CHARLESTON, S.C.—This past November, Slade Heathcott thought his career was over.
He was coming off what he recalls as the sixth surgery of his career, this one to his right knee, and it hurt to do something as simple as jogging. So the more strenuous requirements of baseball were definitely out of the question.
He'd come off two seasons of just 112 games, including just nine in the 2014 season before bowing out with the injury that necessitated the most recent operation. This, after playing more than 100 games in a season in 2013, the first time in his first five pro seasons he'd accomplished that feat.
So it was easy to understand why Heathcott, the Yankees' first-round pick in the 2009 draft out of high school in Texarkana, Texas, might have considered hanging them up to regroup for the rest of his life with his wife and new son.
Instead, he started this season scorching hot at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and got his first call to the Yankees when center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury.
"Amazing," Heathcott, who was at low Class A Charleston for his first game rehabbing a quad injury, said about his first moments on a major league field. "It was awesome. Everything that I'd been through—not there's not (other) guys who go through things—with all the surgeries, all the rehabs, all the ups and downs, especially the downs of not knowing whether I was going to play again, not knowing if my knee was going to let me play again, getting the call made a dream come true."
The rehab of his latest knee injury wasn't going well, and throughout the month of November, Heathcott, 24, believed this might be it for him. But after hooking up with a trainer in Orlando, Fla. and working diligently for four weeks, things took a quick turn back to the positive side.
He acknowledges that staying healthy will always be a struggle considering all the bumps, bruises and scars he's built up along the way—he spent this season with his barking quad in the back of his mind—but mental maintenance is right up there in importance.
Besides injuries, Heathcott's backstory includes troubles with his family, with alcohol, with guns, with aggression and with what he admits was a generally negative outlook toward life the obstacles therein. The key word there is “was.”
He became a disciple of Zig Ziglar—the late motivational speaker whose quotes include—"Remember that failure is an event, not a person."—and has worked hard to slowly flush his negative worldview from his system.
"I really dipped into (my negative thinking) and started changing, realizing just how much changing simple things and being positive in little instances can turn your day around and turn your performance around," he said.
And just like working a knee or a shoulder or any part of your body back to health after a surgery, which he's done time and time again, reworking your mental attitude takes time. It will be tested, whether it's after a particularly tough night at the plate, an umpire's call that doesn't go your way, a bungled travel schedule in the minor leagues, or any other pratfall that comes with the lifestyle, all the hard work you've put in will be challenged.
"When I got up there I realized that it's about being smart. No one's ever 100 percent," he said. "We play this game every day. We have little things that come up. We play 160 games and that's a lot to ask for your body. That's part of the process of maturing as a player is knowing when to play, when to back off and when to be safe."
Of course, having a family also tends to snap a person to attention. The same is true for Heathcott, who has a wife, Jessica, and a 1-year-old son, Kysen. He's worked with the Yankees' mental conditioning staff and also their intervention coordination staff
"I realize that I'm responsible not only for myself, but for him," Heathcott said, "and also how he impacts the world. My entire life, I've been a negative influence, whether it's by leading by example—which was terrible—with making the decisions that I've made and being immature. We all make mistakes, but we've got to learn from them and I didn't learn from them until this past offseason. I think my view and outlook changed a lot and I think a lot of it was because of him."
Heathcott was bumped from the 40-man roster this offseason before re-signing with the Yankees and beginning the year at Triple-A, the highest he'd ever ascended in the minor leagues. Six weeks after the season began, he was in the big leagues, making his debut in Washington. Two nights later, he made his first start. Three nights after that, he swatted his first big league home run.
Now he's back on the rehab trail, but with a much clearer mind, a better outlook, and plenty of motivation to complete the journey one more time.