March 1, 2000
by Pete LaFleur
Aaron Heilman has gone where no Notre Dame baseball player has gone before-as one of the top-10 rated prospects in all of college baseball heading into the 2000 campaign.
The upcoming season promises to be a whirlwind affair for the junior righthander, whose outings will be closely monitored by scouts from every team in Major League Baseball. His every pitch, the way he handles different situations, his interaction with teammates, coaches and umpires, and his personality traits-all will come under the careful scrutiny of the game’s top talent evaluators.
And what they find will be quite unique.
Heilman has made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished pitchers in Notre Dame history. Yet it is his unselfishness and consistency that have endeared him to his teammates.
“Aaron is not like other top pitchers, who need to have their egos stroked,” explains senior closer John Corbin. “He just wants to help this team win.”
“Just look at the guy’s track record,” adds senior tri-captain Matt Nussbaum. ” He’s been dominant, in games when we most needed it. And he gets better as the game goes on.”
Heilman took his game to another level during the past two seasons because of one key ingredient: experience. He was a dominant closer in ’98 and Notre Dame’s ace in ’99, when he won 11 games and set the team strikeout record (118). Along the way, he delivered in several “big games” and served as one of the top pitchers on the 1999 USA National Team.
Despite his dramatic rise from being a 54th-round draft pick out of high school to a potential first-rounder in 2000, Heilman showed no early signs of greatness.
“He had a horrible fall as a freshman, making it all the more amazing with what he was able to do in the spring,” remembers Corbin. Heilman readily admits he had trouble adjusting to a Division I practice schedule and to the role of closer. “I wasn’t used to working on the little things,” he says. “There’s so much more that goes into being a good college pitcher.”
After working for several months with pitching coach Brian O’Connor, Heilman added velocity and movement to his fastball (it now can touch 95 miles per hour) while developing an effective slider.
The by-products of Heilman’s makeover were stunning. His freshman season included a 33-inning shutout streak, seven wins and nine saves, plus an NCAA-leading 1.61 ERA.
His first career outing came in Orlando, with the Irish on the verge of a 10-1 win over Florida State. Heilman took the mound in the ninth inning, retiring three of the four batters he faced.
“I took the bull by the horns and ran with it,” he says. “If a guy gets a hit, I always look at it as my mistake, not something he did well. I never try to be intimidated … but I was a little nervous that first game.”
While with Team USA, Heilman supplied a weekly diary for the Notre Dame website-checking in from various U.S. cities, plus a five-game tour of Japan. He posted a 4-2 record, two saves, a 3.84 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 40 innings while proving to be one of the USA’s most effective pitchers, reinforcing what his coaches at Notre Dame already knew.
“Aaron saw up close that he was just as good-if not better-than any other pitcher in the country,” says Irish head coach Paul Mainieri.
Despite growing up in the quiet town of Logansport-just 50 miles southwest of South Bend-Heilman had never visited Notre Dame. “I’d never thought much about Notre Dame and didn’t know much about the school, aside from football,” he says.
After his official campus visit, Heilman realized Notre Dame was the place for him. “The atmosphere and people were selling points,” he says. “I also liked the coaches, their philosophies and strategies about baseball. I felt very confident about coming here.”
Heilman knows he made the right choice in attending Notre Dame.
“The things you hear about this place are true-the atmosphere and people are very genuine,” he says. “I feel well-prepared for life after baseball, because of going here. Even within the baseball program, the coaches put a lot of responsibility on us and we are held accountable for ourselves. It’s lessons like that which will help you down the line.
“I contend that we have the best all-around experience of any baseball program in the country. We don’t have the greatest weather at times, but we have a great new indoor facility and a lot of other things that make up for it.”
“The goal of every team is to the College World Series and win a national championship. Setting that as a goal gives me something to focus on, instead of being distracted by the attention being put on me, and keeps your focus more team-oriented … which his where it should be.” Beyond his prototypical tools, it is Heilman’s mental makeup that makes him so appealing to professional scouts.
“Aaron is as good an all-around pitcher as anyone I’ve ever seen at the college level,” says Mainieri. “He has good size (6-5, 210), arm strength, a repertoire of pitches and control-and combines that with so many intangibles. He has the right attitude and is a very unassuming guy, and the credit for that goes to his parents. He realizes that he has some tremendous gifts.”
O’Connor sees Heilman’s competitiveness as his most special quality. “You can put the guy in all kinds of pressure situations, but he doesn’t flinch,” says the Irish pitching coach of his ace. “In fact, he looks forward to those challenges. It’s a special thing when you have a player-and an unselfish one at that-who is able to direct his confidence in such an effective way.”
Heilman’s everyday approach is amazingly simple. “I try not to worry about things I can’t do anything about,” he says. “I control the things that I can control and try not to get too high or too low. I always was an easy-going kid and it just carried over.”
His laid-back style is particularly evident in Heilman’s conversation. “You could say he has a unique sense of humor,” laughs Corbin. “He’s the only one who gets the point in most of his stories.”
Heilman recognizes that essentially harmless fault. “The guys always give me flack-I’m not the greatest joke-teller in the world,” he admits.
“But I’ve never been too caught up in what other people think, and I’m not worried I’m going to embarrass myself by saying something. I’m basically at ease with who I am.”