Editor’s Note: Too often, when fans think about baseball players, they picture pampered and spoiled athletes whose every need is catered to. That has not been TCM’s experience. As he’s mentioned before, from 2005-2006, The Common Man served as the Clubhouse Manager for the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Pittsburg Pirates’ affiliate in the Low-A, short season New York-Penn League. While there, he met Pirates minor league reliever Ian Heisel, an undrafted free agent playing his first season of professional baseball. TCM has written about Ian before, but suffice to say, TCM became a fan. Ian has graciously offered to tell his story here, shining some additional light on what life is like for a typical minor leaguer. This is the first installment in Ian’s series of articles, in which he recounts being scouted and signed by the Pittsburg Pirates. This series is written by Ian, and in Ian’s words, with minor edits by The Common Man (with Ian’s consent) for clarity.
By Ian Heisel
It was getting to the end of my junior season at California University of Pennsylvania, and I was beginning on putting together paperwork to the NCAA for a Medical Hardship case because I missed my whole sophomore season with Tommy John Surgery. I had had a strong junior season, but I was not hearing a lot of good news from scouts because of my injury history and my age (23 is apparently 33 in baseball years). I was on my way to finish up my Masters at school, and I loved playing baseball, so I thought playing another year for Cal. was my best option. I was starting to get calls from summer leagues and coaches who wanted me to play for them, and that’s when everything got crazy!
My college coach (Mike Conte) got a call from a Pirate scout whose name was Elmer Grey. He attended a weekend series I pitched in against our rival, Slippery Rock University. I started the Friday game and pitched all 7 innings, giving up 4 runs (2 earned) with 8 strikeouts in a classic rainy Spring PA day! The next day, with runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out, I came in again against “The Rock.” The first guy bunted, and I struck the next two out! That game helped us clinch the PSAC West! Elmer then called me and said I was throwing in the low 90’s and he loved my slider! I was invited to a local workout at one of area high schools, but there was a catch: Elmer was just a “bird dog.” This meant he could only recommend me to the area scout, who was not so sure about me.
That’s when everything began to happen, and I got a chance to live out every kid’s childhood dream. Jon Mercurio called me the next day and talked to me. He was unsure at first, and I could tell he didn’t trust Elmer. I told him that I was pitching for a team in an adult wooden bat league. Jon said, “OK, I will come watch you pitch, and that means you don’t have to come to the workout at the high school.” To me, that meant that if I didn’t pitch my balls off I didn’t have a chance to play professionally. So now I have one of the Pirates’ top scouts and the Director of Baseball Operations coming down to watch me pitch in an adult league baseball game in the middle of nowhere.
I was just as relaxed as I ever was and proceeded to pitch my a** off that game. I threw seven innings with 13 Ks, and hit 95 on the gun! It was weird. He tracked all of my pitches to almost the last inning. There were about 20 people there and I started to hear and see all these people whispering. My parents were also there, and it was pretty cool for them. My dad came to me after the game and said: “You hit 95, and the scout tracked every pitch.” Jon, or “Merk,” as he told me to call him, stayed the whole game. We talked afterward and his whole attitude had changed toward me. We were now talking about how I could sign before the draft and that I needed to come to the pre-draft workout.
The madness began two days later,when Merk called me and said that they wanted to draft me, and that I would be taken somewhere between the 10th and 20th rounds. I was pumped. I called my parents and told them, along with my coach. Then the Saturday came and it was raining for the tryout, so we moved indoors to the gym. Here I was surrounded by at least ten high school kids and five college kids, one of whom was my college teammate. Then they asked who was going first, and I volunteered. What did I have to lose? This was probably my only shot to play professionally.
I just felt great that day. I was hitting 90-92, and my slider was sharp! I faced four or five batters, and broke four bats. There was another scout there who said, “we may need to get this guy out of the cage so we have bats for the rest of the guys.” After I got done Merk came over and said, “I know I told you we would draft you, but I don’t want to take the chance of another team taking you. So how about $2,500, and you sign before the draft?” How could I say no to my childhood dream? We shook hands, and he said, “I will see you and your family on Monday at PNC Park.”
One of the most memorable days in my life happened next. On Monday morning, my parents, brother, sister, girlfriend (now wife), grandma, coach, and some other family members and I all gathered up in the conference room in PNC park, where they had the World Series trophies and other memorabilia, to sign my contract! It was a fairytale coming true for me: my hometown team, where I had gone to see hundreds of games. And I could one day have the chance to play in front of all of Pittsburgh. I was thinking, not too many people get to have this chance, and I need to make the most of it. Three days later I was on a plane — for the first time in my life — to go to Pirate City and live out my DREAM!