For every baseball player’s great triumph, someone must suffer the agony of defeat. While Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” was undoubtedly his greatest triumph, it was also a crushing moment for Ralph Branca. As Branca and Thompson are forever linked by that one moment, so are St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and New York Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman.
Aaron Michael Heilman was born on November 12, 1978, in Logansport, Indiana, also the hometown of baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Heilman’s father, Joseph, ran track at Indiana University. Joseph met Deborah Simmons at the university and the two married in 1971. Beau Wicker, the sports editor of the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport, said Heilman’s parents owned a bulk cleaning supplies company that was located inside a hardware store.1
Aaron Heilman was an outstanding pitcher at Logansport High School and pitched a perfect game his freshman year. During his junior year, Heilman led Logansport to the state finals, sporting a 10-3 won-lost record, a 0.98 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 81 innings pitched, and only 17 walks. Heilman fanned 17 batters in an American Legion regional contest.
Success followed Heilman his senior year, when he went 11-1 with a 1.06 ERA with 105 strikeouts in 79 innings. Heilman was his team’s most valuable player and earned All-State honors.
The New York Yankees selected Heilman in the 55th round of the 1997 amateur draft but he opted to attend the University of Notre Dame. “Coming out of high school, I really wanted to get a degree,” Heilman said. “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.’”2 While pitching for the Fighting Irish, Heilman compiled a 43-7 record and an ERA of 2.49. His freshman year he pitched primarily out of the bullpen and finished with a 7-3 record, striking out 78 and walking 19 in 67 innings. Heilman led the nation with a 1.61 ERA and earned third-team All-American honors.
Heilman started 14 of his 20 games his sophomore year and finished 11-2 with a 3.14 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 109 innings. He earned third-team All-American and first-team Big East honors. In his junior year he posted a 10-2 record with a 3.21 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 103⅔ innings. The highlight was when he struck out 18 batters in one game. The Minnesota Twins selected Heilman with the 31st pick in the 2000 draft, but he opted to stay at Notre Dame for his senior year. Heilman’s senior year, 2001, was his breakout season: a perfect 15-0 record and a 1.74 ERA, 111 strikeouts in 114 innings, 12 complete games, three shutouts, and a 0.89 WHIP. He was the Big East pitcher of the year and a first-team All-American. It is considered one of the most dominating pitching seasons in Notre Dame history, and it led to a 49-13-1 record and first place in the Big East. Heilman graduated from Notre Dame with a dual major in management information systems and philosophy.
The New York Mets selected Heilman as the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 2001 draft. He pitched that summer for the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League. In seven starts, Heilman finished with a 0-1 record, a 2.35 ERA, and 39 strikeouts in 38⅓ innings. In 2002 he was moved up to Double-A Binghamton (Eastern League), and in 17 starts he pitched to a 4-4 record with a 3.82 ERA, and 97 strikeouts in 96⅔ innings. Late in the season he was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, where he was 2-3 with a 3.28 ERA.
Heilman started the 2003 season at Norfolk but was called up on June 26 to make his first major-league start against the Florida Marlins, at Shea Stadium. “It was incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking, you kind of feel like it’s the culmination of all your hard work, but really it’s just the beginning,” he said.3 Heilman tossed six innings and gave up just one earned run, but the Mets made four errors while their offense scored only one run against Dontrelle Willis, eventually the National Rookie of the Year. “I thought he did his job. We just didn’t do it behind him,” Mets manager Art Howe said of Heilman. “He pounded the strike zone. If we catch the ball behind him, he’s right in the game.”4 “Hats off to the other guy,” Willis said of Heilman. “One play, if they make that play, it’s a different type of ballgame.”5 Heilman reserved 25 or 30 tickets for his wife, parents, relatives, and Notre Dame baseball coaches. “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,” he said. “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.”6
Five days later Heilman started against the Montreal Expos and came close to earning his first major-league victory. After giving up three runs through seven innings, the Mets broke a 3-3 tie with three runs in the bottom of the seventh. In the top of the eighth inning, reliever Armando Benitez coughed up the lead, and the Expos tied the game. Tony Clark’s RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Mets a 7-6 victory. “Certainly, I would have liked to get the win,” Heilman said, “but as long as we win, that comes first.”7
