Eric Hetzel was selected four separate times in the major-league draft, ranging from January 1983 to June 1985. The last two times, he was a first-round pick. The Red Sox wanted him, the Royals wanted him, and the Pirates wanted him. He finally signed with the team that first selected him, the Boston Red Sox, when they made him their first-round choice in June 1985.
He put in his time, working his way up through the team’s minor-league system. When he finally reached the major leagues and got his first start, in 1989, he pitched an excellent game against the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing just three hits and no runs in 5 2/3 innings. Hetzel got the win.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander had a brief career in the major leagues, working in 21 games over parts of two seasons (1989 and 1990) for the Red Sox, winning three. His weight was listed at 175 pounds.
Eric Paul Hetzel was born on September 25, 1963, in Crowley, Louisiana, the parish seat of Acadia Parish, located about 25 miles due west of Lafayette and about 50 miles east of Lake Charles. Crowley had a population of a little more than 15,000 when Hetzel was born there. Since 1937, it has hosted the International Rice Festival in October.
His father, Carl Hetzel, Sr., was a farmer who grew rice and soybeans. His mother, Regina, taught swimming lessons, Hetzel said in a March 2021 interview. “She taught at different pools for many years and then she finally talked my dad into building a swimming pool at her house and she finished teaching there. They called her Reggie.”1 He had an older brother, Carl, Jr., a younger brother, Mark, and two sisters, Valerie and Lyn.
Eric both played shortstop and pitched at Notre Dame High School in Crowley. “I hit pretty decent, but I knew better. As I got older, they threw way too hard.” How was it that he started his college years at Eastern Oklahoma Junior College? “I had a good record in high school, but I didn’t throw hard. A guy from Rayne, the town next to me, a guy named James Guidry, he went to Rayne, and we played against each other all our lives. He was graduating that year, too, and that’s where he was going. He called me up one day and said the coach asked him if he knew any other good pitchers around, so he told him my name. He asked me if I was interested and I said, ‘Yeah.’ So that’s where I went. He was a pitcher, too. I played two years at Eastern Oklahoma and then my junior year I played at LSU.”
Hetzel was first drafted during his freshman year. In the January 1983 draft, Boston’s first-round pick was Ellis Burks. Hetzel was their fifth-round selection, but he declined to sign.
A year later, the Kansas City Royals made him their second-round pick. Hetzel says, “Kansas City offered me a pretty decent amount. I thought about it, but I turned them down.”
After two years at Eastern Oklahoma Junior College, he received a scholarship and transferred to Louisiana State University, turning down several other colleges so he could stay closer to home in Crowley. Even though the Pirates had made him a first-round pick, it appears they did not offer the money Hetzel felt he was worth. “[T]hey hardly offered anything,” he said at the time. “It wasn’t worth thinking about.”2
As the June 1985 draft approached, Peter Gammons noted in the Boston Globe that Hetzel had been getting “glowing reports” and might become the top pick of the Red Sox.3 Scout Milt Bolling said, “He’s skinny and loose, with three above-average major league pitches; and he could get faster. Red Sox cross-checker Sam Mele compared his looseness to that of Oil Can Boyd.4 He had been 10-4 with coach Skip Bertman’s LSU Tigers and struck out 99 batters in 105 innings, with a fastball clocked at 93 mph. Hetzel was Boston’s first pick in the secondary phase of the draft. Within two days, he signed. The money was better. Carl Hetzel said, “I’d rather not say, and Boston asked that we not. Eric was tickled with the offer, and everybody was satisfied with the deal.”5
Hetzel’s first assignment as a professional was to the Greensboro (North Carolina) Hornets in the Single-A Southern Atlantic (Sally) League. Hetzel impressed in his very first outing, striking out 10 in five innings.6 There was one thing he said he particularly enjoyed about the new environment – pitching to batters who were using wooden bats. Of one ball that was hit to the outfield, he said, “It would have been a home run in college – off an aluminum bat.”7
He won five of his first six decisions. Not one position player with the 1985 Hornets ever made it to the majors, but six of the pitchers did.8 Other than Hetzel, they were Jim Corsi, Zach Crouch, Dan Gakeler, Daryl Irvine, and Josias Manzanillo. Doug Camilli was the team’s manager. The Hornets went to the league finals that season, losing to the Florence (South Carolina) Blue Jays, three games to two. Hetzel’s record was 7-5, with a 5.57 earned run average (the overall team ERA was 4.27).
