Tale of salvation: Formerly a tormented teen, RiverDogs star and top Yankee prospect Slade Heathcott has turned his life around

RiverDogs center fielder Slade Heathcott is one of the New York Yankees' hottest prospects. The 20-year-old has a .351 batting average and hopes others will be inspired by the way he overcame his troubled past.

Slade Heathcott aimed the shotgun at his father.

"I was ready to do it," the Charleston RiverDogs' 20-year-old millionaire center fielder said. "Had my finger on the trigger."

The near-deadly low point of Heathcott's junior year of high school started like too many tormented nights in Texarkana, Texas. More yelling and screaming, mom and dad grinding through a divorce.

"Yeah, I guess Slade was just being protective of the house," said Jeff Heathcott, Slade's father. "That's always been Slade, but I don't think he realized the full extent of what was going on."

That was almost the end of it right there.

No more baseball scholarship offer from Louisiana State.

No more talk of Heathcott going in the first round of the 2009 Major League draft.

No more dad.

Just a Remington 12-gauge.

"It was just a matter of where I was going to shoot him," Heathcott said.

Jeff Heathcott spent part of Slade's high school years in jail.

Slade's mother, Kimberly Johnson, moved from Texarkana early in his senior year. She and Slade's younger brother Zane went to Alexandria, La., home of her soon-to-be husband.

Slade Heathcott spent most of his senior year living with friends, bouncing from one house to another.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

'A good heart'

Against all kinds of odds, he is here in the RiverDogs' Riley Park clubhouse, so peaceful on a May afternoon. His shiny, black 2010 Ford F-250 truck is parked in the lot. His girlfriend and her parents are in town for a RiverDogs home stand.

Some players watch "SportsCenter" in the clubhouse. Some eat. Others text. Heathcott speaks about hellish high school years, with eloquence even more impressive than his .351 batting average.

Heathcott hopes to inspire people, particularly kids, through his journey of salvation that began with a church visit in Tampa on April 4, 2010 -- not long after the New York Yankees sent him to an Alcoholics Anonymous program.

"God changed my heart," Heathcott said.

"I know this is a process, something I will never reach but always strive for. But I am happier than I have ever been."

Heathcott was the Yankees' first-round pick in the 2009 draft. He leads the Class A South Atlantic League in doubles and is one of the best defensive outfielders in minor league baseball. He is ticketed for the Bronx.

Amazing, considering …

Heathcott countered his high school anger with drinking. He was arrested for driving under the influence, tore up his knee playing football for Texas High School, got kicked off the baseball team for academic reasons. And kept drinking.

"I know there are stories about kids who grow up in three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses with picket fences," said Barry Norton, the athletic director at Texas High School. "Slade's story isn't like that."

Norton and other folks in Texarkana tried to help.

"Maybe he was looking for a little bit of guidance," said Norton, who also is the Texas High head football coach. "I know that after every single practice he told me he loved me."

Heathcott spent last Thanksgiving with Texas High teacher Susan Waldrep, her husband Roger and their children. Waldrep spotted Heathcott's potential in English and leadership classes.

"Slade would move heaven and earth for his friends," Waldrep said. "He's always had a good heart."

She remembers inviting Heathcott to dinner at McAlister's Deli during his senior year. In a quick scramble for transportation, Waldrep loaded her vehicle with hungry passengers, and Waldrep's 28-year-old daughter said, "I'll just ride with Slade."

Awkwardly, Heathcott agreed to drive.

Upon arrival at McAlister's, Waldrep noticed her daughter struggling to fight back tears.

"Mom," she whispered, "Slade has been living in his truck."

Blood and pinstripes

The stranger almost pulled the trigger on Slade Heathcott.

She was ready to do it, had the gun aimed at his skull and all the jumble inside.

The wildest drinking night of Slade Heathcott's senior year started with a party. He blacked out and ended up five miles through the woods and clear across Texarkana. The police found Heathcott a bloody mess with a dangerously deep slash several inches up his right forearm. They whisked him to the emergency room.

"I didn't know what happened until later," Heathcott said. "I went up to a random house and started pounding on the door. Then I punched my arm through a kitchen window. The woman who owned the house said she just bought it from a drug dealer and was really afraid. She would have shot me but said she forgot she had unloaded the gun."

The bar and restaurant business Heathcott's parents once owned had dissolved.

Kimberly was in Louisiana.

"Trying to work 100 hours a week to support my boys and myself," she said.

Jeff Heathcott was incarcerated.

"Forgery," he said.

You have to know, that's not the way young Slade's parents planned things.

They were married for almost 17 years.

"They aren't bad," Susan Waldrep said. "They just went through some tough times."

Jeff Heathcott, 39, grew up in the small town of Pryor, Okla. He said his father's back was ailing, that he was unable to get out and "do sports things" with kids. Jeff always swore that if he had a son, the boy would get every opportunity to succeed in athletics.

Kimberly Johnson, 38, became pregnant as a teen but quickly split with Slade's birth father. She attended the University of Central Arkansas and worked her way through school as a student athletic trainer.

