Notre Dame Athletes of the Year: Aaron Heilman returns for senior year, sparks Irish baseball resurgence
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Associate Sports Editor
One inning. Just one inning.
That's how long it took Notre Dame baseball coach Paul Mainieri to realize just how good Aaron Heilman was going to be.
Notre Dame was in the process of dismantling Florida State 10-1 in the 1998 season opener when Mainieri decided to have an unknown freshman pitch the final inning.
"I wanted to bring him along slowly to get his feet wet," Mainieri said. "I didn't want him to get shelled his first time out."
It turns out that Mainieri didn't have anything to worry about. In his first collegiate outing, he threw the ball so hard and so fast that he shocked the entire Irish coaching staff.
"He threw that ball so good, I turned to [pitching coach] Brian O'Connor and said, "I think we may have something here,'" Mainieri said. "And that was after the first inning of a freshman year in a game that had already been decided.
"I'll never forget that game as long as I live."
"Coach gave me the opportunity the first game of the season and I just ran with it," said Heilman, The Observer's 2000-01 Notre Dame Male Athlete of the Year. "I looked at it as my opportunity to prove that I belonged at this level and that I could be successful."
Little did Heilman know just how successful he was going to be. As a closer, Heilman led the nation in ERA, recorded nine saves, won seven games and was named an All-American — all as a freshman.
"You'd think he dominates all the time, but he gets in jams," Mainieri said. "The thing that sets him apart is that he has the ability to raise his game.
"The great ones can do that."
Over the course of his next two seasons, Heilman didn't become just great — he was nearly invincible. He struck out a Notre Dame season-record 118 batters in both 1999 and 2000. He was named All-American for three straight years. He pitched for Team USA. He won 10 games in a row.
Heilman had pitched in plenty of memorial games. There was the 10-inning, 18-strikeout gem against West Virginia. Or his one-hitter against Villanova in Notre Dame's 3,000th ever baseball game. Or his five innings against Miami where Heilman gave up one hit en route to a 1-0 victory — the first time the Hurricanes had been shut out in 20 years.
"Honestly, I don't know what more I could have accomplished," he said.
By the time he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins at the end of his junior year, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Heilman would leave Notre Dame to compete professionally.
"At the conclusion of our season, I honestly thought I was going to sign and that was it for me playing college baseball," Heilman said.
But during the summer, Heilman had second thoughts. He wanted to earn his degree right away without having to worry about coming back to take classes in the off-season. Besides, contract negotiations weren't moving very fast, and there were major problems with the amount of the signing bonus — the Twins offered $900,000, but Heilman was holding out for $1.4 million. And so Heilman — and Heilman alone — made the decision to return to Notre Dame to finish his senior season.
"I knew that it had to be Aaron Heilman's decision," Mainieri said. "I was very careful not to influence him one way or the other. Nobody on our staff would have blamed Aaron for signing last summer."
"I talked to my family and some close friends," he said. "But what it all boiled down to was that it was my decision. And I'm very happy with the decision I made."
"There's no way Aaron would have come back unless he thought we were going to have an outstanding team," Mainieri said.
The Irish didn't let Heilman down. Notre Dame ascended to a No. 1 and earned the right to host the NCAA Regional. They're in contention for their first-ever Big East Tournament title — not to mention a national championship.
A lot of that is because of Heilman. He's been an automatic win for Notre Dame whenever he steps on the mound. Entering the Big East tournament, he holds a perfect 13-0 record in 13 starts this season; and 10 of those are complete games. He broke Notre Dame records in wins and strikeouts. His ERA is hovering around the 1.50 mark. And he'll probably become the first Notre Dame baseball player to earn All-American honors four times.
"I think he goes down in history as the greatest baseball player in the history of Notre Dame baseball," Mainieri said.
But statistics don't set Heilman apart. Intangibles do.
"He's the best pitcher in the history of the school, but you'd never know it because he's so humble," Mainieri said. "He's just about the greatest leader that I've ever been around, and he does it so much by example."
When he's not pitching, Heilman is in the dugout supporting his teammates. And after a game, he'll help rake the pitchers' mound and get it ready for the next game.
"When the other players on the team see the superstar doing those kid of things, then they realize there's not reason for them to be prima donnas," said Mainieri. "If Aaron Heilman isn't a prima donna, nobody has the right to be."
But when Heilman steps on the mound, he becomes a different person. Mainieri calls him "possessed" and rarely goes out to the mound to talk to him because "he's not a very nice guy." In between innings, Heilman sits in the dugout stone-faced and silent.
"Off the field he's the nicest guy in the world," said Mainieri. "But when he walks across that white line, it's like a whole different personality. It's all business with him, and that's what you love in a kid."
Heilman's business still isn't finished. He wants to win a Big East Championship and pitch in the College World Series. He'll most likely be Notre Dame's first four-time All-American and is projected to be drafted in the first or second round this summer.
"It's been a tremendous ride," he said. "I hope we've got a few more tokens left in the machine."
Regardless of how the Irish finish their season, Mainieri already recognizes the enormous influence Heilman will have on the program even after he moves on.
"Even though he'll be gone, his legacy will be so strong that it's really a standard that he set for the players that are going to follow him," Mainieri said. "When he's finished at Notre Dame, he'll be gone, but he won't be forgotten, that's for sure."
All Sports Stories for Friday, May 18, 2001