Hetzel spent the entirety of the following year, 1986, on the disabled list. That spring, he had required back surgery for a slipped disc and that kept him on the shelf.
In 1987, Camilli was his manager again, this time in the Class-A Florida State League for the Winter Haven Red Sox. The team finished last in its division. Hetzel started 26 games and got in 192 2/3 innings of work, striking out 136 batters, with a record of 10-12 (3.55) and a WHIP of 1.417.
He climbed two rungs on the ladder in 1988, making it to Triple-A with the International League’s Pawtucket Red Sox, the top farm club in the Red Sox system. He held his own for the 63-79 PawSox under manager Ed Nottle, with a 3.96 ERA and a record of 6-10. His WHIP remained almost identical (1.14), and his ERA nudged up slightly at the higher level (to 3.96). He struck out almost a batter per inning, 122 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings.
In November 1988, Hetzel married Catherine Arcenaux. She had graduated from LSU earlier that year. The marriage capped a seven-year courtship but their relationship in Crowley went back even further. “His mother taught me swimming,” she said.9
There was some thought that he might be ready to advance to the majors. Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman said in February 1989, “He’s really impressed me, and I feel he has a good chance of making the team.”10 Optioned to Pawtucket in mid-to-late March, Hetzel started the 1989 season in Triple A once more. In his first start, he threw 7 1/3 innings of no-hit ball against Rochester, winning 4-1 on a one-hitter. In mid-May various woes presented themselves among Boston pitchers – Oil Can Boyd and Wes Gardner both had arm problems and Mike Boddicker’s back was stiff.
With a sore elbow, Gardner had to be placed on the disabled list and Hetzel (3-2, 2.73 at the time) was brought to the parent club on May 24, so the team could have an additional pitcher available. He was not used – although the Red Sox held 10-run leads in three games – and was returned to Pawtucket on June 12 when Gardner was reactivated.11 The only pitching he had done was to start for Boston against Pawtucket in a June 1 exhibition game. Against his erstwhile teammates, he allowed eight runs in the first four innings. Boston won the game with a go-ahead run, 9-8, but it wasn’t an impressive outing.12 When he was sent back to the PawSox, he said, “You go up there and don’t pitch, you’re regressing. I was glad to be sent down because I knew I was going to pitch.” He added, “But everything up there is so much nicer.”13 He threw a shutout his first game back.
On June 30, Hetzel was recalled again and got his first major-league start the next day in Toronto. He had not pitched for eight days, since a 2-0 loss to Rochester. Mike Boddicker and the Red Sox had beaten the Blue Jays, 3-1, at SkyDome the night before. In the Saturday afternoon game, one could not have hoped for much more in a big-league debut. Hetzel threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He walked four and struck out four, only allowing three hits. In each of the first three innings, the Jays got a pair of runners on base, but Hetzel worked out of difficulty each time. In the fourth and fifth, he retired the side in order. The Red Sox scored single runs in the third and fourth and added a third run on Mike Greenwell’s home run in the top of the sixth. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Hetzel walked Lloyd Moseby and Joe Morgan decided it was time for a reliever. He called in Rob Murphy. “I didn’t want to let him go too far and get stung,” Morgan said. “I like the way he came at the hitters. He challenged those guys. Needless to say, Hetzel was impressive.”15
Murphy gave up one run in the bottom of the seventh. The Red Sox won the game, 3-1, and Hetzel started his career 1-0.
