By Gerry Fall, Santa Barbara News-Press Sports Editor
It was the early spring of 2010.
Dylan Hecht went home with his head down, saddled with the bad news that he did not earn the starting job as catcher for the JV baseball team at Foothill High in Pleasanton. His shoulder to cry on belonged to the man who had always been there for him in the past, his father.
"I came in and I was kind of whining and moaning to my dad ... and he said, 'Do you want to be a major leaguer?' And I said, 'Well, yeah.' And he goes, 'If Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals All-Star catcher) is behind the dish, is he going to be starting?' And I go, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, then you didn't earn it.'"
His father's message then went from the baseball diamond to the playing field of life.
"He said if you go through life and make everything close, especially in baseball, if you give the coach the decision about who starts, then even if you do start, you're probably not that good," Hecht said. "The way he put it was, 'You have to be so good, that even if the coaches don't like you, they have to play you.' I took that to heart, and ever since then I've used that as my motivation."
Tragically, it was the final great piece of wisdom father gave to the son. Dylan's dad, Bill, passed away the next day.
"Every day I think about him, and every day I think about that quote," Hecht said. "I learned so much from him. He was such a great guy. I will always be pitching for him and I know he's always going to be helping me."
Heeding his father's advice, UCSB's sophomore right-hander made things a tad bit difficult on his coach, Andrew Checketts, by following his dream of being a starter. Hecht had a different job last season. He was the Gauchos' closer, where he complied nine saves, including a Big West Conference-best seven to help lead the team to its first NCAA Regional appearance in 13 years.
"A freshman that saved nine games is a big deal. It's a really big deal," Checketts said. "There's some uneasiness about pulling him out of that spot that he did such a good job in last year ... because the closing role is so huge. But Dylan has forced our hand."
Which is why he will think of his father's final words every time he toes the rubber as UCSB's starting pitcher today in its season opener against Cal State Bakersfield at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium at 2 p.m.
"I don't know if proud is the right word, I'm just happy to be getting the opportunity to go out there," said Hecht, who posted a 1.83 ERA in 341/3 innings last season with a fastball that topped out at 98 mph. "It's not like I've shown anything yet. You get your chance now, and (today) is the real test as to what you can do. My plan is to show everybody what I can do, and go out and win."
That plan has been in motion since the fall, when Hecht made it clear to Checketts what he wanted his new role to be. All he asked of the Gauchos' third-year bench boss was for a chance, which he got.
"I talked to him after the fall and I said, 'If you're not the best guy, or one of the two best guys, I'm not starting you. I'm not starting you on Tuesday, I'm not starting you on Sunday,'" Checketts said. "But he's forced our hand at this point and pitched well enough to be the best guy up to this point.
"I'm proud of him from that standpoint, and all the work he's put in, and all the things he had to change and adjust and learn from being a closer. He's gotten better at all of those things. He's worked hard and had to overcome a lot in his life. I'm proud of him."
So are his teammates.
"His desire is one of those things that can't be overlooked in an athlete, or any person with that kind of character that says, 'I want this, and I'm going to go get it,'" senior outfielder Joey Epperson said. "I want the best for him, I want him to be able to do what he needs to do. He has the kind of mindset that successful people have. I'm really, really proud of him."
Following the death of his father, Hecht went from being a catcher to a pitcher during his final two seasons in high school. His former Foothill coach Angelo Scavone remembers the difficult time in his player's life, and how determined he was to make his father proud.
"Dylan's always been internally driven, even before his dad died ... but I think this took him to the next level," Scavone said. "He's always had a passion for baseball, and I'm really proud of him."
As a closer last season, Hecht faced a number of pressure situations with the game on the line, as most ninth-inning specialists do. As for what he's faced in life at an early age, he'll always have his father's guidance, as well as the rest of his family, to get him through what real adversity is all about.
"Baseball is a lot like life, and life's going to hit everybody hard," Hecht said. "Everybody has a story and everybody has adversity, and it's whether you can get back up and fight, or if you let it hold you down.
"My goal has always been to be a major league Hall of Famer, and I'm not going to stop until I get there. Whatever happens, happens, but you have to focus on Day 1, and Day 1 is today."