MISSOULA — Missoula native Codi Heuer has kept a piece of Montana with him during his climb to Major League Baseball.
Off the field, the rookie's jeans and boots have been a staple at stops from Wichita, Kansas, to Birmingham, Alabama, and now to the big city with the Chicago White Sox. It’s who Heuer is, and he won’t change, even if those boots sometimes draw a weird look or a good-natured ribbing.
More than the physical connection to Montana is the mental. Heuer keeps the mentality he began developing in the state where fortitude is forged in the long winters, patience is necessary for him in hunting and fishing, and the opportunities to become a pro athlete aren’t as accessible as in more populous cities and states, requiring an increased dedication.
“I’ve always got that Montana mindset,” Heuer said from his apartment in Chicago on Friday while taking a break from PGA Tour 2K21.
Heuer, 24, turned his MLB dreams into a reality when he made his debut with the White Sox last month. He's the second Missoula native to make the majors and currently is the lone Montanan in the majors.
Heuer’s path featured a quick rise through the minors after he played high school baseball in Colorado, pitched at Wichita State and was drafted in the sixth round in 2018. That road began in Missoula, where he started developing his love of the diamond.
“He’s really proud of his Montana roots,” Codi’s father, Brian Heuer, said from his home in Colorado. “That’s where his love affair started with baseball. He wouldn’t be where he is without that.”
‘That’s unheard of’
When Codi debuted July 24 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, he mowed down three batters from the Minnesota Twins, the team most of his family roots for because of his father’s familial connection to the state.
Codi, a Boston Red Sox fan as a kid, initially loved football. He was a quarterback in Little Grizzly Football and dreamed of playing for the Griz.
“He was always talking about being an NFL quarterback,” said Jackson King, Codi's childhood best friend since kindergarten who played Little League baseball and Missoula Thunder basketball with Codi. “He was a stud. An all-round athlete. He could have done whatever he wanted to.”
Codi didn’t come from a family of athletes, but his passion for sports was nurtured by his parents, who attended games in the cold while wearing ski jackets or sleeping bags and took Codi to Missoula Osprey games, where he had his 10th birthday party. Neither of them played sports at Big Sky, where the high school sweethearts met before going to the University of Montana.
“We don’t know where he gets his athletic abilities from. It’s definitely not from his mom,” Codi’s mother, Beth Heuer, said with a laugh. His family and extended family do have the height factor, so Codi’s 6-foot-5 frame isn't too out of the ordinary.
“Sports were something that came to me without really having to try,” said Codi, who played in the backyard with his father, on teams with his friends and did post-practice pitching with his father.
He joined T-ball at 6 years old and moved to the minor level of Southside Little League baseball when he was 8, playing for coach Rob Henthorn, now the Hellgate girls basketball coach. With quick success, Codi jumped to the major level at 9, playing against kids as old as 12.
“That’s unheard of,” said Max Cannon, an assistant coach on Codi’s 2006 Little League all-star team and the Umpire in Chief of the Mount Sentinel Little League. “He was a 10-year-old boy with the body and mind of a teenage player. He had tremendous focus on the mound and was deliberate.”
Codi was a key member of that 2006 team, which made it to the state championship game when he was 10. He threw a five-inning no-hitter and hit a grand slam in the same game during the run to winning the district tournament title.
“He won that game on his own,” said Lawrence King, the head coach of the 2006 all-star team. “He was always serious and focused on the field. He was a good athlete and probably one of our better pitchers, even at the 10-year age group going against 12-year-old kids.”
But to take his game to another level, Codi had to leave Montana.
“You never know where I might have been if I grew up somewhere else,” he said. “Montana was great for me.”
‘The whole package’
Codi’s parents had been to his debut at every level of baseball until he pitched his first MLB outing. Brian Heuer pleaded with the Sox to let them into the ballpark, but the COVID-19 pandemic kept out fans.
Codi’s parents have had the freedom to attend many games over the years because they are self-employed. The move to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2009 was partly for the business opportunity but also because it meant Codi, then in seventh grade, could play high school baseball.
Montana doesn’t offer high school baseball, and American Legion baseball wouldn’t offer as many games, as much top competition and as many opportunities.
The move expanded his horizons and opportunities beyond high school.
“That was definitely a big plus when we moved to Colorado about the exposure because it’s tough for baseball players in cold weather states to get scouted,” Heuer said. “Nothing against Legion ball, but high school ball is a better platform.”
Before their family moved to Colorado, Codi spent previous summers there playing travel ball after Montana's Little League season ended. He was one of the tallest kids and hardest throwers, so opposing coaches and parents — who were much more “cutthroat” than in Montana, Beth Heuer said — asked to see his birth certificate to prove his age.
“The go-to line was, ‘He’s an apple farmer from Montana. He grew up there throwing apples,’” Brian Heuer said of the usual joke response.
Heuer continued throwing those apple bombs on the football field as a freshman at Fossil Ridge High School. After that, he focused on baseball.
“I was playing a bunch of sports, and they were overlapping, and my body didn’t feel as good as I thought it could just because it was a lot,” he said. “I decided to pick one and I picked baseball. I’d say I was right in terms of a lot of things, like longevity of career. I couldn’t really tell you why in the moment, but it worked out.”
Codi absorbed all he could from Fossil Ridge coach Mark Findley. He’d sit or stand next to Findley in the dugout, talking with him about pitch selection, accepting and shaking off signs, and more.
“He had an inquisitive mind,” Findley said. “He took criticism to heart. He was very calm, sedate and has a good baseball mind.”
Findley had Codi focus on pitching his junior year and stop playing shortstop too. Along with a growth spurt before his senior year, Codi was quickly dissecting batters during games despite limited scouting reports and struck out a school-record 17 batters in a 2-0 win.