"For a while, it was just me and Slade," she said. "Then I met Jeff, we got married and he adopted Slade. Things were great for Slade and Zane for a long time. We saw early on that Slade was very talented in baseball, and we made time for that."

Jeff gleefully noticed in T-ball that if his son didn't make a play defensively he was fast enough to run the other kids down for outs on almost every hit.

"I'm telling you," Jeff Heathcott said, "at age 5 he was doing push-ups and reading the sports section. Once Slade went with a friend to high school wrestling practice. He didn't know any moves but he pinned every kid in every weight class."

As a high school football player Heathcott played running back, slot receiver, safety and punter. Norton said football scholarship offers would have flowed, "but they knew Slade was a baseball guy."

Major League scouts were stunned how fast Heathcott recovered from knee surgery, leading his baseball team to a Texas state championship in his senior year.

The Yankees, well known for demanding character of players in pinstripes, did a good deal of homework before investing a $2.2 million signing bonus in Heathcott. They talked to Norton at length. He was bullish.

"Slade was always a very-well-mannered kid," he said. "He took honors classes. He was a great teammate."

Of course, they asked about that fresh, nasty scar along the forearm.

"I told the Yankees a story about how I cut it trying to hop a barbed-wire fence," Heathcott said. "They believed it."

Passport to change

Baseball's spring training in Florida is supposed to be paradise, Grapefruit League palm trees and a sunny outlook for players and fans alike.

Oh, to be young and one of the top prospects in an organization that employs Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and so many other stars.

Conveniently, the Yankees' royal Tampa training complex for big leaguers and minor leaguers spills over both sides of Dale Mabry Boulevard, also well known for its bar scene.

The Yankees knew something was amiss when Heathcott slept through an alarm clock and was late to an exhibition game.

"Let's just say that people in Tampa know if you're a first-round pick," Heathcott said, "and that even at 19 I could get into any bar I wanted to and not have to pay for anything."

The Yankees planned to send Heathcott and a few other top prospects to the Dominican Republic for a week of baseball and culture.

"I drank so much the night before, I blacked out," Heathcott said. "I hurried to the airport with my bag but my passport fell out. Having to explain that is how the Yankees found out about all my drinking."

They sent Heathcott to an Alcoholics Anonymous session and introduced him to Sam Marsonek, a high school coach and former professional pitcher.

"Sam started talking to me and took me to church," Heathcott said. "At first none of it mattered. I didn't grow up going to church so I wasn't really paying attention."

One day at Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, something clicked.

"I just surrendered," Heathcott said.

Heathcott arrived in Charleston late for the 2010 season, and from June to September hit a modest .258 in 298 at-bats. He required off-season surgery on his left shoulder, which made Yankees management and other baseball analysts wonder how fast he would bounce back this spring.

Doubts were erased in the RiverDogs' first four games. Heathcott hit two home runs, a triple, four doubles and two singles while making highlight plays in center field.

Heathcott's baseball skills have been compared to those of Brett Gardner, a former College of Charleston standout now starting in left field for the Yankees.

Both are left-handed hitters and throwers. Gardner, 28, is faster -- perhaps the fastest player in baseball. But Heathcott is a tad bigger (6-feet and 200 pounds to Gardner's 5-10, 185) and probably will hit for more power.

"Slade can hit and run and he plays very good defense," said RiverDogs manager Aaron Ledesma, a former Major Leaguer. "He is a very aggressive player. He's been very consistent for us."

Greg Colbrunn, a Mount Pleasant resident and former Major Leaguer, was the RiverDogs manager in 2010 and is the hitting coach this year. He said Heathcott "has all the tools to play in the big leagues," and has matured.

"Slade grew a lot last year, and this year he seems a lot more focused or more at peace," Colbrunn said. "Basically, he's grown up. Just the way he handles things. It's been good."

Heathcott keeps in touch with his family, and said he "deeply appreciates the sacrifices they made for my baseball."

Zane Heathcott is about to enroll at the NASCAR technical school in Mooresville, N.C.

Jeff Heathcott monitors RiverDogs games and said he texts Bible verses back and forth with his son. He is working at an auto detailing shop just across the Arkansas border from Texarkana.

"It's been tough for me," Jeff Heathcott said. "Finding the Lord was the best thing that happened to me, and Slade was a big part of that. It just kind of fell apart for me for two years. It was just hard."

Kimberly Johnson listens to RiverDogs games via the Internet, has been to Riley Park and plans to see several more games this month.

"Slade told me not too long ago, 'Mom, I wouldn't change anything because it made me the person I am now.' As a mom that's hard to hear," she said, pausing to fight back tears. "But I'm so proud of him. … And this is really hard to talk about."

She better hurry to Charleston. Heathcott's torrid performance puts him close to a promotion to Tampa in the higher-level Class A Florida State League. That would be more convenient for Jessica Baumann, the Tampa woman Heathcott initially approached at The Cheesecake Factory.

"She was having lunch with her mom," Heathcott said. "I walked over and gave her my number. It's been great."

Slade Heathcott, a Texas-size name right out of central casting. He knows it's still early, but he wants the story to end right.

"The way I look it now, God gives us grace," Heathcott said. "He was there for me even when I was not there for Him."

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593.

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