Slade Heathcott believes he will, some day soon, be playing the same outfield once patrolled by Mickey Mantle in the Bronx. Mantle, remembered both for his immense talent and personal struggles, isn't all that different from the 22-year-old Heathcott, a fellow southern outfielder with a strong arm whose raw talent has been one of the main reasons the Yankees have been so patient.
And while Heathcott said Mantle was his favorite player growing up, it's unfair to compare the two. The patience from the Yankees isn't so much with Heathcott's on-field numbers as it is his journey to the ballpark. It can't be candy-coated: Heathcott has emerged from a troubled past, one he may regret at times but also one he's embraced as he moves toward his dream of being a Major Leaguer.
Drafted by the Yankees in the first round of the 2009 Draft, Heathcott battled alcoholism, family struggles and incidents with police. He lived in his pickup truck and with friends for a while as his parents and family drifted. After what he calls "dumb decisions" during his first Spring Training with the Yankees, his life changed. He embraced religion, relied on friends and was inspired by the similar story of Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.
Today, Heathcott is MLB.com's No. 5 prospect for the Yankees despite nagging shoulder injuries that have led to a pair of surgeries. He's healthy and happy heading into 2013.
MiLB.com: You were the Yankees' first-round pick in 2009, take me back to that day. What was it like when you found out you'd been drafted by New York?
Slade Heathcott: It was awesome. I was in our state playoffs [with Texas High School], we were about to play the state championship game. So obviously those two things together, it was a great experience.
MiLB: There's a pretty lengthy story about your personal struggles growing up through high school and even after the Draft a few years ago. It's really an incredible journey, how do you think it's shaped you into the person you are today?
Heathcott: I think we go through everything in life and the choices we make, the immature decisions, it's all for a reason. The past history of making dumb decisions, things like that, family -- I think it's helped me to be more mentally tough. To know those struggles shaped me for a reason and it worked out in the end.
MiLB: I think there's some parallels between you and Josh Hamilton's story, have you followed his career and how he's overcome a lot of those same issues?
Heathcott: By far my favorite player in Major League Baseball. I love it, it's an unbelievable story. I can't compare to some of the stuff, some of the struggles he went through. But he has the good Lord behind him. He won't be perfect, but he knows in the end he has a home in the end, and that's awesome. I love watching him play, he plays hard.
MiLB: You said things sort of began to turn around for you when you embraced religion, as it did for Hamilton. How has it helped you as a person and in baseball?
Heathcott: I mean it's really helped, by no means am I close to being perfect, I mess up every day. It's helped knowing whatever I'm going through, whether it's a struggle or it's good, there's a reason why I'm going through this. I believe everything happens for a reason. There's no mistakes in this life, I give glory to Him no matter what. He has a goal for me and I don't know what that is, but I have to be patient.
MiLB: The Yankees sort of helped steer you through some battles with alcoholism. How difficult was it to work through those personal issues and also focus on your baseball development?
Heathcott: It wasn't necessarily just that, it was just my decision-making, and the Yankees have been patient. It's about the good Lord helping me, his grace is unbelievable. I can't give anyone credit besides him -- he wanted me to go through those struggles and realize I was wrong. I have to be smarter about that, so it's all the good Lord.
MiLB: Looking back at the game, Baseball America ranked you as having the best outfield arm in the Yankees' system right now. Your throws have been clocked from the outfield at 94 mph. Is that a natural talent or have you worked on throwing mechanics?
Heathcott: I'm definitely blessed with a good arm and even with shoulder surgeries, I don't know how, but I feel strong. It's about playing smart, knowing when I need to throw and when not to throw, not throwing wild.
MiLB: Have you had a chance to talk with some of the Yankees during Spring Training like Derek Jeter and those iconic guys?
Heathcott: No, I've been on the DL every Spring Training so far besides my first, and I was making dumb decisions back then, getting in trouble and recovering from shoulder surgeries. I do know them a little bit, it's just something that hasn't happened, but maybe this year.
MiLB: Your real name is Zachary, how did you end up becoming Slade?
Heathcott: My name is Zachary Slade, but I always liked Slade way better growing up and that's just what I went by.
MiLB: The Arizona Fall League was obviously a great experience for you -- you hit .388 -- so what's next for you during the offseason?
Heathcott: This was the first time I feel like I've had an approach and that's something that I haven't had. It's new so it's been really good to be out there and do that and figure that out. I just want to go into the offseason and figure out how to stay with it, get back to it, work on that.
MiLB: I know you're from Texas, were you a Rangers or Astros fan growing up?
Heathcott: I was an Rangers fan, mainly, but I don't know if I had a favorite team. I really like Josh Hamilton, I always followed him, especially after reading his book, ("Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back").
MiLB: That was my next question, who were your favorite players?
Heathcott: Hamilton and Mickey Mantle.
MiLB: What's your go-to music playlist on the iPod to get ready for a game?
Heathcott: It depends, sometimes (MercyMe's) "I Can Only Imagine," sometimes country. I definitely do like "I Can Only Imagine," it always gets me going.
MiLB: You played football in high school, did you ever consider maybe sticking with that or trying to play both sports in college?
Heathcott: I wanted to play both at LSU, that's something I miss, football -- I love football, but I always figured if I had a shot at all to make it, I'd take it in baseball.
MiLB: What's your dream scenario now in the next few years? How far away do you feel you are from getting that opportunity in New York?
Heathcott: Obviously I have a goal, we don't play to stay in the Minors, I think everyone want to get to the big leagues. I have a goal, but I try not to worry about it too much. I want to play hard every game, every pitch. I take pride in that, that's my big thing. I know if I give it all and play hard and live for the right reasons, it'll work out the way it supposed to. I have extreme patience, or maybe not patience, but I have faith in that.