By: Brian Frank
Western New York native Jonah Heim has established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball as he helps lead the Texas Rangers into the American League Championship Series to face the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros. The 28-year-old slashed .258/.317/.438 with 18 home runs and 95 RBIs this season, while throwing out 29% of runners attempting to steal. He was voted into the All-Star game this summer as the American League’s starting catcher.
“It was amazing,” Heim said of playing in the mid-summer classic in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “It’s kind of everything you worked for coming to fruition. Being voted in by the fans means so much to me. It’s pretty special.”
During batting practice at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Heim grew up playing on the ballfields of Western New York. He was raised in the Town of Tonawanda, before his family moved to Amherst, where he starred as a catcher for the Amherst High School baseball team from 2011 to 2013.
He’s always been a catcher, going back to when he was playing little league.
“I don’t know why but I was always drawn to the gear and thought it looked cool,” he recalled. “Yeah, I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
One of his earliest baseball memories is traveling to Atlanta with his family to attend a Braves game.
“My great grandma was a big Braves fan,” he explained. “We drove to Atlanta to watch the Braves and Yankees play. I must have been two or three at the time and I remember going and being in that atmosphere and I thought it was pretty cool.”
He also remembers going downtown often when he was young to watch the Bisons in action.
“Absolutely,” he said. “When we weren’t on the road with travel baseball, it was go and catch a game. Just going and enjoying baseball.”
“They had a great stadium and I thought it would be pretty cool to play there one day,” he added. “I actually never got the chance to play there in high school and growing up, so going back there and playing against the Blue Jays was the first time I ever played there.”
Catching in downtown Buffalo. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Heim’s opportunity to finally play at Sahlen Field came during his rookie season with the Texas Rangers. After making his big-league debut and playing in 13 games for the Oakland A’s during the truncated 2020 season, he was traded to Texas during the offseason. The Blue Jays called Buffalo their temporary home due to the U.S.-Canada border being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Heim was finally able to play in front of his family and friends at the stadium where he used to cheer on the Bisons when the Rangers came to the Queen City for a three-game series.
Having grown up dreaming of playing in the big leagues, Heim said he could never have imagined playing in a major-league game in Buffalo.
“Honestly, there was never even a thought of it because the only way that could happen is if somehow Buffalo got a big-league team in expansion,” he said. “Obviously, the circumstances leading up to it weren’t ideal – we were going through some stuff – but it was a pretty cool experience and probably will never happen again. It was pretty remarkable.”
“I always thought that if I got drafted and played there in Triple-A, then I’d get to play in front of my family and friends,” he added. “But never in a million years did I expect to play in a big-league game there. It was pretty special – and I can’t even count how many people were there to see me. It was pretty amazing and it really brought everything full circle for me.”
Heim said he didn’t feel nervous leading up to the series.
“At the end of the day it’s still a game and you’ve still got to enjoy it,” he said. “I leaned into it and had as much fun as I could with it.”
After a pre-series zoom press conference, in which he described the joys of a Jim’s Steak Out chicken finger sub to the Texas media, Heim started at catcher in the first game of the series.
After striking out and grounding out in his first two at-bats against Robbie Ray, who went on to lead the league in ERA and strikeouts and win that season’s Cy Young Award, Heim led off the seventh inning against Toronto’s ace. He lined a 2-and-2 pitch into right-centerfield for a single, as the crowd erupted for the hometown hero.
“Nothing like that ever happened to me, so it was pretty weird honestly,” he remembered. “A standing ovation on the road is special. Obviously, that community is a big sports town, so they understand the gravity of the situation. It was pretty special and something I’ll always remember.”
Heim in the Sahlen Field bullpen. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He also started the final game of the series, the second game of a doubleheader, and lined a single off lefty starter Steven Matz, receiving another loud ovation from the crowd. In fact, no matter what the young catcher did during the series, whether it was getting a base hit, or something as routine as taking batting practice or walking out of the bullpen with the starting pitcher – he received an ovation from the hometown crowd.
“I didn’t really expect that much from the fans,” he said. “Pretty much my entire family was there, so I knew I was going to hear from them, but when other people started adding to it – that made it pretty special.”
Heim returns to Western New York as often as he can during the offseason to visit family and friends. He’s also still a big fan of Buffalo sports.
“I’m a huge Bills fan,” he said emphatically. “And when we go back, I always have to take the kids to a Sabres game because hockey’s one of my favorite sports. I’ve got to make sure that they keep the tradition alive.”
A testament as to how he still feels about Western New York is visible on his left arm – where he has a tattoo of the Buffalo skyline.
“Born and raised there,” he smiled, “so I’ve got to pay homage to the place that I call home.”