The heat is on with Heaton

May 04, 1981
May 04, 1981

Table of Contents
May 4, 1981

Fernando Fever
Too Tall
Gerry Cooney
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The heat is on with Heaton

Neal Heaton and his 93-mph fastball are the University of Miami's top attraction

Ask Coach Ron Fraser to talk about his Miami Hurricanes and he'll say certainly, but first he'll mention the night of March 25 when he inveigled a local bank into spreading $5,000 in dollar bills, plus one $100 bill, over his infield and then let the holders of two lucky numbers come down from the stands and scoop up all they could in 30 seconds.

This is an article from the May 4, 1981 issue Original Layout

"We had two big clocks on the field," Fraser says, beaming. "One fan was an elderly lady, and she went about it as if she were picking daisies in a field. Very deliberately. She got $84. The other was a college kid, and he tore around like crazy, grabbing, grabbing. He had trouble holding all his money until he opened his shirt and stuffed it in there. He got us for $144. The crowd loved it. We had police with dogs lining the foul lines, but that was just for show."

Fine, Ron. Now let's hear about Neal Heaton, the big junior lefthander who is 10-0 this season with a 1.96 ERA, who struck out 23 Indiana State batters on March 10 and who surely will be selected in the first round of the major league draft this June.

"On April 14," Fraser begins, "we let everyone in free who had a 1040 form. We had tax experts in a booth on top of a dugout, answering questions and helping folks fill them out. When the game was over, there was a mail truck outside the stadium to take everything to the post office before midnight." Fraser has long been the P.T. Barnum of the college game (SI, May 30, 1977), but now he's on a special crusade. Last summer his baseball budget was sliced—make that butchered—from $100,000 to $31,000, and he faced the possibility of having the bottom drop out of his program. Ron Fraser does not go quietly.

"I decided to run this team exactly like a minor league operation," he says. "We set out to earn $250,000 this season, and we made business the bottom line." Last Friday night, when a crowd of 3,506 showed up at Mark Light Stadium to watch Miami edge Florida International 8-7, total attendance reached 129,213. The college record is 131,481, set by Arizona State in 1978, so the Hurricanes, with four home games remaining, will break it this week, and the $250,000 is virtually in hand.

At every game Fraser has come up with a new promo, a different hype, such as chances on a Windjammer cruise or a trip to this year's World Series. One evening a $1,500 diamond pendant—donated, of course—was given away. The night before Miami played the University of Maine, Fraser flew in 1,000 Maine lobsters and clams for an on-field "lobster bake"—at $25 a head.

Enough! There are also baseball games at the Light, and the home team has won all but two this season. The Hurricanes are 45-4 and ranked No. 2 in the country, behind Arizona State. Three of their victories were over Southern California, and those losses cost Trojan Coach Rod Dedeaux dinner for 35, the entire Miami squad. "It was supposed to be just me," Fraser says, kiddingly, "but I brought a few friends."

If all goes well, Miami will win its regional and qualify for the College World Series in Omaha. Fraser has coached the Hurricanes for 19 years but has never won the NCAA title. He has come close, most notably in 1974 when USC beat him in the final game, but this year he has a special gimmick, a pitcher who throws an invisible ball. Well, almost.

Heaton is 6'1", 200 pounds and determined to become the best pitcher in the major leagues. "I hate to use the term 'can't miss,' " says Assistant Coach Skip Bertman, "but Neal, well, can't miss." Heaton, who is 21, has a fastball that has been clocked at 93 mph, so naturally everyone calls him "Heater." He was so spectacular at Sachem High in Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island that the Mets drafted him in 1979, but when they offered only a $35,000 bonus, he rejected it and decided to pitch for Oklahoma State instead. A phone call from Fraser coaxed Heaton into at least taking a look at Miami—spider to the fly—and it was goodby, Stillwater, hello, surf.

In his three years at Miami, Heaton has gone 36-6 and averaged a strikeout an inning. He feels he has developed about as rapidly as he would have if he had turned pro. Heaton also spent a useful summer of 1979 in the Alaska League, whose alumni include Dave Winfield, Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman. "I had a job in a hardware store in Kenai," he says. "They paid me $8 an hour, but I didn't have to do very much. We traveled from town to town in a small plane."

Heaton threw only fastballs in high school—nothing more was needed—but at Miami he has added a changeup and a slider. No curve, though. "It takes more time to learn a good curve," Heaton says. "I was anxious to succeed right away." He says he has enough confidence in his change and slider to throw them in crucial situations, but Bertman believes he still has a tendency to rely on his fastball too often. "Someone gets a hit off a slider and he forgets all the good sliders he has thrown before that," Bertman says.

Before spring training, Baltimore Pitcher Steve Stone, the 1980 Cy Young Award winner, spent a few weeks with the Miami team and offered Heaton some advice. "Don't try to overdo it on the first pitch," Stone said. "Work him over, move the ball around." Stone also told Heaton he was the biggest pitcher he had ever seen and advised him to taper off on the weightlifting. Heaton worked out on Nautilus equipment the last three winters and now has a body more commonly associated with fullbacks. "The Hulk," one teammate calls him.

Heaton doesn't pretend that college has been anything more than a variation on minor league baseball. He's majoring in phys ed, but his goal is Shea Stadium. "Being from Long Island, I'd like to pitch for the Mets," he says. If he doesn't make it as a player, he'll take any job that will keep him outdoors. "Park ranger, forestry, shark fishing," he says. "I caught a 10-foot mako last summer. My brother and I were about 45 miles off Long Island. It's a whole new world out there. The shark was moving very fast, and it took me more than an hour to bring it in. We cut up the meat and gave it to friends for a party."

Bertman thinks Heaton's future summers will be otherwise occupied. "The scouts have had their look and most of them were impressed," Bertman says. "Those who weren't enthusiastic were just trying to talk his price down. I'm not saying Neal is the greatest prospect ever, but he has a lot of talent and he has the desire. Branch Rickey used to say you have to look inside a kid's heart to find out how good he'll be."

Anyone trying to get inside Heaton's heart right now will have to battle one Laura Balbo, a Long Island girl who followed Neal to the University of Miami. She has seen every home game he has pitched since high school, and she gave him the gold necklace he wears constantly, even when he is on the mound. The mere mention of her name makes Heaton blush, as does a reference to his attempt at raising a mustache, which after three months still looks like a recent idea.

Friday night's victory over Florida International was also embarrassing. A singing group serenaded the fans, a silver dollar was dished out every inning—business as usual—and as an added surprise, Heaton got roughed up. He hadn't pitched in a week and it was clear his tempo was off, even though he struck out 10. He left the game in the eighth inning leading 5-4, but when the next batter hit a three-run homer, it looked as if Heaton would lose for the first time this season. But as they have often done, the Hurricanes battled back—in one game against USC, they were down 8-0—and scored three runs of their own. Heaton remained unbeaten, untied but very definitely scored on.

At a recent practice Fraser reflected on the imminent departure of Heaton and junior Catcher Frank Castro to the pros and Jeff Morrison, also a 10-0 pitcher and an academic All-America, through graduation. "But they aren't the only ones," he said. "We're also losing our first baseman and two outfielders."

It would seem, then, that he had better win the College World Series this year. Fraser nodded absentmindedly. "There are more important things than winning," he said, his eyes assuming a faraway look. "For instance, I got this idea for next year." You could almost hear the cash register ringing.

PHOTOHeaton (rhymes with unbeaten) has a 10-0 record and a 1.96 ERA for the second-ranked Hurricanes.