TRENTON — When he speaks about his past, Thunder outfielder Slade Heathcott is blunt. He’s made mistakes. His faith has been tested over and again. He’s doubted his maturity. He’s become angry at himself for doing things that might’ve vanquished every ounce of the prodigious talent he’s been gifted.
He’s here now, though, ready to go for his first season in the upper levels. That’s thanks in no small part to the tremendous positive influences with which he’s surrounded himself.
One of the most prominent is his relationship with God. He makes no bones about the fact that he believes he’s been blessed with the ability to play this game, but he also knows
he’s been bedeviled by innumerate temptations away from the diamond.
Through it all, he’s been able to turn to religion for help. He cites one day in particular – April 4, 2010, -- as the moment he knew he needed to make a change.
“It was a sermon on what the cross meant. I had heard it plenty of times before, and something that night, it was the first time I had felt God speak to me,” he explained. “It was one of those surreal moments that changed my life forever.
“It just finally opened my eyes. He spoke to me and said ‘open your eyes. Look what you’re throwing away. Look what blessings you have. Look at the people around you. Look at families around the United States, what they’re going through.”
If you follow him on Twitter (@HeathcottSlade), it’s easy to realize that another group of people he draws inspiration from are those men and women in the United States’ armed forces.
He has an uncle, Charles Cogle, who is an Army Ranger stationed at Fort Benning, just outside of Columbus, Ga. His best friend just entered basic training, so he carries a special affinity for soldiers. Were he not a baseball player, he believes he would have enlisted as well.
“Those men and women that are over there put on the uniform every day and they give their time for us back here to be able to do (things) here, whether it’s being a journalist, being a player, working. Without them, in the future or the past, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” he said.
“I think of those men and women over there, and when I was throwing everything away and those guys were over there taking time away from their families, missing their kids and things like that, and here I was throwing it all away. It was just completely disrespectful to all of them.”
Another source from whom Heathcott draws inspiration is Angels superstar outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose problems away from the field have been well documented. Like Hamilton, Heathcott has had problems with alcohol and injuries (a ripped-up knee, two shoulder surgeries, a thumb sprain and patellar tendinitis) and has also had serious issues at home.
“Josh Hamilton is definitely a guy I look up to,” Heathcott said. “Obviously his road and my road are completely different, but the things he’s gone through I can relate to. Just a unbelievable guy.”
A story in the Charleston Post and Courier from 2011 detailed his past troubles, including the moment he aimed a shotgun at his father, who had spent part of Heathcott’s formative years in prison, and another incident when he was nearly shot by woman whose window he had punched out. The only thing that saved him that night, he recalled in the article, was that the woman forgot she had unloaded her gun.
It takes a strong-willed person to emerge from struggles like Heathcott’s with any semblance of success. In fact, his personality and character are so strong, that it’s spooked a few of his teammates.
Reliever Dan Burawa, who spent time with Heathcott in Charleston in 2011 and in the Arizona Fall League last season, says it took a while to get past the rough exterior.
“When we were first in Charleston, I couldn’t get a read on him,” Burawa remembered. “I didn’t understand him. I kind of avoided him until I got to know him, because that was my first experience with him. … I hear he gets a bad rap and people say stuff, but when you really get to know him he’s a genuine, great guy who’ll bend over backward for anyone.
“He has a strong personality, and that’s what I didn’t get at first. Once you accept his strong personality, he’s one of the best guys in the organization. He’s definitely a person you want to be friends with and he’s a person you want to have in your corner.”
A third but certainly not final person helping to keep Heathcott on the correct path is his fiancée, Jess Baumann. She adds an element of responsibility, he says, knowing that his actions, for better or for worse, now have an impact not only on his life, but hers as well.
“After I proposed, it was the first time that when I was thinking about decisions, it was the first time that I really thought that my decisions not only affect me, but it affects somebody else that’s very sentimental to me, very close to me,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. I’m glad that she’s there.
She keeps me straight, helps me out. She’s always there for me.”
Heathcott’s past – especially playing for a major-market team desperate for a new wave of homegrown talent – will always be magnified. He also realizes that he still has plenty of growing and maturing to do. With powerful influences – from God, to his friends and others overseas, to those closest to him – helping from outside, he knows he has a great chance to recover and learn from his mistakes and be successful.
“Everybody goes through things in life. Everybody makes decisions in life and we all mess up,” he said. “It’s just how we learn from those mistakes and how we carry on from that point forward.”