NSU Baseball: Former Demon Heath recaps “eye-opening” 2020 season

Former Northwestern State outfielder Nick Heath became the fifth Demon in program history to appear in a Major League Baseball game when he made his major league debut July 30 at Detroit.

He appeared in 18 games as a rookie for the Kansas City Royals, reaching the big leagues four years after being selected by the Royals in the 16th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Heath, a third-team All-Southland Conference selection in his final season as a Demon and the school’s single-season stolen base recordholder, took some time Wednesday to look back at his eventful 2020 season.

Q: What was it like making your debut in a year with no fans?

Nick Heath: “The first game we were in Detroit, and I know there weren’t any fans, but I enjoyed the experience all the same. It was a really, really fun experience. At that point, I had been used to not playing in front of a ton of people. It’s not like I got there and thought, this kind of sucks. It was still pretty awesome. Miggy’s (Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera) still at first base.

“Being able to be around those guys and to be able to say, ‘I’m a big leaguer’ trumps not being able to play in front of people. All the hard work you put in, the things you’ve sacrificed in order to get there, the fans would have been the icing on the cake. It’s something I’m still grateful for and something I’ll never forget.

“In terms of a typical gameday and walking out before, signing cards, playing catch, it was still a regular day as far as baseball, but I could say I was a big leaguer. My heart was still pounding. It still felt there were 20-30,000 fans in the stands. Apart from that, I wasn’t complaining. All the hard work I put in, everything I’ve worked for and trained for came to fruition.”

Q: You got your first hit in your first start. Can you take us through that at-bat?

NH: “Going through that at-bat, they pulled out the replay and everything. I’m looking at the board thinking (a jam-job looper down the line that was ruled a foul ball) it hit the line. In my head, I was like I don’t want my first hit to look like that. I want to barrel my first hit. The only thing going through my head and my teammate walks up to me while I was on base and said, “Whatcha got, man?” I said if that’s my first hit, I suck. I wanted a laser somewhere. I wanted to catch a barrel.

“We both laughed and I looked over, and they said it was a foul ball. The at-bat went on a couple more pitches and, sure enough, I hit that ball to right and I see (Chicago Cubs right fielder Jason) Hayward sliding in to catch it and it kicks up on him a little bit. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. Dude, my first knock in the big leagues.’ I think they made a pitching change right after that and (Javier) Baez, (Anthony) Rizzo and Kris Bryant are saying, ‘That’s your first one?” I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ They’re all saying, ‘Congratulations; that’s awesome; here’s to many more.’ They were really, really cool about it. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m really out here.’ It’s definitely a long way from where I thought I would be years ago. That experience — coming back in the dugout and celebrating with my guys, developing a relationship with them throughout the season — you understand. These guys are pretty invested in you as well, not just in themselves as players. Overall as an organization, (the Royals are) invested in a bunch of guys. They were talking to us at summer camp like every single one of us was going to make the team. Being able to come back and be around a group of guys who care about you not only as a player but as a person, who are just as excited about your moment as you were, that’s something. They made that first couple of days really, really awesome.”

Q: You had an RBI single to tie a game against Minnesota and you hurt your hamstring. What did that do to your mentality at that point?

NH: “I always tell people who don’t know my story that it wouldn’t happen any other way. It couldn’t go perfect. It couldn’t go smoothly. Something had to get in the way. This time it was a hamstring.

“I was playing good, I was seeing the ball well and I was playing some pretty good defense. They said we’re going to give you the opportunity to go out and play and see what you can do. It’s your turn. I’m preparing how I do every day. I’m feeling good. My body feels amazing.

“We had the play where I was stealing a base and (Jorge) Soler hit a ball to shallow left center and the shortstop went out to catch it. I slowed down at second base because I didn’t want to run into an out. I find the ball, it’s in the air, I get ready to get going and, as I start to pick my speed back up, I feel it tweak on me just a little bit.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, this can’t be for real. This isn’t happening.’ I’ve had it happen before. I tried to play another inning or two on it. It just hurt. I came and told them my hamstring got me a little bit. I want to try to keep going. (The sports medicine staff said) we’re not going to do that. They assessed it and put me on the 10-day IL.

“That lasted two and a half or three weeks, and I came back up. It wouldn’t be my story if it went smooth. It would not be for me. The mentality I have, I try to keep it positive and make the best out of it and not get down on myself. I know the rollercoaster of emotion everyone has in baseball. I didn’t want to get too invested in that and let it affect how I was coming to the field, especially for the guys who were in the minor leagues playing alongside me. I didn’t want to come back upset. I wanted to come back and still have a smile on my face. I did my rehab. I kept on smiling and tried to lead by example. I wanted to let these guys know, you’re not as far off as you think you are. That’s all I could do.”

