Like many an Alaskan, Riley Heinzer and Josh Miller dropped it all in a minute’s notice to beat it north in search of a better opportunity.
Some staked their claim to gold. Others to an oil patch. Heinzer and Miller have staked out regular spots in the lineup for the Peninsula Oilers of the Alaska Baseball League, one of the top summer collegiate circuits in the country.
Because of its cachet, the ABL is able to draw some of the country’s top college players — or at least commitments from the country’s top college players.
A commitment in the middle of winter doesn’t necessarily mean the player will show up come green-up.
“There’s a lot of times you think, ‘We’ve got this great guy. It’s going to be awesome,’ and all of a sudden he’s not here,” Oilers head coach John Stevens said. “You have to fill that spot with a player that may appear to be far less talented.
“We’re lucky we ran into Riley and Josh. They’re not as well-known. They’re not as good as what we thought we would get, but they’re pretty damn close and they just haven’t had a chance to prove it yet.”
Miller hit .335 for Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., last season as a sophomore, leading the team in hits. As a freshman, he hit just .202. He will play for the University of San Francisco next season.
Heinzer will be a redshirt senior at St. Mary’s College of California. At St. Mary’s, he hit .167 in 2012, .207 in 2011 and .207 in 2010.
Through Friday, both had appeared in 20 of 21 league games for the Oilers. Heinzer is hitting .278 with six doubles and nine RBI. Miller is at .250 with five doubles and 10 RBI.
When both got the call to come to Alaska, neither had the top prospect’s luxury of hemming and hawing. Neither was guaranteed a roster spot for the whole season, but neither took more than a day to decide to fly north.
The cerebral catcher
It was June 10, just after midnight and a day before the Oilers home opener, when Heinzer’s cellphone rang in Shingle Springs, Calif.
Heinzer did not answer at first. He had just graduated from St. Mary’s with a degree in business. He had tried to get on a summer team, but hadn’t found any takers.
His plan was to spend his summer working out at the gym, hitting at the batting cage and studying for the GMAT so he could pursue his MBA at St. Mary’s, where he wasn’t on athletic scholarship.
Heinzer finally looked at the phone and saw it was Jordan Mills, a teammate at St. Mary’s.
Mills is also from Shingle Springs. Heinzer and Mills share the birthday of May 11. Heinzer figured he’d better answer.
“You on a summer team right now?”
“No, I’m just hanging out.”
“We need a catcher desperately. I talked to our coaches and GM. Get up here as soon as you can.”
Heinzer was shocked. He said he had to talk to his parents, Jerry and Trish Heinzer, first.
Heinzer talked to Stevens on June 10. He didn’t want to go to Alaska and spend time away from his friends and girlfriend if he’d only be there for a few weeks and wouldn’t play.
Stevens promised Heinzer steady playing time until the start of July. Play well, and Heinzer could stay. Struggle, and Heinzer would probably be headed home.
Heinzer decided to go for it. He could take a plane out of Sacramento at 6 a.m. or 11 a.m. June 11. The early flight meant Heinzer could make the opener.
“I picked the one at 6,” Heinzer said. “Flying into Anchorage, I was blown away by the mountains. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in Alaska.’”
A short plane and car ride later, and Heinzer was at Coral Seymour Memorial Park. The Oilers were already taking batting practice.
Heinzer ended up playing catcher in the opener, with Mills throwing five innings and getting the win. Heinzer would catch the first 12 games, not getting a day off.
When Heinzer finally did get a “day off,” he entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning only to see the game stretch to 21 innings and set an Alaska Baseball League record.
“On my day off, I ended up catching more than the starting catcher,” he said.
He said stretching, ice and good times with roommate John Straka and host parents Mya and Aaron Renken helped get him through.
And Heinzer did more than get through. He surprised Stevens with his hitting.
“He hadn’t swung the bat at St. Mary’s, but then again he hadn’t been given the opportunity to do it every day,” Stevens said.
Stevens said sometimes in college ball, players get stuck behind players and never get a chance.
When Stevens went to junior college, three of the catchers got drafted in the first five rounds. Only the fifth-round draft pick made the majors.
“Being one of the older guys on the team, I have a good plan at the plate and that’s one of the most important things in hitting,” Heinzer said.
He said he understands that baseball is a game of failure. He said he doesn’t look at stats, but just concentrates on taking the right approach at the plate.
