Junction City native Nick Heath took sort of a slow route to the major leagues, but there is nothing slow about the Kansas City Royals’ newest outfielder.
Heath toiled in relative anonymity as a Blue Jay baseballer, spent three years in college and another four years in the minor leagues.
But the 26-year-old with blazing speed made a hasty transition to the major leagues Tuesday. A member of the non-roster group working out at T-Bones Stadium, Heath was summoned to quickly gather his gear, hop a commercial flight and join the Royals in Detroit.
"When I got the call, it was probably like 11 o’clock at night, and I was playing Call of Duty with some of my friends, getting ready to go to bed," Heath said about the call he received Monday from J.J. Picollo, Royals assistant general manager. "J.J. said ‘I just want to let you know congratulations, you just got called up. They are going to need you in Detroit tomorrow.’
"I was just sitting on the phone like ‘What? What did you say? Stop playing with me! No way!’ "
The first thing Heath did was call his mother, a speedster in her own right.
Kim Kilpatrick (now Milleson), a graduate of Junction High in the mid-1980s, was so fast, in fact, that her name is a part of Blue Jay and Kansas State University history. In 1985, Kilpatrick held the state high school record in the 100-meter high hurdles, and the third-fastest time in state history in the 300-meter low hurdles. She set records at K-State and reached the second round of qualifying heats in the 100-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988.
"I called my mom about 12:45 (a.m.) and I said ‘Oh my God, I just got called up!’ " Heath said. "All she said was ‘I’m so happy for you.’ So I knew that she was asleep."
Heath said his mother showed a more appropriate amount of enthusiasm the next day. He called and texted her frequently through the day as he flew to Detroit, navigated the airport and city traffic and arrived at the stadium during batting practice.
"Growing up at the same high school that she went to, I got to hear a lot about my mom," Heath said. "When you walk down the hall, her name is plastered on a big old board. So it’s kind of cool to be walking through the halls and see that your mom kind of left a legacy.
"I wanted to do the same at baseball, but I wasn’t as good at baseball as she was at track. I flew under the radar the whole time, but it was cool to know that the community supported my mom. She was who I looked up to growing up, and people would tell me that I kind of got my ability from her."
Heath did fly under the radar in Junction City, where baseball takes a back seat to football and basketball. His name never appeared in the headlines, and he doubted his chances of playing baseball anywhere after high school.
"I played quarterback in middle school," Heath said. "I was super small, but I could run. Our team ran the ball a lot, so that’s probably why (they played me) there.
"I wanted to run track in high school, but they wouldn’t allow me to do both (track and baseball) at the same time. I wanted to play football, but I wanted to be a quarterback. I knew quarterbacks get hit quite a bit, and I was pretty small, so I just decided to stick to baseball.
"Truth be told, I didn’t really think I was going to be able to play college ball, let alone play professional baseball. I came onto the recruiting process kind of late."
Heath’s options appeared to be limited to Coffeyville and Hutchinson community colleges. Coffeyville head coach Andy Morgan saw Heath at a baseball practice facility in Junction City, one of the few breaks Heath seemed to get in high school.
"He liked what he saw in me, and we kept in contact," Heath said. "So when he got the assistant coach job at Northwestern State, he called me and said that they had an opening in the outfield there. He said if I was willing to leave home and come to Louisiana, they had a spot. I looked at my mom and said ‘I’ll see you guys later!’ "
Heath excelled at Northwestern State, convincing the Royals to invest a 16th-round draft choice on him. He has since established himself as one of the most dangerous base runners in the game, swiping 160 bases over four minor-league seasons.
"He's got a gift. He's got that first-step quickness and then the overall speed to come in and be a huge threat," Royals manager Mike Matheny said when Heath was called up.
Matheny recognized the significant obstacles Heath overcame to reach the majors.
"The day you decide to be a professional player, whether it's in the first round or you're a free agent it doesn't matter," Matheny said. "It's hard to get here. It’s great to have Nick (join the Royals), and he brings a very unique skill set to this team that I believe is going to help us win games."
Heath hopes he can carve out a spot in the major leagues as a well-rounded outfielder. But he recognizes it’s his speed that got him there and he’s ready to use it as a late-inning pinch runner, if that’s what the Royals need.
"In the back of my mind, I believe I’m the fastest player in baseball," said the exuberant Heath, grinning widely. "But probably not. There’s probably some people I’ve got to have a foot race with.
"Being here in the first place is just a blessing. The whole experience has been a dream come true. Wherever they need me to play and whatever they need me to do, I want to do it."