Q: You and your Royals teammate, Nicky Lopez, played against one another in college when Creighton came to Brown-Stroud Field. Do you ever talk about that weekend?

NH: “We talk about it quite often. I just give him a little bit of flak. We talk about Cort (Brinson), and I tell (Lopez), ‘You know he was going to kill you right?’ He’ll say, ‘I got behind my guys, and I knew we were going to win the fight.’ It’s a joke between us. We stop and talk about it for a minute. We talk about when they came down and differences between Creighton and Northwestern State.”

Q: You were able to play alongside Alex Gordon in his final season. What was being part of his retirement ceremony this past weekend like and what was your relationship with him?

NH: “In my time playing with him, I never got the opportunity to sit down and speak with him aside from a few questions. This year was the first time I got to really have a conversation with him, being in the outfield and playing defensively. I got to see the stuff he works on. I had heard about his work ethic. I’d go in the weight room, and he’d be in there. He was always in the weight room. He’s a man of few words. When you get to talking to him, you realize he’s pretty laid back. He’s just head down, working hard, getting after it, putting in what he needs to. You stay out of his way and let him do this thing, and if you get a chance to speak to him, speak.

“I didn’t realize how good of a guy he was until I got to summer camp. Even then, I didn’t get to speak to him too much. After I made my debut and I was up here on a regular basis, I talked to him in the OF, locker room and dugout. Asked him a lot of questions. On days I wouldn’t start, I’d go to left field or left-center field and I’d tell him, ‘Hey I’m just going to watch you shag BP. I’m not playing, I’m hitting in the fourth group, I’m just going to watch you shag.” He said, ‘OK, cool.’

“Eventually we get to talking about his routes and how he plays balls, and you come to realize he’s a really, really genuine guy. I didn’t think that of him at first because he didn’t speak much. We had a conversation in the weight room, and in the conversation with the overall group, wine came up one day. They asked me what kind of wine I liked? I told them red wine. He looked at me and said, ‘Heath, you like wine?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘No, really you like wine? Would you drink a bottle of wine?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ He said I’ve got something for you. A couple of days later, we go to Milwaukee. He comes in with a bottle of wine from like 2013. He said, ‘You like wine, so I got it for you.’ I was like, ‘No way.’

“The more I was around him, the more I got to start a relationship with him and see how his relationship was with the rest of the team, the more I appreciated him as a teammate. The reason I didn’t at first, was I didn’t necessarily take the time to get to know him. When I got the opportunity to do it, I see why his last day at The K was so emotional for so many people.

“We had this retirement party downstairs, and the way he was speaking, everyone was quiet, listening. He tells us he’s not a very vocal, very emotional person, but the way he talked you could tell the reason he’s as special to us as he is.”

Q: How would you assess the 2020 season?

NH: “There’s a lot of ways to assess this year. I don’t necessarily know a word for it. I guess I’d say eye-opening. Just in terms of being as disciplined as I was, being as to the point I was about making the big-league team and the work I put in to get there. I was very deliberate about what I did. I got up there and played well.

“Then there was the injury and coming back. After the injury I told myself, ‘You’ve got to do some damage.’ With how the season plays out, some guys are hot when you get back and some aren’t. You get in where you fit in, especially as a rookie. You try to make a splash when you can, if it’s playing defense for an inning or two, coming in to pinch run or pinch hit. I think it opened my eyes to how much harder I needed to work, even though I already work pretty hard. How much more I have to put in to be the Javier Baezes. There’s a lot of work you have to put in. It’s very eye opening.

“I came back and looked at myself and what I did this year. I said, ‘Alright, you worked hard and got here. Now you have to work even harder to stay here.’ A lot of guys tell you that, but you don’t realize it until you get here what it’s like. You see how everything operates. That was eye opening to me. I have a lot of work to do this offseason, a lot of stuff to kick in gear and improve on. This offseason is going to be really, really big for me.”

Q: The Royals have a very prospect-heavy core, some of whom you’ve played with now for a while. How did their emergence affect the team?

