BRONX, N.Y. - There were many days in his late-teens an early-twenties where Slade Heathcott's demons could have gotten the best of him, rendering a career full of promise as a footnote in his life.
And there were many more days during his professional career, some just this past winter, where a series of injuries could have gotten the best of Heathcott and forced him from the game he loves more than anything.
All that made the cliché "a dream come true" all the more real for Heathcott on Friday night, when he made his first career major-league start as the center fielder for the New York Yankees.
"I don't know how to describe it, other than it's a dream come true," Heathcott said hours before Friday's game with the Rangers. "I've thought about playing in the big leagues since I was six years old, and there were times I didn't think it would happen - but I look back and realize people shouldn't doubt themselves; just take care of your work, trust in the plan you have, and have fun."
Heathcott's story, full of legal, personal, and physical troubles, is a long, dark road, but it's one he's more than willing to share now that said road is far in his rear-view mirror.
The physical troubles had often limited Heathcott for his 1st 5 professional seasons, but they crested when he had knee surgery in late 2013 just weeks after he was added to the Yankees' 40-man roster. That surgery delayed his start to 2014, and when he finally arrived, he played just 9 games at Double-A Trenton before another knee injury (and another surgery) ended his season - and almost his career.
Come November, Heathcott's rehab was not going well, and he was almost at the point of shutting down, until he found his next savior.
"I was having a lot of pain running, but I started working out with a guy in Orlando named Chuck Wolf, and within 4 weeks of being with him, I looked over and told him 'I can play'," Heathcott said. "That was the first time in a long time I felt that good."
All well and good, but on December 2nd, the Yankees, needing a 40-man roster spot, decided simply to release Heathcott altogether. It was a moment where he could have folded, but as he has so many times in the past, the 24-year-old rose above it.
"I try to be positive every day, find the good in any situation, but I wasn't like that up until this past winter," he said. "Being away from the game and realizing I may never play it again, it brought a new light on showing up every day and realizing what a blessing it is just to play the game."
More hard work followed his breakthrough, and Heathcott decided to re-sign with the Yankees. A return to Double-A seemed to be in the cards, but spurred on by his improving health and the Feb. 21 birth of his son, Kysen, Heathcott had a spring that Yankees manager Joe Girardi called "very impressive."
"I thought that wherever we put him this spring, he played well, and he swung the bat well and made a lot of in-game adjustments," the Yankees skipper said of Heathcott. "I had a talk with him and told him the most important thing for him this year was to stay healthy and get at-bats. Over the period we've had him, he's been hurt about half the time, and he hasn't been able to show what kind of talent he has on a consistent basis, but I think he's matured a lot."
That talk and that spring performance, Heathcott says, helped him truly realize he needed to harness the reckless abandon with which he played.
"I've always played hard and with a lot of intensity, but I've learned how to back it off and realize that some situations call for that intensity and some don't," he said.
It also fast-tracked him to a starting assignment in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and eventually to Tuesday night around 11:30 p.m., when Heathcott got a phone call while holding Kysen. On the other end was RailRiders manager Dave Miley, who gave Heathcott the news he had waited his whole life for: he was headed to 'The Show.'
Heathcott quickly told his wife and made the first call to his grandfather, but before he knew it, he had to pack his bags and get on a plane to DC, where he'd meet the Yankees for the finale of their 2-game set with the Nationals.
The speedster made his major-league debut as a pinch-runner in that Wednesday night affair - laughing that his first thought when taking the field was "don't get picked off" - and after a day off to take it all in, he walked into Yankee Stadium to find his name penciled in as the starting center fielder.
"I'm really just glad my first start is in pinstripes," Heathcott smiled shortly after finding out. "I know I (debuted Wednesday), but to have my first start here…there's just something about the pinstripes."
Nervous would be an understatement, but Heathcott's faith has always kept him grounded, as has the attitude that he took into the first start.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there and playing, but I have to try to control the emotions," he said. "It's a big day, but I have to approach it as it's just another day of me playing baseball. Once you step across the lines, it's just another game of baseball."
Maybe in some world, but in this one, Friday will be the night where Slade Heathcott truly earned his pinstripes. As his mother, his in-laws, and his wife and 3-month-old watched from the stands, Heathcott received a loud roll call from the Bleacher Creatures to start his big day.
"I wanted to sit there and listen to it a little longer, but I figured I'd better not," he laughed. "That's special; not everybody gets to do that, but it's the tradition with the Yankees and we enjoy it as players."
Then, about 30 minutes later, he hit a hustle double in his first career at-bat.
"I was looking away and got the pitch I wanted and did what I needed to do," he said. "Yeah (I was thinking double all the way); every base counts in this game, regardless of the score, and the 1st at-bat helped me calm the nerves a little bit and realize that this is just another game I'm playing."
He later made 4 putouts (including a nice running catch in the 7th) in center field, and, in his 3rd at-bat, beat out an infield single and came around to score his 1st MLB career run on Alex Rodriguez's RBI single, a poke that tied A-Rod with Babe Ruth for 4th all-time with 1,992 career RBIs.
It all came in a 10-9 loss for the Yankees, but for one night, you can forgive Heathcott if the final score is forgotten. After all, he's got his 1st MLB career hit - a ball he said he'll probably put in his son's room - and just showing up vindicated the long road it took to get here.
"I can imagine and picture what my family looked like tonight," Heathcott said. "It's a big day for all of us; without them and the people who have helped me throughout my past, I wouldn't be here."