“He had the whole package,” Findley said of Heuer, who held a 4.0 grade-point average throughout high school.
“He had the demeanor and tools on the mound. He had no ego. He had no pretense about how great he was. I felt like I had to talk him into the fact that he was actually a good player.”
Codi’s fastball has the jump to match his rise to the majors just two years after being drafted, routinely hitting 99 mph with movement.
He long had some power on the mound. He needed someone to help him harness it while becoming mentally stronger.
Enter Mike Steele, Wichita State’s pitching coach in Codi’s final two seasons and now a minor league pitching coach in the Cleveland Indians organization. He’s the one Codi credits the most with his success.
“I really got into the mental side of baseball and controlling what you can control,” Heuer said. “It really took my game to the next level mentality wise. With that comes confidence, and with experience comes confidence.”
Steele's initial impression of Heuer — with a fastball between 89-91 mph, a decent changeup and a breaking ball that needed work — was one of an animal that could be found in parts of western Montana.
“He had long arms, slender body, like a big baby moose who didn’t know what to do with himself,” Steele said of Codi, who’s now listed at 6-5, 190 pounds.
While others had built up Codi and told him how great he was, Steele had to break him down. He threw Codi into the fire of mentally challenging situations. Their work helped Codi become even more of the quietly confident pitcher he now sees himself as.
“I try to stay pretty poised and emotionless on the mound,” Codi said. “I like to stay on the attack, and I don’t like to be afraid of any hitter. I want to be fearless on the mound no matter who’s in the box.”
Steele helped Codi coordinate his full body movement even more to make a smoother delivery, and they worked on sharpening pitches. Codi took it upon himself to dedicate even more time in the weight room and his nutrition.
His fastball jumped up to 97 mph, and he put together his best statistical season his final year in college.
“He went from a being a kid who was pretending to be cool into a man who went and worked and wasn’t a slave to results,” Steele said. “I saw a maturity build in him.”
Todd Butler, who was Wichita State’s manager when Codi played there, saw that too.
“You can trust him on the mound,” Butler said. “That’s a big thing in being a big leaguer.”
Codi has mainly pitched in the final three innings of games this year as he tries to cement himself as a back-of-the bullpen pitcher.
The pressure of a trying to seal a victory is something Codi has enjoyed, but it wasn’t always the plan. He was drafted as a starting pitcher and started for the Great Falls Voyagers in the minors after spending his final year at Wichita State as the Friday night starter.
“I like the adrenaline coming out of the gate to finish the game off for your team and to dap your catcher up after the game,” Codi said. “Just the ring of the bullpen phone, ‘Hey, your name is called, go get ready, go shut it down for your team.’ I like that better than the buildup, the four days in between your starts.”
The Pioneer League where Heuer started could be nixed, which raises the question of whether he would’ve had this chance if there were fewer minor league spots. His former coaches' consensus is he was drafted so high and threw 100 mph that someone would've taken a chance.
“In terms of changing my odds, you never really know,” Codi said. “A lot of things can happen. You just need a little luck, and you just got to outlast people. That’s a big part in the minor league is you just got to stay healthy and outlast people.”
Codi combined his hard work with some of that luck. In high school, he was in Kansas for a travel baseball game and went to a baseball camp at Wichita State on the way home. When he played for WSU, a scout from the Sox took notice of him while scouting some of his teammates.
While it appears the Sox may have fast tracked Codi to the majors after 105.2 innings, the expanded rosters this year may have been why he got a shot. He’s held his own, earning one win and one save while limiting opponents to three runs on six hits in nine innings while striking out nine and walking two.
Codi’s goal is to be a back-end-of-the-bullpen pitcher and potentially a closer someday. Steele feels he needs to improve his slider to go with his fastball and changeup to make that a possibility.
Whether Codi has the physical and mentality abilities to be a closer in the most pressure-packed situations only comes with time in the majors. There’s one thing his former coaches know: he’s not afraid of putting in the work.
“He’s earned every bit of becoming a big leaguer with his tremendous work ethic,” Butler said. “He’s a fierce competitor, and his makeup is off the chart. His composure was excellent on the mound.
“When the game started, he had no emotion, his facial expressions never changed. He’s very confident in who he is. Other than having a great body or great arm, him knowing who he is and what his goals are, I think that’s helped him advance as fast as he has.”
When Codi takes the mound, the TV broadcast can show any number of facts or stats about him, but there's one that stands out: he's the only current MLB player from Montana.
“I have a lot of pride in where I grew up,” Codi said. “I want kids to see that. I want them to think that they can do the same thing. I think that’s really cool. Since I am the only active player as of now, I’ve got to represent for our state.”
The Sox had Miles City pitcher Caleb Frare on their roster last year. They do have an athletic trainer from Culbertson in Brett Walker, but Heuer is now the lone player carrying the torch for Montana across all of the majors — and at least some of the state is noticing.
“He doesn't seem nervous out there and sometimes acts like it’s no big deal," Brian Heuer said. "He says, ‘Oh, I just pitched one inning,’ and I’m like, ‘You don’t understand, it’s a big deal to us. People we haven’t heard from in years are emailing and calling us saying congratulations. It’s cool how Missoula has gotten behind him.”
Heuer hopes to one day return to Missoula, raise a family here and retire in the Garden City. Right now, he's working on sticking in the majors, where he may one day pitch in a sold-out ballpark that holds about half the population of the small town where Codi got his start.
“This guy has made himself who he is,” Steele said, “This is a Montana guy. This is a self-sufficient, go-out-and-grind-it-out-and-put-some-boots-on-and-go-get-it-done guy. People in Montana should be very proud of this kid.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.