Hetzel made five other starts in July but had only one other decision – a 1-0 loss to the White Sox at Fenway Park. In that game, Hetzel pitched 7 2/3 innings, allowing just four hits and one walk. The one run scored in the top of the eighth inning, a solo home run by White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. Red Sox batters left nine men on base and were unable to score even once. Hetzel’s ERA at this point stood at 2.28 despite getting hammered for five runs by the Yankees in his second start, his Fenway Park debut.
After a brief, ineffective relief appearance on August 2, he had to go on the 21-day disabled list (and a rehab assignment with Pawtucket) due to a strained muscle in his right elbow.
He returned to the Red Sox and started five more games, but with disappointing results. In three of the five starts, he gave up five earned runs. He lost in Seattle, 5-3, but booked one more win, in his last start of the year, a 9-5 win over the Yankees at Fenway on September 26 (despite being sung by a wasp on the mound just before his first pitch). He ended the season 2-3, with a 6.26 earned run average.
He might have pitched winter ball but developed an ankle problem at the very end of the season. It was a bone chip. “I can’t remember who I was pitching against. It was rainy and I was beating my foot against the rubber to get the mud off and I felt it pop. I finished the inning but when I came out, my ankle was swollen up. They x-rayed it later and that’s what I had.” There was no surgery and it healed. “It never really bothered me again.”
There was an opening for a reliever in the Red Sox pen in 1990, and the team could have used another starter, but Hetzel struggled some in spring training. Nick Cafardo wrote in the Boston Globe, “Hetzel, considered a veteran, could have easily made the staff with a decent spring training, but in seven innings he’s been pounded for 11 hits and 10 runs (seven earned.).”16
He was optioned to Pawtucket on April 6. He was called up to Boston just two weeks later, on the 20th, when Wes Gardner went back on the disabled list. The Sox tried John Leister but he was demoted. Joe Morgan penciled in Hetzel to start on April 21 in Milwaukee. He had appeared in two games for the PawSox and thrown 10 2/3 innings. He had a 2.70 ERA and had struck out 10 batters, but he had also walked nine. Morgan said, “We think he has a big league arm. We have to bring that out in him. The big thing for all of these guys is to stay ahead of the hitters.”17 A little tongue in cheek, Cafardo wrote, “Eric Hetzel will get another chance at immortality this afternoon.”
On April 21, he got a Saturday afternoon start against the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium. He gave up one run in the bottom of the first on a one-out single, a stolen base, and, after the second out, another single, by Dave Parker. He only gave up one more run, in the second, after a two-out walk, an error by shortstop Jody Reed, and Gary Sheffield’s single to left field. Giving up just three hits in six innings of work put his team in good position to win the game, but Milwaukee’s Teddy Higuera threw a four-hit shutout. The Sox lost, 2-0.
Five days later, Hetzel started against the visiting California Angels at Fenway Park. He went six innings and gave up just two runs. The Red Sox won the game, scoring three runs in later innings to take the lead. That said, while he had pitched, he had been “practically flawless in his six innings, aside from a two-run homer to Jack Howell.”18 He had entered what another Globe writer had termed a “hopelessly undefined pitching rotation.”19 He’d been “called out of necessity, not worthiness.”20
Hetzel had six starts in the month of May. He won the first one, against the Seattle Mariners, allowing just one run in seven innings. Over the next five outings, only twice did he complete three innings. He was charged with 4, 3, 5, 7, and 3 runs in the games, with his ERA climbing to 5.82. His problem, Hetzel said, was that he had lost his slider – back in 1985. “Which I know is a long time ago. That was my out pitch. My slider. About three-quarters of the way through the season, I lost it. I really don’t know how I lost it, but I lost it.” Somehow, he found it again in Pawtucket. He admitted, “It’s mostly a mind thing.”21
It was frustrating for Joe Morgan and pitching coach Bill Fischer, Morgan repeating himself in saying, “He’s got a major league arm” but then he added, “He throws hard, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be having success in this league. We’re trying to emphasize to him to keep the ball down because when he does, he’s dynamite.”22
He started walking more batters. He walked three in his first 19 innings, then walked six in his final six innings. A few days after the May 30 game, with John Dopson coming back from the disabled list, Hetzel was optioned to Pawtucket. He won the first game back, 18-1, over Rochester, a solid seven-inning effort. He pitched well his first five or six weeks back, but manager Johnny Pesky said, “He’s not been as good as I’d hoped. He still goes through wild streaks.”23
He pitched well enough that he was called back to Boston in early September. It took a few days to find him, though. With the PawSox season over, he’d gone back to Louisiana and was “attending to some hunting properties.”24 After getting back to the Red Sox, he only appeared once, and for just one inning in the September 13 game – the bottom of the eighth against the White Sox in Comiskey Park. Chicago had an 8-5 lead. Hetzel gave up one run on two hits, Frank Thomas singling in Lance Johnson, who had doubled. Given the lead, and that the Red Sox only scored three runs, there was no need to play the bottom of the ninth. It was his last inning in the majors.
