Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Favorite Middle Reliever

By The Common Man

The baseball world, rightfully, has its attention focused on the playoffs these days, with a few occasional reports of managerial and front office shenanigans. Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Robinson Cano, Roy Oswalt, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, and Cody Ross have elevated themselves in the last two weeks into the spotlight and into the consciousness of even the most casual of fan.

But today, The Common Man is thinking about another player who will not make any postseason contributions. He won’t even make a postseason roster. Or a Major League roster. Rather, The Common Man is thinking about Ian Heisel, a minor league reliever who TCM met as a young(ish) clubhouse manager in the Pirates organization.

Heisel was born in Pittsburgh and played ball for the California University of Pennsylvania Vulcans in 2004 and 2005. As a senior, Heisel appeared in 21 games, starting 8. He completed 6 of those starts (with one shutout), had a 5-5 record, and a 2.00 ERA. In 67.2 innings, he walked 21 and struck out 72. In the process, he pitched a four hitter with 13 strikeouts to defeat Lock Haven University to give his team its school record 16th straight win, and caught the eye of his hometown Pirates. After he went undrafted, the Bucs signed him to a contract and assigned him to Williamsport in the New York-Penn League, which is where The Common Man met him.

Heisel was a big dude. Six foot-three, and allegedly 225 lbs. But he seemed bigger than that both in terms of his personality and his actual size. He was a “bad body” pitcher in the mold of Bobo Newsome or a young David Wells, but he was able to put his weight behind his pitches, threw in the low ‘90s with good sink, and became one of the more reliable pitchers on the team. Heis threw 44.1 innings that year, with 16 BB, 44 Ks, and a 3.86 ERA. Maybe that body was what made it easier to root for Ian.  He looked a lot more like The Common Man than other high draft picks, like Andrew McCutchen, Brent Lillibridge, Steven Pearce, James Boone, and Brad Corley.

Or maybe it was his attitude.  While those other players received new shoes, bats, fan mail, and autograph requests in the mail, Heisel (the undrafted free agent) got nothing. He took it well, joking every day that his agent was supposed send him something. He kept the clubhouse loose, but never at the expense of the team’s employees (as some players did). Always kind, always respectful, always on time with his dues (always a mark of good character). Heisel took everything in with a maturity and self-awareness that most ballplayers never achieve. He had an incredible makeup. But at 23, Heisel was already one of the oldest players on the team, his “bad body” raised the bar he’d need to reach to really impress the coaching staff, and he never earned a promotion that summer.

The next year, however, Heisel was back. His same happy, jokey, self-deprecating self. and was dominant. In 19.1 innings, he struck out 30 batters, and walked only 3. He allowed just a single run, for a 0.47 ERA. Watching him pitch was a joy as he toyed with the younger batters in the NY-P League. Finally, Heisel caught the eye of the Pirates brass and he was called up to High-A Lynchburg. He continued his success there, striking out 15 in 19 innings (though walking 9), and posting a 2.84 ERA.

For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Heisel was released before the 2007 season. Maybe he didn’t see a future with the Pirates, and wanted a shot elsewhere. Maybe the Pirates were frustrated at a perceived lack of conditioning. Maybe he was just a 25 year old, undrafted reliever who was always better than his competition because he was older and craftier. Whatever the reason, Heisel took his act to the Frontier League (an Independent League in the Rust Belt), and the Washington Wild Things, 22 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Heisel dazzled in his first season, making the All Star team and putting up a sparkling 2.14 ERA in 33.2 innings (with 7 BB and 34 Ks), but suffered a season ending shoulder injury in July. But his second go around in 2008 was less successful. He battled a balky elbow and he finished with a 5.82 ERA in 17 innings (with 10 walks and 16 Ks).

And so, Ian Heisel faded out of professional baseball and returned to civilian life. He’s a regular guy now, which is probably easier for him than for some ballplayers who falter along the way, because he was such a regular and genuinely good guy when he was playing. Undoubtedly, it’s hard being a ballplayer that management doesn’t really believe in. But it’s also undoubtedly hard to give up being a ballplayer. Heisel bore whatever disappointment he had with grace and humility, and seemed happy to have the opportunity to play longer and impress anyone who was watching.

Well, the Pirates may not have been watching, but The Common Man was. And since today is Ian Heisel’s birthday, TCM wants to wish him a happy one. To congratulate him on living a dream that TCM was never good enough to pursue, and to tell him that he helped make TCM’s time as a clubby fun and memorable. Hopefully, someday when Heisel, his wife, or his kids randomly Google his name, they’ll see that he was a pretty good minor league pitcher for a few years. And hopefully they’ll also find this article, and know that he was a good man as well. Thanks Ian. Happy Birthday.

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