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A Major League Dreamer : Gorman Heimueller’s Stay in the Big Leagues Wasn’t What He Imagined, but Baseball Has Granted His Every Wish

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Life never seems to come at Gorman Heimueller straight on. It wobbles and surges, darting left and right like the screwball he used to throw during his stint as a pitcher for the Oakland A’s. But somehow it always seems to find its way over the plate for a strike.

Heimueller, a 37-year-old Playa del Rey native, always wanted to be a professional baseball player. From the time he was 9, playing Little League ball for his father, Gorman Sr., he dreamed of bringing his repertoire of junk pitches to the major leagues and pitching in Anaheim Stadium in front of family and friends.

Eventually, Heimueller got what he dreamed of. He also pitched at Anaheim Stadium. As it turned out, the two weren’t exactly the same.

With only 22 major league appearances and a 3-6 career record, Heimueller never achieved the big-league success he hoped for. But today, as a pitching coach for the Portland Beavers, a Minnesota Twins’ triple-A affiliate, the former St. Bernard High pitcher has everything he wants.

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“I have my 20-year (high school) reunion coming up and I figure I should be the only guy there who hasn’t had to work yet for a living,” Heimueller said. “Coaching is something I love doing. It’s something that’s in my blood. No matter how the day’s going, once I put my uniform on, it’s an escape for a few hours. I’m 12-years-old again.”

Heimueller’s path to Portland was a winding one. As a 21-year-old graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1977, he had every expectation of making a career of playing baseball. But as it turned out, Heimueller had a lot more confidence in himself than anyone else.

“I asked my coach if he thought I had a chance to sign or play pro ball,” Heimueller said. “He just looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘No, you don’t. You don’t have what it takes.’ ”

As harsh as Heimueller’s coach may have been, he apparently wasn’t alone in his assessment of Heimueller’s abilities. When no big league team took a chance on Heimueller

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in the 1977 amateur draft, he went to Canada and played in semi-pro leagues.

Heimueller found an empty mound in Calgary and settled in, but not for long. Within two months, he was offered a chance to pitch for a Rapid City, S.D., team in a Wichita, Kan., tournament. Problem was, every airline in Canada happened to be on strike, and Heimueller was scheduled to pitch the next day.

Refusing to let a labor strike stand between him and a dream, Heimueller decided to hitchhike. Eventually he got a ride to Great Falls, Mont., and was able to make airline connections to Wichita, via Denver. But during a layover in Denver, Heimueller’s journey took a detour.

“My name was announced to come to the white phone,” Heimueller said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, somebody’s died,’ But it was my dad. He said that the (San Francisco) Giants had called, that I should call Candlestick Park right away. They said they needed a pitcher (for their Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Class-A affiliate) and was I interested? I said, ‘Am I interested? If I could fly, I’d be there right now.’

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“Here I was, living in Canada one day and thinking about staying there all year, and two days later I had signed my first pro contract. I think I got a Big Mac for my bonus.”

Heimueller finished the ’77 season at Cedar Rapids. In 1978, he moved up to a double-A team in Shreveport, La., where he stayed through 1980. He got invited to the Giants’ camp in the spring of ’81, where Manager Frank Robinson had him teach his pick-off move to veterans Vida Blue and Al Holland, among others. But before camp broke, Heimueller was released by the Giants.

“It came right out of the blue,” Heimueller said. “It was a total shock to me. To this day, I still don’t know why they released me. I said, ‘I can still pitch. You guys are the ones making the mistake.’ ”

As it turned out, Heimueller was right. Within a week, he was signed by the A’s. Within two years, he was playing in triple-A. And midway through the ’83 season, Heimueller got the call to the majors, and the chance, finally, to pitch at Anaheim Stadium.

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The game in Anaheim didn’t go quite as planned: he lost, 3-1, to another junk-ball pitcher, Geoff Zahn. But a week later in Oakland, with his father in the stands, Heimueller faced Zahn again, and this time he won by pitching his only major-league shutout. Heimueller struck out future Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson in the game. Jackson, for that matter, struck out twice.