“It hasn’t surprised me,” Mills said. “I know he hasn’t gotten the opportunity to excel as a hitter at our college. He just hasn’t gotten the consistent chances.”
Stevens said Heinzer also doesn’t have a lot of pressure at the plate. Stevens told Heinzer he wanted a good catcher, and he wasn’t as concerned about the offense.
Oilers pitchers rave about Heinzer.
“The way he calls the game is genius,” Mills said. “He’s able to pick up on a batter’s weakness the first time through the order.
“Last year, I pitched to him quite a few times and I liked doing it a lot.”
Genius is a term often misapplied in sports, but Mills may have a point. Heinzer has continued studying for the GMAT, and will take the test July 11 in Anchorage before the Oilers’ 6 p.m. game with the Chugiak Chinooks.
“Most baseball players don’t have much work experience because they are playing all summer,” Heinzer said. “When you get out of school, it’s competitive and the other guys have internships.
“I thought the MBA would be a way to separate myself from other people going into the workforce.”
He can also tell potential employers he can travel and perform on a minute’s notice.
Not just Mike’s younger brother
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. Heinzer got the call just after midnight and was on a plane at 6 a.m. the next day.
A glacial pace, compared to Miller. He got the call at 11 p.m. June 9. With the help of his parents, Dave and Kathy Miller of Concord, Calif., Miller on a plane to Alaska at 6 a.m. June 10.
It’s no surprise that Miller needed no convincing, not after what Stevens and the Peninsula Oilers helped his brother, Mike, accomplish.
The Mike Miller story in a nutshell — as a freshman in high school he weighed 88 pounds, after his junior year in college he was named the most valuable player in the Alaska Baseball League.
Mike Miller played for the Oilers in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, he was solid but not spectacular, hitting .250.
In 2011, under the hitting tutelage of Stevens, Miller hit .364. He kept working with Stevens and hit .354 for Cal Poly this season and earned first-team All-Big West Conference honors as a shortstop.
He was selected in the ninth round of the draft by the Boston Red Sox.
“Mike has really credited him with a lot of his success,” Josh said of Stevens. “He’s said he wouldn’t be where he is without him.”
Last fall, Josh started tagging along with Mike when Mike went to hit with Stevens.
“When I first started working with him last fall, he wasn’t in my plans at all for this summer,” Stevens said. “But he kept working at it.”
Stevens said he saw Josh, who is being hosted by James Clark and Brandi Heath, play a few times for Cuesta this season. He liked his progress, but he still wasn’t sure Josh belonged in the ABL this year.
“I kept getting pressed by Mike to take a closer look at Josh,” Stevens said. “Later, I saw he’d made a lot of improvement.
“I knew I’d be comfortable bringing him up here.”
At that time, the Oilers had a full roster, though. Stevens wasn’t about to throw a proven player off the roster for Josh.
Josh had actually already started playing for another summer team in California when a roster spot opened up for the Oilers. He jumped on it.
Stevens wasn’t sure Miller would stay for more than a few weeks. He couldn’t even assure Miller he would ever play his normal position — shortstop.
Stevens was right about not playing shortstop. Thus far, Miller has played left field, third base and second base. But Miller will be here for the entire season.
“I wasn’t sure about his hitting,” Stevens said. “It’s been a pleasant surprise. I knew he’d do well in the field, but I wasn’t sure how well he would hit.”
Miller said he has done well due to the support of Stevens and Oilers teammates.
“Getting to hit every day with John has taught me more than what he had already been teaching me,” Miller said. “Then having some success helped me build up my confidence.”
As for the defense, Miller had a few misadventures in left field, but he took them with a dose of good humor that Stevens appreciates.
“He would see an outfielder making a tough play that only an experienced outfielder would make, and he’d say, ‘I could have made that play,’” Stevens said.
Miller, who at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, is the tallest in his family, said playing all the different positions can only help him in the long run. His coaches at San Francisco are excited by the progress he’s made at the plate and the experience he is gaining in the field.
The ABL has always been a proving ground and potential springboard to success in college and professional ball. Stevens said he hopes Heinzer and Miller are two more success stories.
“They’re both proving they can play at a level they’ve never played at before,” Stevens said. “Hopefully, Riley can go back to St. Mary’s and get a chance to start, and Josh will get looked at a lot more at San Francisco.”