It has been eight years since Chris Heintz (Countryside/South Florida) was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. But it's this season with the Minnesota Twins that the catcher thinks he may have his best shot at making it to the majors.
"Getting to the majors is a lot about timing and being in the right time and right place," said Heintz, 29. "It's also helpful to get a person with power to recognize you.
"I wouldn't keep playing if I didn't think I could make it," he said. "Now, I'm the new guy on the team and can try my best to impress someone."
After signing with the Twins in 2003 and playing 23 games for their AAA Rochester Red Wings, Heintz has the team's third-highest batting average (.318) and five home runs.
Before his pursuit of a professional baseball career, Heintz enjoyed impressive high school basketball and baseball seasons and was the 1992 Times baseball player of the year. At South Florida in 1992-96, he set career records for batting, doubles and RBIs. His 1996 single-season marks for 106 hits and 95 RBIs still stand. He was Conference USA's first player of the year in '96. He was a third-team All-American and selected for the GTA Academic All-American squad.
"My transition from college to the pros was made so much easier because of Coach (Eddie) Cardieri at South Florida," Heintz said. "He was great at teaching the fundamentals so that I was solid. The White Sox taught the same way." Heintz joined the Sox organization in 1996 after being drafted in the 19th round. From hitting a homer his first pro at-bat, he worked his way to Chicago's Triple A Charlotte team in 2001.
"I was only with Charlotte about five games, sort of insurance for them," Heintz said. "I could tell I was at the end of my run with them and not playing much anymore. It was time to move on."
While with the White Sox, Heintz was named to the 1998 Carolina League All-Star squad. He led his team in RBIs and was second in batting. Released by Chicago in 2002, Heintz signed with St. Louis' AA New Haven Ravens.
"Probably the highlight for me, besides hitting a home run my first time up, was being chosen for the AA All-Star team when I was with St. Louis," he said. "Only two catchers in the National League were chosen." From the time Heintz began as a youth, he always played the infield - usually second base or shortstop. He continued in the infield at South Florida and sporadically filled in at catcher. After joining the White Sox, catching became his primary position.
"I struggled to make the transition to catcher because it's not an easy position to play," Heintz said. "You definitely need a strong arm, but a lot of it is the mental capability. Being responsible for every pitch does help give control of the game, but you have to have the mentality to stay with it." After a stint with the Cardinals, Heintz spent the 2003 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates' AA Altoona Curve. He hit .258 and had 26 RBIs in 78 games.
Heintz always has considered himself an offensive player. To date, he has a 10-game hitting streak. In baseball years, Heintz realizes he may be getting old. But the competitive edge is there.
"When I'm home the six months between seasons, I try not to think too much about baseball and just re-charge my batteries," he said.
"At the end of the last two seasons, I haven't known what I was going to do. I would think about it, wait until my agent called and he told me what teams may be wanting me to play. If I would get excited, then I was ready to go again."
Heintz married Stacey Nichols, South Florida's associate head softball coach, in November and may consider a more stable lifestyle in the near future.
"In the offseason, I've spent some time with Bryan Peters, who played with me two years at South Florida and is the hitting coach there now," Heintz said. "He's been a good workout partner for me, and I've thought maybe one day I would like to be a college coach."
MORE BASEBALL: Switch-hitter Andrew Beattie (Clearwater/St. Petersburg JC) is batting .333 for the Reds' AA Chattanooga Lookouts squad.
Third baseman Corey Slavik (Boca Ciega/Wake Forest) is hitting .230 for the Rockies' AA Tulsa Drillers.
Brian Dopirak (Dunedin) has a .268 average for the Cubs' A Lansing Lugnuts. Outfielder Steve Doetsch (Dunedin/Indian River CC) is batting .286 for the Braves' A Rome team.
Patrick Boyd (Clearwater Central Catholic/Clemson) is hitting .234 for the Rangers' AA Frisco Roughriders.
Central Connecticut State's Keith Stegbauer (Seminole/St. Petersburg College) was a unanimous choice for the Northeast Conference Player of the Year. The second baseman's .436 average is the nation's sixth highest. He set a league record of 95 hits, 76 runs scored and 115 total bases. The senior leads the NCAA in runs per game (1.46). In the May 31 issue of Sports Illustrated, Stegbauer's achievements were recognized in the Faces in the Crowd section.
Right-hander Bryan Banks (Dunedin/St. Petersburg College) improved to 7-0 after a 72/3-innings effort against Concordia in Embry-Riddle's second game of the NAIA World Series. Kenny Holmberg (Dunedin/St. Petersburg College) hit a home run for Embry-Riddle in a 15-5 win over Concordia. In the third game, the junior went 4-for-4 - including the winning RBI - to turn back defending champion Lewis-Clark 6-5. A 14-10 loss to Cumberland eliminated the Eagles, who placed third and produced the school's best winning percentage (.841). Holmberg hit .384, the team's fourth highest average.
Molly McKesson (Gibbs) is among 34 players invited to compete in this weekend's final tryout for the USA Baseball Women's National Team. The squad will play in the World Cup in Canada, July 30-Aug. 8. Last summer, McKesson threw a no-hitter for the USA team in the Women's World Series.
North Florida's Brandon Diaz (Clearwater Central Catholic) begins play this weekend in the wooden-bat Shenandoah Valley League. At UNF, Diaz started 18 games and hit .245.
Marshall Hampton (Admiral Farragut) finished his first season at Case Western Reserve second in hitting (.351). Senior pitcher Gabe Nunez (Tarpon Springs/Hillsborough CC) completed his career at Florida A&M with a 5.23 ERA and 0-1 record for the season.
SOFTBALL: South Florida senior Holly Groves (Seminole/Alabama-Birmingham) was named a Division I second-team All-American. Groves led Division I in RBIs (82) and hit single-season records of .422 and 18 home runs. She established career marks for homers (33) and slugging percentage (.590).
Pitche r Kristen Keyes (Clearwater/Central Florida CC) closed her college career at Auburn with 727 strikeouts, including 320 this season for a 27-12 record. She had a 1.06 ERA. Keyes was a third-team All-American, All-Region and All-Southeastern Conference. Carolyn Chin (Dixie Hollins) started in 48 games for Georgia Southern, playing left and right field. The sophomore hit .279 and had a .362 on-base percentage.
Florida State sophomore Carly Brieske (Countryside) was the lone Pinellas player to advance to the College World Series. On the season, the outfielder had the fifth highest batting average (.273) and 22 RBIs.
SOCCER: Erin Mitchell (Largo) completed her junior year at Austin Peay University after serving as captain of the Division I squad. Teammates selected the midfielder as the most valuable player. Mitchell led Austin Peay in assists (four) and had two goals and eight points.