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Baseball: Alumni speak at banquet

Ken Fowler | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Two Notre Dame graduates – one baseball professional, another baseball fanatic – said that baseball means a lot, but only so much, at the fifth annual Opening Night Dinner Monday.

It means a lot to four-time Irish All-American pitcher Aaron Heilman, the New York Mets’ No. 1 pick – and No. 18 overall – in the 2001 amateur draft.

But Heilman once rejected a million-dollar signing bonus with the Minnesota Twins after his junior season at Notre Dame, instead returning to the Irish for a senior season. Professional baseball could wait. Playing with his friends and developing relationships at Notre Dame could not.

“I had two choices,” Heilman said Monday before 1,700 season-ticket holders at the Joyce Center. “I could go play professionally and make a lot of money and go that rout, or I finish – come back and finish my career, play one more year with my teammates.

“It was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Baseball also means a lot to current Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis, who was the lone catcher on the squad of 10 boys that composed the Middlesex High School (N.J.) varsity baseball team his senior year.

But it doesn’t mean as much as the lessons in responsibility and teamwork Weis learned that year, when every person was so critical to the success of the “tenacious 10” that made it to the state finals after five of the original 15 players quit two games into the season. Weis said two of his nine teammates were members of his wedding party.

“When I think about the lessons I learned that senior year, I think that my foundations of being a team guy were established that year [through] the camaraderie we had in that group of ten guys,” Weis said in his keynote address at the event. “If I could get one message across to you, it’s that you’re not nearly as important as the team … When you start something special, you have to finish it.”

Heilman did finish what he started, and he did so with unprecedented excellence for Notre Dame. He started 15 games as a senior and turned in a 15-0 record for the Irish, leading the squad to a national No. 1 ranking late in the regular season, a new height for the University.

During the banquet, Heilman and Weis highlighted the overriding theme of the night – there should be more to athletics than just the product on the field.

Heilman talked about the fall semester of his freshman year, when his father got sick and the Logansport, Ind. native went to Irish coach Paul Mainieri to discuss the situation.

“I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do,” Heilman said. “I was waiting for my sister to come pick me up and drive me to the hospital. So I go over to Coach’s office, and I sit down and kind of explain it to him … He says to me, ‘Why are you here?’ He assured to me that his priorities were the same as mine: family came first and everything else came second.”

Heilman said that encounter was one in a series of long-lasting memories he made at Notre Dame – away from the baseball diamond – that reaffirmed his belief that the relationships he would develop in college were the most important aspect of his development at school.

“It’s amazing. You never think that you’re going to keep your friends this long,” he said. “The number of my former teammates that attended my wedding was – it blew me away that I had that many friends that stuck with me for that many years and still cared and still wanted to be a part of my life.”

He recalled his June 26, 2003 Major League debut at Shea Stadium, which Mainieri and several former teammates attended.

“It’s times like that that make this University special,” he said, pausing to gain composure, “and make me always want to come back, and never leave.”

Weis said he always likes to relate sports to his family life, especially when he watches his son play baseball and when his whole family watches a game together.

“Baseball to me is America’s game,” Weis said. “It’s a game where parents can take their kids and go to a game and buy a couple of hot dogs and some popcorn and … spend some quality time with your family.”

Notre Dame begins its season Feb. 23 with a game against Indiana State in Millington, Tenn. The Irish are ranked No. 22 in the National College Baseball Writers preseason poll.


u Irish co-captains Greg Lopez and Tom Thornton presented Heilman with a framed No. 22 jersey at the banquet from his days at Notre Dame.

u The Monogram Club presented baseball and football athletic trainer Mike Bean with an honorary monogram at the event. Bean has worked with the baseball program since 1992.