“I played with (pitcher Brady) Singer for a little while in Double-A. I know how Singer is. I played with (Jackson) Kowar a little bit. I never got the opportunity to play with (Daniel) Lynch or (Kris) Bubic or some of those other guys, but when I got to play with them at the T-Bones, I got to understand why. I see what the hype is. You face them every couple of days and you’re like he’s human. These guys are human. Then you see them in the big leagues. You see the way Singer works. He’s unreal. I think he’s going to be around a long time, especially with his competitive nature.

“When he’s pitching, that’s all he’s thinking about — pitching. That’s really cool for guys like that. You get him on a day where he’s not pitching or where he doesn’t have to throw, and he’s like the coolest guy I’ve ever met. Then you see him on a day where he’s throwing, and he has that Lane Burroughs stare where he doesn’t look at you, he looks through you. He’s got the same eyes. I’m telling you. It’s kind of funny, because I can look back and think of coach Burroughs in a situation like that. I can think of when we were doing good and we didn’t have to focus only on baseball, coach Burroughs was the coolest coach I ever had by far, but when it was time to play baseball, coach Burroughs wasn’t taking any mess from nobody.

“They made a name for themselves. Seeing these guys a couple of years down the road when they know how they need to work and how much more they need to do, that’s going to be really, really interesting to see. I’m really pumped to be teammates with these guys, hopefully for years to come.

Q: What does the future hold for Nick Heath?

NH: “I’m going to say it holds a lot of things. I’ve told myself and I’ve written this stuff down. I want to be an All-Star. I want to win a World Series.

“I’m seeing how close we were in a 60-game season, only a few games back. People counted us out. They didn’t think we’d win this many games. You have no clue what we’re capable of. Once we get the ball rolling with this core group, we get everybody on board and figure out how to work together, we’re going to be a really good team.

“I want to say what it has in store for the Royals. We’re going to be knocking on a lot of doors soon. I’m not sure people understand how serious of a baseball club we are going to be. With (Mike) Matheny as our manager, just the way he comes in, he has an edge about him. He’s not going to let us get complacent whether we’re doing good or bad. Even when we were officially eliminated, he gave us a talk and said I hope we kick their (butt) these last few games. I hope you guys are just as pumped about these last few games as I am. Just because we’re eliminated doesn’t mean we can’t go out and make a splash. We did that. We won a few straight, lost a couple, which put us out of position. Seeing that fight with a lot of young guys, I can’t wait for us to be here together. We’re going to be an exciting team to watch, and I can’t wait for that to happen.”

Q: Have you been able to reflect on what it means to be the first position player from Northwestern State to reach the majors?

NH: “That’s nuts. That is nuts. When you think about it, when you look back at my freshman year, my sophomore year, as much as I like to say I believe in myself, I really didn’t think I would be in this position. It’s nuts to me. It really, really is. When someone says it to me out loud. I thought someone had said that, but I wasn’t sure. I can’t be the first one. I didn’t even look into it. I thought, there’s no way.

“I’m thinking of this 140-pound freshman walking on campus thinking he’s 220, 6-3 and about to take over the Southland Conference. Then I’m having to grind my way through it. I’m going to credit that to the teammates and coaches I’ve had along the way. Burroughs and (Bobby) Barbier and (Chris) Curry and (G.T.) McCullough. My high school coaches, coach Scott, coach Martinez. They’ve all told me I could make it, but I just thought that’s what coaches are supposed to say. I wasn’t like he really, really means that. He says it to push me to work harder.

“Coach Curry sat me down for a 20-minute conversation before practice. He said, ‘Please, please realize what you have in front of you if you come out here and work just a little bit harder, take it serious.’ Coach Burroughs, even in the minor leagues, checking in on me, seeing how I was doing. Barbier doing the same thing. McCullough, we didn’t get to speak very often, but he’ll call me out of the blue and say, ‘Man I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do. I know you’re going to work hard. We’re so proud of you.’

“I look back at that and my teammates too, especially Kwan (Adkins). I keep in touch with Kwan and Willie (Ward) and those guys. Phone calls from those guys, asking ‘How’s it going? Keep on pushing. We can’t wait to see you get there,’ so on and so forth. I’ve never been so emotional with two teammates in my life. Those two keep me going. They really, really do. Everything I have and where I am, I attribute to my teammates, my coaches and my support system. They’re different in my opinion. Not a lot of people have that, at least not the way I do. I’m blessed to say I have those kind of people in my corner. The credit goes to them. The behind the scenes people, my supporting cast, is awesome.”

Photo: Nick Heath swings during a spring training game in Arizona in March. Credit: Jason Hanna/Kansas City Royals