By Justin Long
Samela (left) and Heller are not only two of the best baseball players in Amherst history. They’re also potential Major League Baseball draft picks.
Kevin Heller ’12 was 7 years old when he fell in love with baseball. Living in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was in the heart of the city when the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. He sat on his dad’s shoulders as he celebrated outside the subway station and high-fived fellow New Yorkers. Fifteen years later, Heller was in a friend’s dorm room when he opened an email from his beloved Yankees. The team was contacting him as a potential draft pick.
Heller called home immediately. “My dad told me the Red Sox had also sent a letter to the house. We laughed about it, and he told me to quickly respond to the Yankees. The Red Sox could wait until I got home.”
Such has been the introduction to professional baseball for Heller and Mike Samela ’12, two standout Amherst players who have drawn the interest of major league organizations. Teams began reaching out to Amherst’s head baseball coach, Brian Hamm, last summer. First it was the Kansas City Royals. Then the Atlanta Braves. By January, Hamm had been in touch with eight major league teams.
Before long, some of these teams were asking Heller and Samela to fill out in-depth questionnaires about their physical histories (including details of previous surgeries) and their personalities. “At first, I didn’t make a big deal of it,” Heller says. “Then I started to realize teams don’t send these to just anyone. They were sending them to me for a reason.”
Last November, Heller and Samela each received a personal visit from a Pittsburgh Pirates regional scout. “The questionnaires made playing baseball after Amherst feel like an outside shot,” Samela says. “But the visit from the Pirates made me think, ‘Whoa, I might actually get drafted.’”
Soon, Heller and Samela noticed a theme: Teams were trying to get a sense of whether they really wanted to play baseball after Amherst. The fact is that many potential draft picks who graduate from college wind up turning down offers from teams, choosing instead to accept higher-paying jobs in other fields. But Heller and Samela can’t imagine giving up the chance to play. “When he asked me if I really wanted to be a baseball player,” Heller says, “I didn’t have to think about it.”
Heller and Samela back up their major league aspirations with talent comparable to that of Division I players. Heller finished his 2009 Amherst season with a .397 batting average and was named NESCAC Rookie of the Year. He is on pace to break the school’s career records for hits, home runs, runs scored and runs batted in. Last year Samela hit .383 and was named NESCAC Player of the Year. He is one of the best catchers in New England across all divisions.
Both players turned heads last summer while facing Division I pitchers in prestigious wood-bat leagues. In his second game with the Vermont Mountaineers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, Samela went 4-for-4 with two home runs. Heller was named the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League’s MVP, an incredible accomplishment for a Division III player. He hit .319 while playing center field and set a league record with 11 home runs.
If Heller and Samela achieve at this level during the spring season, they’ll have a legitimate chance to join an elite group of Amherst baseball alumni. Since the MLB First-Year Player Draft debuted in 1965, 13 Amherst players have been selected. Only one—Hugh Quattlebaum ’00—has been drafted since 1985. Amherst’s most notable professional baseball player is the late John Cerutti ’82, who was selected in the first round of the 1981 draft and went on to win 39 games in seven major league seasons. Heller and Samela have a chance to continue the legacy. (Amherst is even better known for its legacy in MLB front offices. Three alumni—Dan Duquette ’80, Neal Huntington ’91 and Ben Cherington ’96—are currently MLB general managers.)
Despite his success, Samela is humble, downplaying his potential to get drafted; he says it probably won’t happen. He carries himself with a quiet confidence. Heller is extremely family-oriented and attributes much of his success to his support system. (One of his fondest memories is hitting two home runs on his mom’s birthday last summer.) You’d never know from speaking with them that they’re talented enough to be professional athletes.
And that’s the way they want it. They don’t want to talk about draft picks or the major leagues. They’re more concerned with the fact that Amherst hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament or won a conference championship since 2005. “Our focus is on being captains and leading this team to a NESCAC title,” Samela says. “The bottom line is that we’ve underachieved. We know what we have to do.”
Neither has a concrete backup plan for next year. If baseball doesn’t work out, Samela, a psychology major, thinks a job in the financial world might be a good fit. Heller, whose major is in economics, wants to capitalize on his competitive spirit; someday he may want to coach. For now, though, they want to play baseball. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Heller says of the draft. “Our friends are out finding jobs, but we won’t know what’s in store until after we graduate. We put all our eggs in this basket.”
Even so, neither seems worried about the future. “I worked my whole life to be the best baseball player I could be,” says Heller. “But I’ve worked to be the best student, too. Whatever happens, we’ll have a great education to fall back on.”
Shortly after they graduate in May, Heller and Samela will spend the June amateur draft waiting for the phone to ring. No matter what, they’ll go down as two of the best baseball players in Amherst College history. And who knows? If either gets a call (and an offer), the person on the other end of the line might be a fellow alum.
Photo by Rob Mattson