Worth the Wait

By Justin Long

It’s not every day you see New York baseball fans give a curtain call to a member of the Boston Red Sox organization.

But that’s exactly what happened on Sept. 5, after Kevin Heller ’12 hit his second home run of the night as a member of the Class-A Lowell Spinners, leading his team to a 5-3 win over the Brooklyn Cyclones.

Not bad for a kid from a small, Division III, liberal arts college in New England.

Heller was an All-Conference safety for Amherst’s football team, but he’s better known as the baseball program’s all-time leader in hits, runs scored and RBIs. After being on Major League Baseball scouts’ radar for more than a year, he was the only Division III player from a New England institution picked in the MLB First-Year Player Draft last June. Despite being a life-long Yankees fan, getting drafted by the Red Sox in the 40th round was one of the happiest moments of his life.

Rather than making an immediate leap to professional baseball, Heller had to play the waiting game. He joined a team in Staten Island and kept in touch with Red Sox Amateur Scouting Coordinator Jared Banner ’07, but he began to wonder whether the Sox would be calling that summer. “I tried to stay optimistic,” Heller says, “but I started to second-guess myself. When August rolled around, I was a little concerned.”

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But on Aug. 5, Heller signed his first professional contract and packed for Florida. Four days later, he made his debut with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox by going 1-for-2 as the team’s center fielder. He went on to reach base safely in 13 of his 15 games with the Red Sox, also scoring a run in 10 of 12 regular-season games.

Heller had excelled in a wood-bat league before (he was named MVP of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League in 2011), but this competition was stronger than anything he had ever seen—it seemed like every pitcher he faced was throwing in the mid-to-high 90s. “One kid on our team threw 102,” he says. “You don’t see that in the NESCAC.”

The transition to pro ball was a challenging one, but Heller made it seamlessly. “I picked up on things quickly, and I credit that to the coaching staff—they couldn’t have been nicer. The manager went out of his way to get me caught up, the training staff was great, and the facilities were some of the nicest I’d ever seen. It was awesome.”

On Aug. 29, when the Red Sox were eliminated in the GCL playoffs, Heller assumed his first professional season was over. He sent a text message to his parents, informing them he’d be flying home to Brooklyn the next day.

The Red Sox had other plans. When Heller walked into his manager’s office on Aug. 30, Ben Crockett—the organization’s Director of Player Development—was waiting. “They told me they liked the way I played and that they wanted me to get more at-bats in Lowell. I wasn’t expecting that at all—it was shocking.”

Crockett had more good news for Heller: the Spinners’ last three games would be played in Brooklyn. Heller would get to finish his first professional season in front of his friends and family. “I was lucky enough to have my parents support me at Amherst games—to tell them I was coming home to play was incredible. They were so excited.”

No waiting around this time. Heller was inserted into the starting lineup that night, and in his first at-bat he sent a line drive to right field for a base hit. Used to playing in front of small crowds, Heller recalls nearly 5,000 fans attending that first game. “Kids and season ticket holders were asking for my autograph. That’s when it really started to feel like pro ball.”

Heller noticed another considerable jump in the talent level—pitchers in Class A were more refined and had better command of off-speed pitches. Unfazed, he got a hit in each of the Spinners’ three games against the Connecticut Tigers, also stealing two bases and walking twice.

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But it was the three-game series in Brooklyn—during which more than 50 of Heller’s friends, family members and former teammates sat through wind and rain to see their local star—that showed he truly belonged. In the second game, Heller went 2-for-4 with a double and scored a run. In game three, he stole the show by hitting two home runs, one in the fifth inning and another in the ninth.

Heller was playing for the visiting team, but to him it felt like a home game. “That third game, it was like a movie script. It felt too good to be true.” When he hit his first home run, his friends and family went crazy. After his second, he received a curtain call. “I had never experienced anything like it—it was unreal.”

When Heller ran out of the dugout to take his position in right field for the bottom of the ninth, the rest of the Spinners stayed behind to let him enjoy the moment. “My teammates wanted to give my family a chance to do its thing—they went crazy. I just kind of sat back and soaked it all in. I couldn’t have been more thankful at that moment.”

As Heller says, it was a movie-script ending to his first professional season. He finished with a .333 batting average and .667 slugging percentage in seven games for the Spinners. It was fitting that he had so many people there to cheer him on at the end—his family continues to be his biggest source of motivation. “It’s always about trying to make my family proud. Minor League Baseball isn’t the easiest road, but they’ve been supportive of my dream.”

Perhaps Heller’s biggest source of inspiration is his cousin, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2001. During every game at Amherst, Heller wore a piece of tape with his cousin’s initials on it. Now, he carves the initials into the dirt each time he steps into the batter’s box. “I thought he was the coolest older cousin—he was my idol. He’s a constant reminder that there are things bigger than baseball, and that I’m incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities that I do. A lot of guys don’t make it in professional baseball because they get worked up—for me, it’s about enjoying the opportunity.”

As a two-sport athlete, Heller never enjoyed a true offseason at Amherst. But without football to worry about this fall, he can finally take some time to unwind. He’ll vacation with former teammates, and he may join a team or find a part-time job while he trains. (He also says he wouldn’t miss the Amherst-Williams football game for anything.)

But come February, he’ll get back to work, competing for a roster spot in the Red Sox organization. He’ll get back to putting on a Sox hat, something he has gotten used to, even if his family hasn’t. “I don’t know how much I’ll be wearing it back home in Brooklyn,” he jokes, “but I was certainly proud to wear it this summer. When spring training comes around, I’ll be proud to wear it every day.”

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Top photo courtesy of John Corneau/Lowell Spinners
Bottom photo courtesy of Katy Scott/Lowell Spinners