Hetzel joined the big-league team for spring training in 1991. There was still legitimate interest in him. Pitcher Jeff Reardon said, “He has above-average stuff and he could be a 15-game winner.”25 But on March 29, he was placed on waivers and, when not claimed, outrighted to Pawtucket. He was a starter for the PawSox, working in 19 games. His record was 9-5, with a 3.57 ERA. In 116 innings, he struck out 83 and walked 58.26 There had been thought of calling him up to Boston in mid-August, but he had contracted a virus and then developed right shoulder pain. He had an MRI on August 12. The shoulder problem ultimately ended his career. In November 1991, he signed on with the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent. At the end of March 1992, the Orioles gave him his unconditional release.
The shoulder problem had not gone away, and surgery was required. “It was a long process. I think seven out of the eight games in the big leagues were pretty good games, and then I started running into shoulder problems. I went on the DL or something. They sent me down. It was like a couple of years. I kept fighting with it and fighting with it until I finally had surgery, and it was too late then.
“Dr. (James) Andrews did my surgery. He actually came out and said he’d done a lot of surgeries in his life, and he told me that I was the first one when he went in there who actually had five different tears in his shoulder. I tore my teres minor, my rotator cuff, shoulder capsule, labrum, and my DIP tendon.”
Almost all of 1992 and 1993 were devoted to rehab. In 1994, he gave it one last try, starting two games for the Beaumont (Texas) Bulldogs, an independent team in the Texas-Louisiana League. He only worked a total of 4 2/3 innings. “My manager was Charlie Kerfeld,” he recalled. “I was one day older than him. I started throwing in the first game and I could tell. I was hoping it would get better. I got pushed back a couple of days before my second game because I was so sore. And then the second game I started; it was rough. In the second inning. Charlie came out there and he said, ‘You’re making my arm hurt, watching you throw.’ I said, ‘This is going to be my last hitter right here.’ He said, ‘All right.’ I got the guy 0-2. My best pitch in the big leagues was the fastball. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to throw him a fastball to the outside corner’ and I did, and he hit a double off the wall. As soon as it left the bat I turned and I looked at Charlie and bent my finger for him to come get me. I was done.”
He and Catherine had six children – twins Laura and Caitlin were the first. At age 5, Caitlin was diagnosed with leukemia and died when she was 8. Laura went on to college at New York University and lives in New York. Alyson, Elizabeth, and Sarah followed, and then a son, Beau, who was 12 years old at the time of the 2021 interview.
After leaving Beaumont, Hetzel returned to Crowley, where brother Carl was farming. “I started helping, working with him. I did a crawfish pond by myself. I was still working for him, but he gave me a 30-some acre field that I could crawfish in. I found me a bunch of ground that I could start crawfishing myself and that’s when I got into the crawfish business.”