After two quality starts to begin his major-league pitching career, Heilman was roughed up in his third start, allowing five earned runs on six hits and four walks in four innings. “I pretty much fell behind hitters,” he said. “It’s tough to be successful that way.”8 His fourth start was even rougher: He surrendered eight earned runs to the Philadelphia Phillies in 4⅓ innings. The Phillies scored four runs with two outs in the first inning, which particularly upset manager Howe. “I don’t know if his concentration went, but he’s just got to get us off that field with a zero.”9 “I thought I made some pretty good pitches,” Heilman said, “but it didn’t work out.”10
The fifth time proved to be the charm for Heilman. Although he struggled in the first and fifth innings, overall he pitched well enough to beat the Phillies this time and earn his first major-league win, 8-6 in Philadelphia on July 21. “I wanted it to come,” said Heilman, who was given a clothes-soaking beer shower and also an “anonymous bottle” of Korbel champagne. “It’s nice to get it out of the way.”11
On August 12 Heilman notched his only major-league hit, a single off San Francisco Giants starter Sidney Ponson, a grounder just to the right of the second baseman in the third inning that drove in a run and helped Heilman earn his second major-league win, 5-4. Heilman surrendered a home run and an RBI single to Barry Bonds. “Certainly, he doesn’t miss many pitches,” Heilman said of Bonds. “I made some good pitches, but unfortunately, he took all of those.”12
While there were a few quality starts, much of Heilman’s rookie season was a struggle as he finished with a 2-7 record and a 6.75 ERA. He started the 2004 season at Norfolk, where he went 7-10 with a 4.33 ERA. While not stellar, Heilman was their first-round draft pick in 2001 and once a top pitching prospect, and on August 23 he got the call to return to the majors and start against San Diego. Heilman allowed four earned runs on eight hits and three walks over 3⅔ innings as the Mets lost 9-4 to the Padres. Heilman made four more starts and finished the 2004 season with a 1-3 won-lost record and a 5.46 ERA.
There was cause for optimism entering the 2005 system. New Mets manager Willie Randolph liked the way Heilman pitched in spring training. “I liked the way he was throwing at the end of spring training,” Randolph said. “He made a little adjustment in his delivery and I liked the way the ball was moving. I think it gives us a nice shot.”13 That plus an injury to starting pitcher Kris Benson guaranteed Heilman not only a start in April, but for the first time in his brief major-league career a start before August. His first start did not go very well: The Atlanta Braves scored five earned runs against him on eight hits in five innings. However, Heilman’s next start gave fans a tantalizing look at his potential as a major-league pitcher, a one-hit 4-0 shutout of the Florida Marlins at Shea Stadium on April 15.
The optimism lasted only five days as the Marlins beat up Heilman in his next start, in Miami, scoring seven earned runs on 11 hits in four innings. After a few quality starts, Heilman was asked to pitch in relief. He responded on May 5 with 3⅓ shutout innings propelling the Mets to a 7-5 victory over the Phillies. “His changeup is a thousand times better than it was last year,” said Mets closer Braden Looper. “He is throwing [the change] ahead and behind in the count.”14 Benson’s return from the disabled list and Heilman’s relief success saw him transfer from a starting pitcher to the bullpen. When Heilman moved to the bullpen, his ERA was 4.37. By the end of the 2005 season it was 3.17.
In spite of his success in the bullpen, Heilman entered 2006 spring training competing for the fifth starting pitcher role. He had started in the Dominican Republic winter league to prepare himself for the 2006 season. By the end of March, Randolph had decided to give the starting assignment to rookie Brian Bannister and keep Heilman in the bullpen. “I’m certainly disappointed,” Heilman said.15 Despite his disappointment, Heilman became a workhorse in middle relief. In 74 appearances he compiled a 4-5 won-lost record and a 3.62 ERA with 26 holds. He was used primarily as the eighth-inning set-up man for the closer, Billy Wagner, and was a key contributor to the Mets finishing the season in first place in the National League East.
The Mets swept the Dodgers in the National League Division Series and Heilman pitched the eighth inning of all three games. In Game Two of the Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he helped preserve a 6-6 tie with late relief, but the Cardinals scored three runs off closer Wagner to win. Heilman pitched a scoreless eighth inning to help the Mets win Game Six. With Game Seven game tied, Heilman entered in the eighth inning and struck out two Cardinals. He remained in the game to pitch the ninth inning. With one out, Scott Rolen hit a single to left field to bring up Yadier Molina, who hit Heilman’s first pitch to him over the left-field wall at Shea Stadium to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead, which they held in the bottom of the inning to go to the World Series.
