In a way, the hands work Tyler Heineman put in during his 2015 Dominican Winter League stint became a turning point.
It's understandable that he'd need to keep his hands and fingers in pretty good shape to throw, catch and call a game from behind the dish. But the skills he was working on perfecting had little to do with his baseball tools, although they'd prove to be life-changing in a way he might not have expected.
Because in that offseason, something magical happened. Literally.
That winter, Heineman began developing a love for a new craft -- card tricks that involved plenty of deception and elicited plenty of wild reactions from teammates.
"It was the reaction I was getting was very entertaining for me. Not so much impressing people but freaking them out," Heineman recalled. "I enjoyed the challenge. ... These guys, my teammates, loved it. I enjoyed being able to baffle people -- even simple stuff. I got more invested and learned new things."
Fast forward 3 1/2 years, and the D-backs catcher has used his ever-growing sleight of hand tools for more than just one-off party tricks. His quick hands now benefit the community in his hometown in a large and quantifiable way.
Along with his brother, Rangers No. 24 prospectScott Heineman, and father, Steve, Tyler has enlisted in the Los Angeles group Team Prime Time, which aims to help at-risk children and teens in low-income areas of the city by using a combination of after-school programs that foster academics, athletics, arts and leadership. The group reaches 43 area schools and some 4,000 students.
For two athletes and Southern California natives, the chance to make a difference in a place that gave them so much was too hard to pass up.
"We were just very blessed when we were younger and still growing up and we had every opportunity to succeed," Tyler said. "This gives children an opportunity where there otherwise wouldn't be any other opportunities in middle school and high school. It's a very uplifting organization; it kind of speaks for itself. Once we found out about it, we wanted to do anything we could do to help."
With the brothers' baseball exploits and Tyler's newfound love of cards, it made sense that they found a way to combine those things into one major event. In January, the Heinemans hosted the inaugural Prime Time Charity Casino Classic, where all proceeds went to the group they support.
Having plenty of connections and friends in the area, it wasn't hard for the brothers to enlist an All-Star lineup that would attend and drum up support for the event. With Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, Jack Flaherty, Trevor Plouffe, Lucas Giolito in attendance, there was plenty of big league support for the two Minor League hosts. And in the end, expectations for the evening were more than surpassed.
The event, along with the items raffled off, raised more than $80,000, considerably more than the Heinemans had expected. Although they weren't surprised to see so much support for Team Prime Time, they were almost at a loss for words.
"When you can get a hold of guys that really want to help out and they have a really big following, it can only help you," Scott said. "Social media is a big part of our lives now, so when you get guys that can put something on Instagram and it reaches 100,000 people, that works wonders. It's been amazing to see those guys' support. … That's truly inspiring."
Even if the poker event was the culmination of the Heinemans' involvement in Team Prime Time, their charitable ways go farther back. Even at a young age, the two felt close with their community and have always wanted to do what they could to give back to the place that raised them.
"My dad and my mom, and he's constantly giving back to the community, he's the one who started it all," Tyler said of his father. "He came to us saying this hit home with him and we read about and I witnessed it firsthand by going to some of the schools. But it all started with a passion from him. Kind of necessity in his mind to give back because of how fortunate he's been and of how influential sports have been in our life."
The roots of making a difference
Steve Heineman is the first to admit that while growing up in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City he was the "black sheep" of his family. Not that he didn't care about academics like the rest of his relatives, but he always felt a connection with sports that others did not.
Because of his passion for being an athlete, one thing that stood out during his formative days while attending The Dalton School was the mentorship he received from many of the coaches for whom he played. They had a strong impact on his life, along with his own parents, who always believed doing more for the people around you benefits everyone.
"One of the things [my parents] always taught us was involvement in the community," Steve said. "That's always been something I've done and it's something I've always liked to do. I've always tried to get my family, my wife and kids, involved. The kids, especially, because I learned it when I was younger. ... But the big influences in my life have been my coaches. My dad was great -- a workaholic -- but he wasn't really involved in sports. But I was lucky enough to have some incredible coaches in my life. Sports was always kind of a mentorship thing for me growing up."
By his mid-20s, Steve was living in California in hopes of launching an acting career. Those dreams didn't pan out, but fittingly enough, he found a job that kept him involved in the area. As a member of the Santa Monica police force for 23 years, he was embedded in the community. Steve also was a prominent figure in the Police Activity League and ran the youth services, experiences that made him feel even more obligated to help local kids.
One day, however, Steve met Wade Clement, one of Scott's friends from elementary school and the program manager at Team Prime Time. Clement described how the group used sports and the mentorship program to help disadvantaged and disabled children at the middle and high school levels. When Steve saw the group in action during a football practice at Dorsey High School, he was sold.
"I was bringing [Tyler and Scott's shoes] to the Dorsey High School football thing and this blew me away," Steve said. "This is the stuff that's not quantifiable. These guys who were the mentors for the kids with disabilities, they integrate them in their lives during the school day. This is not something that's even part of the program. They just bring them into their world, even at lunch. ... This builds on both sides of the fence and everyone wins."
Clement, who started working with Team Prime Time in 2017, feels the connection between sports and leadership benefited his life, so working with the organization was a seamless fit.
