Neal Heaton recalls his one shot as an All-Star in 1990
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Virtually every All-Star Game has a player or two who doesn't get in the game. Neal Heaton was that guy in 1990, but just being invited to join baseball's best at Wrigley Field was satisfying enough for the former Pirates pitcher from Holtsville.
"When I walked into the clubhouse for the first time, Ozzie Smith was sitting there signing baseballs and he saw me come in and came up to me, shook my hand and said 'Neal, congratulations, well deserved.' And that was it," said Heaton, now 53. "I mean he had been in that game so many times before that, so to hear it from a guy like that is nice and someone in my division, too. It was just a great memory and something I'll never forget."
Heaton, who attended Sachem High School and now lives in East Patchogue, knew from the beginning that he wasn't likely to see action in the Midsummer Classic in Chicago. His Pirates manager, who was the National League bench coach, told him so.
"Before the game, Jim Leyland told me that I probably wasn't going to be used; only if there was an emergency like extra innings," Heaton said.
The AL led 2-0 in the ninth -- thanks to Julio Franco's two-run double off Rob Dibble in the seventh -- and Heaton got the call to start warming up in case the NL tied the game.
"I was the last pitcher left," Heaton said.
Lenny Dykstra led off the bottom of the ninth with a single to center. But Dennis Eckersley retired Roberto Alomar, Matt Williams and Tim Wallach to end the game.
"The game was close and I was warming up in the last inning but I never got in," Heaton said. "But just to be there and be part of the whole thing was just amazing."
Heaton, who played for seven teams in his 12-year MLB career, started the 1990 season 9-1 with a 2.87 ERA with the Pirates. He said he learned that he made the All-Star team when Leyland nonchalantly mentioned it in a short meeting at Three Rivers Stadium just days before the game.
"He had me in his office and was joking around, and said something like, 'Hey I guess you had a pretty good first half. You made the All-Star team,' " Heaton said.
"From Sachem to the All-Star Game, you absolutely think about where you came from," Heaton said. "You think about all the great players that you've seen who go there every year, and now you're in the locker room with these guys. It's really incredible."
Heaton wasn't the only player with Long Island ties on the 1990 All-Star teams. The Mets' contingent included pitchers and former St. John's teammates Frank Viola, from East Meadow, and John Franco, from Brooklyn.
Heaton said the three of them grew up competing against each other in local summer leagues, and when they all arrived in Chicago for the game, they talked about how far they had come together.
"I remember standing in the outfield during the Home Run Derby shagging fly balls together. And earlier, we had a batting practice where me, John and Frank were standing out there saying how amazing it was that the three of us were here after growing up on Long Island and getting to play in an All-Star Game together, let alone playing in the major leagues," Heaton said. "That was my first time there but those guys were legit All-Stars. I had just had a great first half and happened to make it."
Heaton, a private pitching instructor at Paul Gibson's All Pro Sports Academy in Bellport, said he was content to watch the final outs from the bullpen.
"To get into the game would've been a bonus but it didn't work out," he said. "But hey, what was I going to complain about? I got a $50,000 bonus to sit there, watch and enjoy the game and the home run derby at Wrigley Field . . . It was just an awesome experience."