Every year for the last 20 years, Jack Heidemann has kept up a tradition of doing something his mind and body tells him he still can do, even if he knows it's not quite on the same level as it used to be.
That doesn't stop him, however, from dusting off his glove, donning a Cleveland Indians uniform - one that seems to fit just a bit tighter each year than it did the year before - and returning to shortstop, a position he played during his eight years as a Major League Baseball player from 1969 to 1977.
Last week, Heidemann, who lives in Mesa, was among about 40 former Major Leaguers who returned to Scottsdale Stadium to participate in the 20th Annual Molina Fine Jewelers/Arizona Baseball Charities Celebrity Game that benefits Little League teams from around the state and features numerous former Major Leaguers, many of whom live in the East Valley.
"What keeps me coming back to play in this game?" Heidemann, 62, asked himself, leaning on the dugout railing. "I like the camaraderie and seeing guys I haven't seen for a while. It's fun, for a good cause and I like to do it."
In between innings of the game - the National League won 3-1 despite the superb pitching of former Oakland A's ace Bob Welch - former Major Leaguer Buddy Schultz, the executive director of Arizona Baseball Charities, gave $27,000 to 36 Little Leagues, including $1,300 to Mesa's Westwood Little League. Arizona Baseball Charities raises the money through its annual golf tournament, sports memorabilia auction and concessions at the game. The grand prize of $5,000 was won by Alhambra Little League in Phoenix's Maryvale neighborhood. Alhambra Little League will use the money for equipment and scholarships to help provide scholarships to young players whose families could not afford to register their kids to play otherwise.
Heidemann, who has been a realtor in the Valley for the last 32 years and travels with members of Arizona's Major League Alumni Association to conduct baseball clinics around the state, was the Indians' No. 1 draft pick in 1967 when he was 17 years old and fresh out of Brenham High School in Brenham, Texas - home of Blue Bell Ice Cream and the former Brenham Cotton Mill.
"Before I played baseball, I hadn't been to that many places, ever," Heidemann said. "Most of my time was spent in Brenham."
Heidemann first made $500 a month playing for the Indians' Class A Minor League team in Rockhill, S.C., and when he arrived at Tucson's Hi Corbett Field for spring training in 1969, he earned $10,900 a year - then the league minimum annual salary, but still a pretty good sum.
"I got the opportunity," Heidemann said of playing Major League baseball. "I was a higher-round draft choice and Cleveland didn't have that good of a team at the time."
During Heidemann's stint with the Indians from 1969 to 1974, the team never finished higher than fourth place, and didn't draw a lot of fans.
Playing in cold and cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the early 1970s, Heidemann was part of the Indians' famed "Keystone Combo" with second baseman Eddie Leon, a Tucson resident who used to regularly participate in the Arizona Baseball Charities game, although he hasn't since 2008.
"We had a great nucleus, but we had no pitching outside of Gaylord Perry and Sam McDowell," Heidemann said of his playing days.
Heidemann later played for the St. Louis Cardinals (where he was famous for his mutton-chop sideburns), the New York Mets and lastly, the Milwaukee Brewers.
His highest salary was $32,000 in 1976 and '77, his last two years in the majors.
"To me, that was a lot of money back then," Heidemann said. "When you talked about big contracts, that was like $100,000 a year. Today, the league minimum salary is $480,000. Making nearly a half million dollars a year to start? That's unreal. That's a far cry from the game we loved to play and enjoyed."
In addition to Welch - who won 27 games in 1990 - other former players who participated in the game included Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, slugger Dave Kingman and speedster Tony Phillips.
As players, many of those in the game were not household names and nearly all of them worked in other professions when their playing days ended. Former Major League pitcher Kevin Kobel is a retired Phoenix firefighter, former Chicago Cubs catcher Ken Rudolph now is the baseball coach at Arcadia High School and Kory DeHann of Chandler who played outfield for the San Diego Padres, is getting his second breath of baseball while serving as a coach in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.
The game, attended by about 8,000 fans, was about other heroes, too.
Arizona Baseball Charities raised nearly $8,000 from a $10-a-ticket raffle for a chance to win an Arizona Cardinals football jersey autographed by Pat Tillman.
David Berkowitz - a board member of Arizona Baseball Charities Board of Directors - won the jersey. Berkowitz denoted on his ticket that if he won it, the prize should be given to a member of Tucson's Challenger Little League, believed to be the largest Little League for disabled and special needs children in the United States.
The lucky winner of the jersey was Zachary Hartzje, 18, a shortstop.
When Hartzje was asked if he knew who Pat Tillman was, he said, "He was a hero. It's a very good honor to win the jersey."
Hartzje later was approached by other people who wanted to buy the jersey from him - for as much as $1,000 - a sum he turned down.
"I'll probably hang it in my room," Hartzje said.
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