"I want to work in a place where I can use sports as a platform to promote social benefit," Clement said. "I was introduced to Peter Straus, the founder of Team Prime Time, and he told me told about this program called the Prime Time Games, and it pretty much checks all my boxes in terms of using sports as an instrument to promote academic success, social skills, leadership skills and development skills."
The Prime Time Games, the league that allows students with disabilities to play their own version of varsity sports, made the difference for Steve. Hearing that 89 percent of the special needs students who participated either attend college or are employed was one positive aspect, but seeing the group in action stood out. There's a heavy focus on inclusion of student athletes and volunteers from other outlets with students with disabilties. And, according to Clement, between 50-75 percent of the students involved remain with the program for at least three seasons. Seeing and hearing all of this, Steve recruited Tyler and Scott.
"My brother and I just wanted to do something where we could give back to the community in some way," Tyler said. "This kind of hit home for us. They have the after school program, but the Prime Time Games with the children with disabilities and the athletes -- two populations that are so different but coming together."
Beginning his eighth year in professional baseball and with his third organization, Tyler Heineman
has dealt with a lot along the way. The mental and physical grind has proven difficult enough, but he never envisioned finding something away from the diamond that would challenge him he same way.
While discovering a love for magic and incorporating that into Team Prime Time by performing at some area schools, Tyler developed his own line of playing cards. He sells Deluxe Trading Cards, with proceeds totaling about $3,800 going back to the charity. Training year-round, with a full baseball schedule running from April through September, doesn't make things easy on a small businessman, particularly one trying to tap into a market with a tightly knit group of sellers.
"Having your own business, no matter what you're doing it for -- I'm doing it to give all the proceeds to Team Primetime -- but running a website, promoting it, it's difficult," Tyler said. "Owning any small business is difficult. I have a lot of sympathy for anybody who does it because it takes a lot of work."
Although he isn't completely satisfied with the sales from the cards, Tyler was able to auction off autographed decks at last month's event. Several players, including Mike Trout
, lent their names to the custom sets. Tyler knew his brother looks up to the perennial All-Star and offered him one of the signed Trout decks, but Scott sought another personalized set instead.
"He knows Trout's my guy, so he asked if I wanted a Trout deck and I said, 'Nah, give me the Tyler Heineman deck,'" Scott said.
Keeping the ball rolling
Attending his second big league camp, Scott Heineman hopes he's on the way to making his Major League debut after recovering from shoulder surgery. Noting that he spoke with Dr. Keith Meister and is close to three weeks ahead of schedule to being back to 100 percent, he feels little more comfortable in his Spring Training routine. A year ago, the corner outfielder batted a career-best .306 with an .816 OPS, mainly with Triple-A Round Rock.
And just as he hopes to make even greater steps on the diamond, Scott said he and his family can continue to make progress with their efforts to help Prime Time with another strong event next offseason.
"Every year, you come in hoping to have a better year, so that's our goal for next year," he explained. "We want to top what we did our first year. I think it will be a little bit more of a comfortable experience getting it set up. Like I said, hopefully, this first time it reaches a bigger audience going into next year. Hopefully, Tyler and I take off this year and put ourselves in a better position to draw a bigger crowd in and top it every year."
Now with with the D-backs after a two-year stint with the Brewers, Tyler put in extra offseason work by reviewing video of the pitchers with whom he may work throughout 2019, getting to know their repertoires and pitch selection. Early in camp, he's caught a variety of hurlers, just to get a sense of what each brings.
With both siblings playing Triple-A ball for at least part of last season, Tyler said it's hard not to imagine them both on the diamond in a Major League park. They played together in Little League and against each other in college, but there'd be something special if they could be in The Show at the same time.
"I think about it all the time, every day, honestly. It would be a dream come true -- that's what motivates us," Tyler said. "Just being able to have a brother that's close to the big leagues, passionate and driven about the same thing you are is really awesome. Through the grind of a whole season, when you're going through some rough patches, to have someone going through the same thing as you, whether they're in a rough patch or a strong stretch, it's fuels your fire and keeps you going."
Echoing his brother's sentiments, Tyler said he wants to continue the buzz associated with this year's charity event and come up with something bigger for Prime Time in 2020. Whether that means coming up with more tricks is up in the air. Either way, Clement has seen how children from area schools have taken to Tyler's skills with the cards.
"We actually went to a few of our middle schools and just showed up and [Tyler was wearing a jersey]," Clement said. "He just showed up with a deck of cards and he had about 20 kids wrapped around his finger within the first three minutes. ... It's really special. I go back to that campus and they know me as the magic guy or the guy who was carrying the camera bag for the magic guy. 'When is Tyler coming back?'"
Tyler has watched magicians like David Blaine and Penn & Teller and is mesmerized with their tricks, even if he knows how they're done. And he practiced his own moves in the passenger seat while Scott drove to offseason workouts.
"Post-baseball, it's more just a hobby and a fun thing," Tyler said with a laugh. "If I go to a party with my wife and my brother, if there's a dull moment in the party, there's always, 'Hey, want to see Tyler do a trick?'"
Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.