The year was 2001. Neal Heaton and Ron Matz were watching 10-year-old Steven Matz pitch when Heaton told Ron Matz something he had trouble taking seriously.
"I told Ron, 'Your son's special, and he's going to pitch in the big leagues someday.' That was after just one year of working with Steven.''
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Ron laughed. "You probably say that to everyone,'' he said.
Heaton shook his head.
" 'I've only ever said that to one other person, Marcus Stroman's father,' I told him. I coached Marcus since he was 9, too, and you know how it worked out with him.''
Stroman starred at Patchogue-Medford and went 11-6 last year as a rookie for the Blue Jays. He suffered a torn ACL in spring training and hasn't pitched this season.
Fourteen years later, Heaton sat front row behind the on-deck circle at Citi Field Sunday to watch Matz's Mets debut, in which he allowed two runs, struck out six in 72/3 innings in a 7-2 win over the Reds and went 3-for-3 with four RBIs, a record for a pitcher's first game. Aside from the venue and the hype, it was eerily reminiscent of the old days.
"Just the day he had, with the way he hit, the way he pitched,'' Heaton said, "it kind of felt like I was watching him in Little League again.''
Heaton, a Sachem alumnus who finished his 12-year professional career with the Yankees, coached Matz at All-Pro Sports Academy in Bellport from age 9 through high school. "He was like a sponge,'' Heaton said. "I taught him stuff when he was 11, 12 years old that I didn't learn until I was in pro ball. He was a tremendous student.''
From the outset, Heaton recognized Matz had the necessary foundation to develop into a dominant pitcher.
"The kid, number one, was lefthanded,'' said Heaton, a left-hander himself. "The father was 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, and the mother was pretty tall for a woman. So then you calculate. You know he's going to be tall. He's lefthanded. But the thing you can't teach is the arm action. He had tremendous arm action. The ball exploded out of his hand, even back then.''
It was all in his natural delivery, Heaton said.
"It's a very smooth, fluid approach,'' he said. "A lot of really good pitchers, when the ball gets to home plate, it's flat. When his pitches get to the plate, they're still moving. And you can't see the ball out of his hand. It's very hard to pick up. So now if he's throwing 94, 95, 96, really, you have to add another three mph to that.''
When the 6-2 Matz finally arrived in pro ball, all those years under the tutelage of a former major-leaguer began to pay off.
"He was in pretty good hands as a young kid,'' said former Mets lefty Frank Viola, a 15-year pro who coached Matz at Class-A Savannah in 2013. "I just know when you have a big-leaguer who has been there and done that, it helps as far as the actual tools of the trade and working with his delivery, and especially the mental aspect of it all.''
The mental part of Matz's game has been as big a weapon as anything. Heaton said it will remain the key.
"The only word of advice I would give to Steven Matz today is that all these people are going to be giving him all this attention . . . Just continue to be Steven Matz,'' Heaton said. "The way he was before he had this success, focused and humble. Don't get overwhelmed. Stick to your routine. Work hard. Be Steven Matz, and you'll be fine.''