College baseball: Perseverance breeds success for Hamilton’s Heckman

The sweet feeling has lasted nearly two weeks. Call it a groove. Say he’s in the zone. Or just nod to the baseball gods.

John Heckman, the guy with 41 official at-bats and a .171 batting average in his first three years at Tiffin University, may very well be the hottest hitter in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference right now.

“It feels good. The bat feels light going through the zone,” Heckman said. “I feel like I’m getting my pitch and hitting it hard. That’s usually how I go about at-bats.

» COLLEGE SOFTBALL: East’s Lewis taking Big Ten by storm

“If I hit the ball hard, whether it’s right at someone or it’s through the hole, I treat it the same. I could be out or I could be safe. But if I’ve hit the ball hard, I consider it a win. I beat the pitcher. That helps keep your mind-set positive in a game where if you fail seven times out of 10 in the pros, you’re in the Hall of Fame.”

The 2014 Hamilton High School graduate is hitting .364 for the Dragons, who have struggled through an 11-19 campaign and are trying to claw their way into the GLIAC tournament. Six teams qualify — they’re currently seventh in the standings.

Heckman’s average tops Tiffin. The redshirt junior catcher is on a six-game hitting streak that has increased his average by 72 points. And he was named the GLIAC Player of the Week on Monday after hitting .667 with 11 RBIs in four games last week.

“He’s as hot as anybody in the conference, and it’s a tribute to the work that he put in and the time that he spent when he wasn’t playing,” Tiffin coach Joe Wilkins said. “Some guys would’ve given up. I mean, three years of not playing much, that’s tough.

“But now he’s coming into his own. He’s reaping the benefits of just continuing to work hard and keeping his head down and his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open.”

What you won’t hear from Heckman is boasting. He knows the way the game works.

“It’s just good to ride the high when I have it and then just be ready to take the low when it happens,” he said. “Because it always happens.”

Versatility = opportunities

John Heckman has seen the benefits of perseverance at the high school and college levels.

There was a little bit of catching in his past, but he was mostly a shortstop/first baseman/third baseman for Hamilton. He hit .103 as a sophomore, .239 as a junior and .363 as a senior.

Big Blue coach Joey Lewis isn’t surprised by his success now because he saw the work ethic back then.

“He was always a great team player and would do whatever he needed to do,” Lewis said. “He was the kind of guy that gave you everything that he’s got.”

Heckman decided to play NCAA Division II ball at Tiffin and joined the program as a shortstop. The position was occupied by Isaac Perry, who was only a sophomore and would become the GLIAC’s all-time leader in assists.

So Heckman was a healthy redshirt as a freshman.

He wasn’t upset by that. Indeed, Heckman traveled and worked out with the team. He felt it was a positive learning year.

In 2016, Heckman saw action in 17 games, was 5-for-33 at the plate and primarily played third base because of an injury that forced the starter to become a designated hitter.

Heckman was still a utility infielder last year, but started to make the transition to catcher because of injuries at the position. He only played in eight games and was 2-for-8 with a bat in his hands.

And then came the 2017-18 school year, his fourth year as a student at Tiffin. He was a shortstop/third baseman in the fall, but circumstances sent him back behind the plate.

“We had some catching problems throughout the fall,” Heckman said. “Right around Thanksgiving time, Coach Wilkins texted me and was like, ‘Hey, can you come get some catching gear and we can go to the Heminger Center and work on some blocking and stuff?’ That’s pretty much how it started. After Christmas break, I was the guy at catcher.”

He’s moved around so much that it’s hard to determine what his natural position is.

“Somewhere in the infield,” Heckman said. “Wherever the dirt is, I can play there.”

He’s always had the skills of a catcher — ability to move, good arm, sees the field well — and has developed nicely at that spot.

“I’ve always liked controlling the game, so if I’m not pitching, I feel I have the best shot at that behind the plate,” Heckman said. “It’s been a good road for me.”

Offensively, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Heckman hit the ball well during the team’s March trip to Florida, but he cooled a bit … along with the weather … when he returned north.

His current streak was sparked by a shift in plate awareness.

