Cleveland Indians pitcher Neal Heaton thought he was having a tough day.
He awoke to the news that his house on Long Island, N.Y., was being pounded by a hurricane. He tried to phone home but couldn't get through. He picked up the morning newspaper and read that he was to start for the Indians Friday night against the Angels, a team that persistently ravages him--averaging nearly nine earned runs a game against him.
Then, he came to the ballpark and opened a piece of fan mail. It read:
How are you? I watched your recent games on television. I don't have enough money to see your games live at the stadium, so I have to watch the games at home.
Well, I hope you received the portrait of you alright. I know I'm not good in drawing, but I tried to do my best. I never get response from my drawings through correspondence, so I know you won't respond either. I did not expect you to.
Anyway, I bet you're married. I'm not, but rather single and independent. I'm 21 years old and have reached a decision. I will go ahead with my suicide plan. When I make a plan for something I do it. I don't "seem" to be important to anyone. However--you really are important because you made real accomplishments in your career. Everyone knows you have, too.
So I wish you the best of (sic) your continuing success in baseball and yourself as well. I'll be glad when I commit suicide. It's the only thing I can do successfully.
Heaton sat back on the chair in front of his locker and stared at the letter. He said he couldn't believe it, that he didn't know how to respond.
"Why would anyone write me a letter like that?" he asked.
In a knee-jerk reaction, he resorted to black humor. "Hey, I've got 17 losses," he said. "Give me a gun, and we'll both do it."
But then Heaton's mind began racing. What to do?
Sheri had included a home address but no phone number, so Heaton dashed off a letter to her. He included his home phone number, the Cleveland clubhouse phone number and told her to call collect.
"I said, 'I'll talk to you, we'll go out, we'll have lunch . . . do something,' " Heaton said. "I don't know what else to do. . . .
"I hope it's not too late."
With this on his mind, along with not knowing if his wife was all right back home in New York, Heaton went out to pitch against a team involved in a deadlocked divisional championship race.
The second batter he faced, Juan Beniquez, singled. The fourth, Doug DeCinces, homered. Instant 2-0 deficit.
Heaton figured he was in real trouble. With a clear head and a sound body, he has enough problems dealing with the Angel lineup.
"I beat them for the 10th win of my rookie year (1983), and then I couldn't get any of them out," Heaton said. "Since my rookie year, it's been all downhill against them."
But DeCinces' home run served as a jolt to Heaton's senses. Wiped out, temporarily, was the disturbing news of the day. So, too, was his track record against the Angels (2-4, 8.87 ERA) and the belief that he couldn't throw his breaking ball for strikes when he fell behind on the count.
For five innings, Heaton forgot all that and focused on home plate, instead. He allowed just two more singles before leaving the game after the sixth inning because of a stiff left forearm and picked up his ninth victory of the season, a 7-3 decision over the Angels.
Heaton said he was proud of his performance.
"To beat California is a big thing," Heaton said. "I'm sure they were thinking, 'Heaton's pitching--we have a great chance of winning.'
"This shows me that I did a good job. These guys really want to win. They're in a pennant race."
But Heaton's enthusiasm was tempered. "I've had a busy day," he said. "My house in Long Island is getting buried by a hurricane. There probably are ducks in my bedroom. I tried to call my wife, but I can't get a line to New York."
And, then, there was the letter from Sheri.
"Look at this," he said as he displayed the handwritten note to a reporter. "Can you believe that?"
Heaton didn't want to. On a night when he, at last, conquered his baseball nemesis, Heaton's thoughts were elsewhere.
"I hope I can help her," Heaton said.