The business has prospered. After some 25 years, he still raises crawfish and has about 550 acres of his own. He has also built a building from which he buys and sells to local farmers and ships to customers in Texas, New Orleans, and locally. “We sell about 5 million pounds a year,” he said after talking with an associate. That sounds like a sizable business but, he added, “Some years are great years. Some years are good years. Some years are bad years. It’s Mother Nature. It’s not the same very year. There’s others that are a lot bigger than me.”
About five years earlier, he went into partnership in a restaurant in Duson, Louisiana, right off Interstate 10: Cajun Claws Seafood Boilers.27 As of the spring of 2021, the restaurant is also doing well.
Last revised: January 11, 2022
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Warren Corbett and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retorsheet.org, and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, third edition, ed. Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff (Baseball America, 2007).
1 Author interview with Eric Hetzel on March 23, 2021. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations attributed to Eric Hetzel come from this interview.
2 Dave Moorman, “Tell-tale signs of potential,” Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), July 1, 1984: 13-D.
3 Peter Gammons, “Trading of Boggs a misdeal,” Boston Globe, June 2, 1985: 78.
4 Peter Gammons, “Witt third draft pick,” Boston Globe, June 4, 1985: 65, 66.
5 Joe Macaluso, “Red Sox take heat off Hetzel; Bertman still sweats out draft,” State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) June 4, 1985: 3-C.
6 Donald Corbett, “Hornets, Suns split twin bill,” Greensboro News and Record, June 12, 1985: B1.
7 Tom Northington, “Hetzel debuts with a flourish,” Greensboro News and Record, June 16, 1985: B3.
8 Catcher Tony DeFrancesco had a lengthy career as a minor-league manager and made it to the major leagues as interim manager for the final 41 games of the 2012 Houston Astros, succeeding Brad Mills.
9 Lee Feinswog, “Ex-Tiger Hetzel waiting for 2nd call from Boston,” State Times Advocate, June 25, 1989: 6C. Many years later, and after six children, Catherine requested a divorce.
10 Joe Giuliotti, “Unsettled Sox spring into season,” Boston Herald, February 12, 1989: B15.
11 The Red Sox did lose one of those three games, at Fenway Park on June 4 against visiting Toronto.
12 He told Lee Feinswog that at that point he hadn’t pitched for 13 days, and that his teammates knew what he threw in given situations.
13 Feinswog, “Ex-Tiger Hetzel waiting for 2nd call from Boston.”
14 Feinswog, “Ex-Tiger Hetzel waiting for 2nd call from Boston.”
15 Mike Shalin, “Debut is quite a doozy,” Boston Herald, July 2, 1989: B1, 11.
16 Nick Cafardo, “Robidoux in; Naehring down,” Boston Globe, April 4, 1990: 62.
17 Nick Cafardo, “Amid tension, Sox’ only move is a call to Hetzel,” Boston Globe, April 20, 1990: 77.
18 Joe Giulitotti, “Hetzel excels in six-inning stint,” Boston Herald, April 27, 1990: 82.
19 Steve Fainaru, “Greenwell might take a seat today,” Boston Globe, April 21, 1990: 31.
20 Steve Fainaru, “Sox are starting to look ridiculous,” Boston Globe, April 22, 1990: 64.
21 David Cataneo, “Hetzel slides into stride,” Boston Herald, May 2, 1990: 106. There was a story in August 1991 where Hetzel was said to have described himself as having “a major league arm and a minor league head.” See Nick Cafardo, “Prospecting through the organization,” Boston Globe, August 11, 1991: 59.
22 Nick Cafardo, “Hetzel gets tutoring,” Boston Globe, May 18, 1990: 36.
23 Steve Fainaru, “Greenwell will be examined for sore ankle, knee,” Boston Globe, July 12, 1990: 68.
24 Steve Fainaru, “Clemens is still on hold,” Boston Globe, September 9, 1990: 54.
25 Nick Cafardo, “Sox have little room,” Boston Globe, February 21, 1991: 64,
26 Three of the walks were intentional. He also hit four batters.