Heilman returned to the Mets bullpen in 2007 and appeared in exactly half of the Mets games (81 appearances), going 7-7 with a 3.03 ERA. However, things took a turn in 2008 as he finished the season with a 3-8 record and a 5.21 ERA. He allowed 75 hits and 46 walks in 76 innings pitched, giving him a high 1.59 WHIP. By the end of the season Heilman wanted to return to the starting rotation, and requested a trade if the Mets insisted on keeping him in the bullpen. According to Heilman’s agent, “the object the entire time has never been to get out of New York. The object is to get out of the bullpen.”16 On December 11, a three-team trade sent Heilman to the Seattle Mariners. In January 2009 the Mariners traded Heilman to the Chicago Cubs, who kept him in the bullpen. (70 games pitched, 4-4). After the season, Heilman was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He pitched out of the bullpen in 2010 and for 3½ months in 2011 until the Diamondbacks released him on July 19. Heilman signed minor-league deals with the Phillies, Pirates, and Rangers after being cut by Arizona.
Heilman required Tommy John surgery in both 2012 and 2013, effectively ending his professional baseball career. “I had two elbow surgeries two years in a row. I tried to come back and rehab just blew out again after the first one,” he said. “I had the revision done and just didn’t quite come back. I decided to just hang out and had a pretty good career, so I decided to spend some time with the family. I’m just enjoying retirement and fixing stuff around the house and trying to keep busy, We do a lot of stuff for the school and PTO and different charities. We try to keep busy, but nothing major on the horizon.”17
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, The Baseball Cube, and YouTube.
1 Beau Wicker email to author on January 13, 2021.
4 Michael Morrissey, “Aaron ‘D’ Victim in Debut – Four Met Miscues Sabotage Heilman,” New York Post, June 27, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/06/27/aaron-d-victim-in-debut-four-met-miscues-sabotage-heilman/.
5 Morrissey, “Aaron ‘D’ Victim in Debut.”
7 Paul Schwartz, “Same Old Benitez – Blows Save, Aaron’s 1st Win, but Mets Roll,” New York Post, July 3, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/07/02/same-old-benitez-blows-save-aarons-1st-win-but-mets-roll/.
8 Michael Morrissey, “Lowering the Broom – Unlikely Mets Heroes Sweep Up in Cincy,” New York Post, July 7, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/07/07/lowering-the-broom-unlikely-mets-heroes-sweep-up-in-cincy/.
9 Mark Hale, “Art’s Mad and Howe; Blows His Stack After Phils Rip Sloppy Mets,” New York Post, July 12, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/07/12/arts-mad-and-howe-blows-his-stack-after-phils-rip-sloppy-mets/.
10 Hale, “Art’s Mad and Howe.”
11 Michael Morrissey, “Scrappy Heilman Clinches 1st Win; Three HRs Lead Mets Past Phils,” New York Post, July 22, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/07/22/scrappy-heilman-cinches-1st-win-three-hrs-lead-mets-past-phils/.
12 Michael Morrissey, “Mets Upstage Bonds: Hold Off SF Despite Two HRs by Barry,” New York Post, August 13, 2003. https://nypost.com/2003/08/13/mets-upstage-bonds-hold-off-sf-despite-two-hrs-by-barry/.
13 Mark Hale, “On-the-Spot Starter; Heilman Gets Call in Place of Benson,” New York Post, April 9, 2005. https://nypost.com/2005/04/09/on-the-spot-starter-heilman-gets-call-in-place-of-benson/.
14 Andrew Marchand, “Heilman Changing for the Better,” New York Post, May 6, 2005. https://nypost.com/2005/05/06/heilman-changing-for-better/.
15 Ben Shpigel, “Mets Make Bannister’s Day; Heilman to Bullpen,” New York Times. March 29, 2006 https://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/29/sports/baseball/mets-make-bannisters-day-heilman-to-bullpen.html.
16 Adam Ruben, “Aaron Heilman Wants Starting Role with Mets or a Trade,” New York Daily News, November 20, 2008. https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mets/aaron-heilman-starting-role-mets-trade-article-1.337292.
17 Beau Wicker, “Heilman Throws Out First Pitch for Ohio Valley Regional,” Pharos Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), July 19, 2018. https://www.pharostribune.com/sports/local_sports/article_3c45d0a5-b770-54c4-b424-c55f82983e35.html.