March 4, 2014
Sean Tenaglia ’16
For all those seniors out there dreading the moment when they must say good-bye to Notre Dame this May, Aaron Heilman can give you a preview of what it feels like to return to campus as an alum.
“It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, it still feels like home,” Heilman says. “It is always great to have an excuse to come back to campus and see all of the new things that have changed and how campus has grown and how much has stayed the same over all of these years.”
The 2001 graduate returned to campus Feb. 25 to speak at the 2014 Irish Baseball Meet the Team Dinner. Heilman pitched for the Irish from 1998 to 2001 but still holds fond memories – in addition to several school records – from his experiences 13 years ago.
“It meant pretty much everything to me,” he says. “It’s a very special place, and I felt very honored to be able to play here and graduate and really take in the whole experience.
“I think I spent the first two years walking around campus in disbelief that I was actually going to school here. I was thinking, ‘Well they haven’t kicked me out yet. Nobody’s figured out I don’t belong!’
“It’s such a unique place and there are so many unique individuals here. I have friends who have accomplished so much. They are lawyers and doctors and doing all these amazing things, and all I’ve done is played baseball. I really haven’t done much. It’s special to me to be a part of such a rich history that the university has had, and in some small fashion to be part of that legacy of great athletics and academics.”
In discussing what the university meant to him, Heilman emphasized the unique community life that defines the Notre Dame student experience.
“Especially talking to friends that I’ve made over the years who have attended other universities, I’ve found that there’s not that same sense of community, that same sense of family elsewhere that you get here,” he says.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we don’t have a Greek system. Dorms kind of become their own frats and sororities, and there’s a lot of dorm pride that goes along with that. Things like going to watch my roommates play Bookstore Basketball were pretty special and very unique. It was a lot of fun to be able to participate in that.”
For a brief moment, there was a chance that Aaron Heilman would not attend Notre Dame, or even any college. In the 1997 MLB Draft, the New York Yankees selected him out of high school. However, if you ask Heilman, he was committed from the start to attending Notre Dame.
“Coming out of high school, I really wanted to get a degree,” the Logansport, Ind., native says. “I wanted to go to school and get that experience. I made it pretty clear that I was very serious about that, and said, ‘Don’t even bother, thanks for the interest, but come talk to me in three or four years when I’m done.’
“I took one visit to Arizona State, came out here the next weekend, got home on Sunday night and called up the other schools to cancel the rest of my visits. That was it. It was clear to me that this was where I wanted to be, so it was a pretty easy choice for me. When I was drafted, I said they were barking up the wrong tree because it was going to take way more than anyone was willing to give me, or than I even deserved, to leave here.”
Fans of the Irish baseball program were obviously happy with Heilman’s decision, as he would go on to become arguably the most dominant pitcher in Notre Dame history. In 1998, Heilman ended a stellar freshman campaign with a 7-3 record, a nation-best 1.61 ERA, and a third-team All American honor. His sophomore and junior seasons were just as impressive as he earned 11-2 and 10-2 records, respectively, while compiling multiple All-American honors.
After three excellent seasons at one of the nation’s top programs, Heilman received well-earned praise and attention from major league scouts. In the 2000 MLB Draft, the Minnesota Twins selected him with the 31st overall pick. Yet, once again, Heilman remained determined to earn his degree before pursuing his baseball career.
“It’s such a different college experience if you leave and come back,” Heilman says. “I know guys who have left and come back and got their degrees while they’re playing, but the experience you have when you are 18 to 22 is a lot different from the experience you’ll have when you’re 28, 29 or 35 coming back.
“At that point you’re probably thinking, ‘Ok, I don’t fit in with anybody. Everyone is 10 years younger than I am. They think I’m their TA!’ I’m really glad I was able to have a normal college experience. I met my wife and some of my best friends here and it’s just a special place to be.”
In 2001, Heilman turned in one of the most dominant single seasons in Irish history, finishing with a 15-0 record that included a ridiculous 12 complete games and three shutouts. On his way to three first-team All-American honors and a BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year award, he struck out 111 batters and posted a 1.74 ERA. His efforts helped the Irish reach the No. 1 national ranking and a then team-record 49 wins on the season.
Heilman’s four-year statistics (43-7 record, 425 strikeouts, 2.49 ERA, to name a few) filled up both the Notre Dame and BIG EAST record books. In May 2001 Heilman graduated with a double major in management information systems and philosophy. The next month he was drafted 18th overall by the New York Mets in the MLB Draft and finally set to work on his major league career.
Heilman spent parts of his first three seasons in the Mets minor league system but quickly progressed up to the major league club. He made his debut on June 26, 2003 at Shea Stadium against the Florida Marlins. Although he took the loss, he allowed only one earned run over six innings. Heilman admits he felt a mixture of anxiety and joy when he stepped onto a major league mound for the first time.
“It was incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking,” he describes. “You kind of feel like it’s the culmination of all your hard work, but really it’s just the beginning.
“It was special for me because I had guys who I hadn’t seen since graduation flying into New York to come watch me pitch. Coach [Paul] Manieri and Coach [Brian] O’Connor flew in, so it was very special because all of these people went out of their way to show their support for me.”
Heilman pitched for the Mets from 2003 to 2008 before playing for the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks. During his nine-year career, he had several memorable moments, including a one-hitter against the Marlins on April 15, 2005. When asked about his favorite moment of his career, however, Heilman mentioned somebody else’s accomplishment: Tom Glavine’s 300th career win. Heilman came on in relief of Glavine on August 5, 2007 against the Cubs and retired the only batter he faced.
“To be able to play a small part in an achievement like that was pretty special,” the Irish legend says. “There’s not many guys with 300 wins, and I’m not too sure anyone is going to do it in the future. To be in some small way a part of that moment in history was special.”
Heilman’s career hit a rough patch over the past couple of years. After pitching for Arizona in 2010 and 2011, he bounced around in the Texas Rangers minor league system in 2012. He then suffered one of the most devastating injuries a pitcher can sustain, an elbow ligament tear, and required Tommy John surgery. Since then, Heilman has been rehabbing and doing what he can to try to stay in the game that he loves so much.
“I don’t know. I’m kind of waiting and seeing at this point,” he says. “I just started throwing again, so we’ll see how it feels in a couple months and see how it goes from there.”
However, Heilman, who lives with his wife, Kerri, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in suburban Chicago, recognizes that all athletic careers must come to a close at some point.
“Thankfully, I have a degree from Notre Dame, so I have plenty of doors open to explore other options if I don’t want to stay in baseball or try the coaching route,” he says. “I’m not really sure at this point. As you get later in your career, you start to try to figure things out.
“You throw some feelers out to people you’ve made connections with throughout the years to see what happens next. I think I would go nuts if I was sitting at home doing nothing all the time.
“There will be something. What this is, at this point, I don’t know.”
If his track record of incredible perseverance and dedication is any indication, Aaron Heilman will be doing just fine no matter what path he chooses to pursue.