TAMPA, Fla. -- Slade Heathcott takes nothing for granted, the least of which is starting in centerfield for the Yankees, which he did for the first time on Wednesday. "It's a nice privilege," he said. "It really is."
Before too long, maybe even next year, it could be the Yankees' privilege to put him in their most glamorous position. They see a powerfully built, fast-moving, 22-year-old lefthanded batter who has healthy respect for the role he played in a 10-7 exhibition loss to the Orioles. He grew up in Texarkana, Texas, idolizing the late Commerce (Okla.) Comet, Mickey Mantle.
No one is calling him the next Mickey Mantle. For now, he is the next centerfielder for Double-A Trenton. On Wednesday, he was in uniform No. 92, batting seventh for the club that took a chance and drafted him in the first round four years ago. "I thought he looked pretty good," Joe Girardi said. "He hit a ball pretty hard. He was exciting on the bases. So I was pleased."
The real story on Heathcott, though, is the one that never will make it to the back of a baseball card (if there still are baseball cards by the time his career is over). Heathcott will tell you himself -- and he will address you with an honorific such as "Sir" -- that he considers it a privilege to wake up every morning.
That was no guarantee during his teenage years, when his stepfather was in and out of jail and his mother was out of town; when he was living with friends or grandparents or alone in a pickup truck; when he had his own struggles with alcohol. Other teams were afraid to draft him. Since then, he has turned his life around with the help of the other AA -- Alcoholics Anonymous -- and with a conversion experience to Christian faith.
"Everyone has their way to go about their day and how they communicate with God and things like that," he said. "I try to realize whether it's good or bad, that's what God wants. Try to keep an even keel, good or bad. There's a bigger picture. We have to learn there's something to be taken out of it each time things go bad and each time things go good."
There was some of each Wednesday: He looked a bit tentative while playing Steve Pearce's first-inning double and on his own sixth-inning strikeout. On the other hand, he ripped a single past first base in the fourth and made a nice catch on a line drive in the fifth. He's learning.
"I just need the AB's, having had two shoulder surgeries and missing two years of my career so far," he said, adding that the injuries are helping him learn when not to play with utter abandon (such as in batting practice).
Still, he promises to always try hard, on and off the field. "I haven't mastered that by any means, but definitely it's a privilege to be here," he said. "Life is a privilege."