Of all the excuses Amherst baseball coach Brian Davis has heard over the years for a player missing practice, this one topped them all.
Catcher Jonah Heim asked if he could miss a Saturday workout in March because the New York Yankees had invited him to tour their spring training complex in Tampa, Fla. Oh, that old excuse.
Turns out the invite, set up by an area Yankees scout, was for real and so are Heim’s skills behind the plate.
“He asked if he could he miss practice. He wanted to make sure that was OK,” Davis said. “I’m like, are you kidding me?”
The weekend trip was one of many baseball odysseys Heim has been on since being identified as a player who could be taken in the top five rounds of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft in June. He is a rare talent as a 6-foot-4 switch-hitting catcher who’s got the head and heart to match.
Davis has spent hours on the phone with scouts and college coaches talking up this once-in-a-coaching-career talent. Davis was walking out of school this spring when he got a text from the MLB Network. At first he dismissed it as junk when actually it was one of the executive producers who wanted a head shot and video footage of Heim to have on hand for draft day.
“He’s a throwback, he has such a love for the game,” Davis said. “He’s way beyond his years when it comes to the mental side of the game, being humble. I’m sure he’s excited, who wouldn’t be, but he doesn’t show it in a bad way, he does the right thing. He’s still putting Amherst baseball No. 1.”
Area scouts and cross checkers are common behind the backstop at Amherst to watch Heim’s every move. He often takes early batting practice with a wooden bat at the request of scouts. Heim said he’s been swinging a wooden bat all winter so the feel is pretty comfortable. His pop time – the time it takes to catch the ball and throw to second – is around 2.0 seconds, which is the major league average.
When Heim graduates in June he’ll have to decide between pro ball and college.
“Ultimately, I just want to go play,” Heim said. “It will depend on what round I go in. Top three rounds …”
Heim has been contacted in some way by all 30 major league teams and was offered college scholarships by Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland, Marshall and UB. He eventually signed with the Spartans with plans to major in engineering.
Michigan State discovered him playing for his Academy Stars travel team last summer.
“I just went down to the campus and fell in love with it so they made a good offer and it was a perfect fit,” Heim said.
Heim would become the first baseball player to be drafted out of Amherst High School since Duke McGuire in 1970.
Playing well in high-profile national showcase tournaments has been Heim’s ticket so far. He wasn’t a pro prospect until last August when he was selected to play in an East Coast Showcase tournament in Syracuse over two days.
His stock soared even higher when he batted .750 at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif.
Heim was invited to play in an exhibition game in Yankee Stadium as part of the Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Classic. He caught five innings, had a double and threw out two runners trying to steal.
“It was crazy. I’m a diehard Yankees fan so it was really good, it was fun,” Heim said.
While Heim is excited about his future, he’s also living in the moment. A Section VI Class A title would be a great way to end his high school career. Last year the Tigers were the No. 1 seed in Class A-2 before being eliminated by Maryvale in the semifinals and finish 19-3. Heim batted .470 for the season and threw out 12 baserunners off first base. Amherst hasn’t won a sectional title since 1993.
“Major League Baseball will be there, but right now it’s high school and we have goals and we have dreams on the team, and I’m going to do whatever I can to accomplish those goals for the team,” Heim said.
Heim could have easily been talking about bringing a title to Kenmore East instead of Amherst. He spent his freshman year at East, but that summer his family bought a house on the east side of Niagara Falls Boulevard not realizing they had to live on the west side to still be in the Kenmore school district.
Davis immediately started getting calls from coaches in the Niagara Frontier League telling him how lucky he was. In Amherst it is referred to as “the happy accident.”
It was no accident when Heim and teammate Matt Connolly, a pitcher/third baseman, became best friends.
“He’s a great leader, a good athlete of course, in school they talk about being a student-athlete and he really shows it,” Connolly said. “He’s not cocky about his game, but he’s confident. He deserves everything he’s got coming for him.”