“After the game I had writers all around me, so I asked the security guard to bring my dad down (to the clubhouse),” Heimueller said. “I’ll never forget being interviewed, and out of the corner of my eye I see my dad there watching. I don’t know who was happier, him or me.”

Heimueller’s father considers that game one of his proudest moments.

“He pitched a beautiful game,” Gorman Sr. said. “And then he brought me down there to the clubhouse. I managed him in Little League, in the Pony League and in the Colt League, and that was the way it always was with him and me. We were always together.”

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That game marked the highlight of Heimueller’s career. In 1984, he pitched in only six games, all in relief. On his final pitch as a major leaguer, Heimueller gave up a 12th-inning, game-winning grand slam to Boston’s Jim Rice in Fenway Park. Four days later, Heimueller was sent down to the minors.

“No one can take that time (in the major leagues) away from me. That was definitely the best 120 days of my life. People talk about having a cup of coffee in the big leagues. My time was a little bit longer than that. I had more of a thermos.”

Over the next several years, Heimueller bounced around baseball, playing different levels of minor league ball for the Baltimore Orioles and Twins before getting an offer that changed his life. The Twins told him that they didn’t see a future for him as a pitcher, but that if he was interested, they had a pitching coach job available with their Class-A club in Visalia, Calif.

Heimueller drove from Orlando, where he was playing at the time, to Playa del Rey, using the trek as a chance to meditate on the Twins’ offer. He wasn’t finished as a pitcher, he was sure of that. But just how much did he actually have left? Was it worth it to find out?

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Baseball had made him a nomad--he figures he moved 35 times in his first 10 years out of college--and he knew that all that movement had contributed to ending his marriage. At 31, Heimueller decided to put his glove in storage and go into coaching.

“I was getting tired of not knowing what would happen,” Heimueller said. “Every spring training I went to except a couple it was like, ‘What’s going to happen? Where am I going to go? Am I going to make the team?’ I didn’t think I was finished (as a player), but I didn’t want to play triple-A just to be playing triple-A.”

In 1987, Heimueller’s first year at Visalia, the Twins beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series and every coach in the organization, including Heimueller, got a World Series ring. Four years later, the Twins beat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series and Heimueller had his second ring.

Heimueller gave the 1987 ring to his father after Gorman Sr. suffered a stroke in the summer of ’92. The elder Heimueller--now paralyzed on the left side of his body--gets emotional when he talks about the ring he wears on the third finger of his right hand, right next to a diamond ring his own father had given him before his death.

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“I never thought that I’d be wearing a ring on that finger,” Heimueller Sr. said. “It’s an honor to have it on. Guys play baseball all their lives and never get that World Series ring.”

Said Heimueller Jr.: “None of this would have been possible without my dad. I told him, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have one ring, much less two, so you deserve to have at least one of them.’ ”

Eventually, Heimueller hopes to return to the majors as a pitching coach. He says the clearest path is to cling to a minor league manager headed upward. For four seasons, from Visalia to Portland, Heimueller has worked under manager Scott Ullger, who calls the coach his “right-hand man.”

“Gorman’s a great pitching coach,” Ullger said. “Every year that I’ve been with him, he’s molded the pitching staff into pretty much top-of-the-league pitchers. I’d like to have a shot at (managing in the big leagues) one day, and Gorman would be the guy for me. Definitely.”

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In the meantime, Heimueller is in no rush to make it back. As a pitcher, his dreams were fulfilled--he made it to the big leagues, he pitched at Anaheim Stadium--but were never as fulfilling as they should have been. Today, Heimueller has the job he never dreamed about as a kid and he couldn’t be happier.

“I feel real fortunate to be coaching,” Heimueller said. “I love coaching as much as playing. I’ve had a lot of off-season jobs that I’ve worked long enough to know that I don’t want to do that for much longer than an off-season.

“I mean, I put in a lot of hours and it is work. But I’ve never said I’m going to work baseball today. I like that word ‘play.’ ”


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