“I told my coach I wanted to see the pitch trackers that we do,” he said. “I was noticing that I was behind in a lot of my counts, so I was like, ‘I need to at least start trying to get my pitch earlier in the count.’ That was the change. Hit fastballs, don’t fall behind. I became the aggressor.”

The results have been remarkable. Heckman is 13-for-23 (including six doubles and a home run) with 12 RBIs in his last six games. He drove in a career-high six runs April 11 against Malone. He’s had five straight multi-hit games.

His GLIAC weekly award was a rarity at Tiffin in recent seasons. Third baseman Nick Hueneburg was the last Dragon hitter to claim the honor on April 11, 2016.

“We’ve been grinding all season. We’ve been doing our thing,” Heckman said. “It’s just been nice to see the work finally pay off whoever got it. It just happened to be me.”

He paces Tiffin in doubles (eight), triples (four) and home runs (four), ranking second in RBIs with 26. He’s tied for the GLIAC lead in slugging percentage at .682. It represents the total number of bases a player records per at-bat, so Heckman’s extra-base hits are a huge boost in this category.

“I’ve always known that I could run, so the doubles and triples are out there,” he said. “The biggest surprise to me is the home runs. I’ve always had some power, but I’ve never shown it the way I have so far this season.”

“When he’s seeing the ball deeper in the zone and hitting gap to gap, when that’s his mind-set, there’s not too many better hitters in the area,” Wilkins said. “It’s just a function of what his hands do, and he’s got some of the quickest hands that I’ve seen.”

Looking to finish strong

Tiffin is continuing its quest to advance to the GLIAC postseason. The Dragons have a four-game home series against Davenport (Mich.) this weekend, starting Friday at 3:30 p.m.

Heckman said the team is improving.

“The energy’s changed in the dugout,” he said. “I feel like the next three weekends are going to be good weekends for us.”

Heckman said his Tiffin experience has been very positive, even with his lengthy time as a spectator. He’s been mostly healthy and hasn’t been handed anything. He’s earned what he’s gotten.

“I knew I could compete at this level,” Heckman said. “I was kind of on the fence about it coming in, but I was excited to play. I know a lot of people don’t get to play post-high school, so I wanted to take the opportunity. It’s been everything I could’ve asked for and more. The competition has been incredible. The guys have been incredible.

“Tiffin is my second home. It’s grown on me. The first two years were kind of tough. We didn’t have a B-Dubs in town or a Chipotle, so we had to take the 20-minute journey to Findlay. That was the worst part. Now we’ve got a B-Dubs, we’ve got a Chipotle, so we’re good.

“The one thing that caught my eye when I came here is they have a Jolly’s. It’s not the same as back home, but it’s the same type of food and tastes exactly the same. And this one is indoors and open year-round. That’s nice to have.”

May will be a big month for Heckman, who’s been a Dean’s List student at Tiffin. He’ll turn 22 and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in government and national security.

He’s worked with the Cincinnati Reds as a summer-camp instructor the last several years and can see himself blending his major with sports beyond college. He is planning to return for one more season of Dragons baseball.

“There’s always a need for security in sports grounds,” Heckman said. “I’m going to look for either business administration or marketing for a master’s degree so I can fully commit to working in the sports world and the safety of fans and the players at stadiums and music venues.”

He comes from a family of teachers. His mother Rebecca teaches science at Princeton, while his father Steve teaches social studies at Hamilton.

Steve Heckman is Big Blue’s longtime varsity softball coach. Wilkins said he can see some of the things that a coach’s son brings to the field.

“It’s also a tribute to the way he was raised,” Wilkins said. “We talk all the time about how this is more than just baseball. It’s about families and how people are going to be in their careers after baseball. John’s going to be successful because he’s smart. He’s willing to learn. He’s patient.”

John said his dad has helped him with far more than baseball through the years.

“He’s taught me everything I know,” he said. “He’s taught me manners. He’s taught me how to be coachable. He’s always the first to tell me when I’ve done something wrong, and he’s always the first to tell me when I’ve done something right. I can live with that. He’s taught me how to be humble with myself. That’s important, especially in baseball, because baseball’s a humbling game.”

About the Author