  “I could recite it in my head, but pulling it out of my back pocket makes me slow down and take my time a little bit when I just want to go, go, go.  I can sit back and read some scripture to really set my mind and get after it with hitters.”  He added in a JesusnSports interview; “It reminds me that when I am pitching, I can’t pitch to impress our coaches of staff or any team mates. I’m working for God’s glory. With good outings or bad outings He doesn’t care how I pitch. No matter what He loves me. So it takes an enormous amount of pressure off me to perform for a crowd or coaches. And good outing or terrible outing I always thank the Lord for what He has done in my life and for allowing for me to play baseball.”

Whatever we do in our lives, we do well to remember God’s Word from Colossians 3.  We should do nothing in life to bring glory to ourselves.  Instead, we should constantly remember that all that we do is for God and His glory.  That’s the model that Jesus set for us.  He came, not to be served, glorified, or honored, but instead He made Himself nothing that we might be saved. Everything that Jesus did, He worked at it with all His heart, as working for the Lord, not for a human master.