NEW BRITAIN - Not too long ago, Mike Hepple would attend New Britain Rock Cats games as a child, watching the future stars of the Minnesota Twins play, perhaps dreaming he would be part of it all someday. Now 26, the Newington High School graduate will get the opportunity to actually pitch at New Britain Stadium, this time as a member of the New Britain Bees.
“I was hoping, if I had to go the independent route, I could stay local and play with the Bees,” Hepple said. “It ended up working out and here I am.”
After being released by the New York Mets organization at the end of last season, Hepple knew almost immediately he wanted to play in New Britain, especially since he has experience in independent baseball. The right-handed pitcher played three years in the Frontier League and one year in the American Association before being picked up by the Mets, so he knows what it takes to get noticed and signed by an affiliated club. That’s why he doesn’t plan to change the way he goes about his playing career.
“You have to live in the moment,” Hepple said. “I’m going to take it day-by-day because even right now I have things that I’m trying to work on and things I’m trying to clean up. There is a goal, but I have to enjoy the process and the journey to get there. If somebody signs me out of this league, it’s out of my control. I just have to do the best with what I have to do and hope it all works out.”
Hepple spent the last three seasons in the Mets organization, making it as high as Double-A, but was released when he pitched to a 4.76 ERA between High-A and Double-A.
“Based on last season, I do have to cut down the walks,” Hepple said. “I kind of cleaned up my mechanics a little bit this offseason, as far as my direction to home plate, and kind of just repeating my delivery.”
Although getting a spot in the starting rotation was a possibility with the Bees, Hepple will come out of the bullpen, a role he is familiar with from his time in affiliated ball.
“I’m definitely more comfortable in the bullpen” Hepple said. “I’ve had more success there and I have thrived in the bullpen. That’s not to say I would say no to the opportunity to start, but I think for now Stan [Cliburn] will probably have me in the bullpen and the rest is up to him.”
Hepple’s time with the Mets may have closed, but the experience has stayed with him, as he believes his three years with the organization will have a lasting impact due to one particular coach.
“Phil Regan is the guy that comes to mind,” Hepple said. “He has been with the Mets for a while now and I had him as a pitching coach in High-A. He is just a guy that I developed a good relationship with and he tweaked my mechanics a little bit to the point where I think it went a long way.”
The Mets have become known for developing pitchers through the minor leagues, and while Hepple wasn’t there all that long, he still felt that sort of influence.
“I signed with the Mets in 2014 and I would say today I am a completely different pitcher,” Hepple said. “I have grown, my mindset as a pitcher has developed, and the experience of being in that organization and developing as a baseball player has helped me grow.”
As for how he believes his game has changed since being with the Mets, the former Newington hurler believes it starts with the environments he has pitched in.
“The first thing that stands out is that I come from a Division III school [Eastern Connecticut State] and never really pitched in front of a big crowd,” Hepple said. “So my first year with the Mets I kind of got thrown into the fire when I was pitching in Brooklyn for the Cyclones and there you are getting 5,000 to 8,000 fans a night. It’s not a culture shock, but the first time you are out there it’s like, ‘woah,’ you get a little nervous and you get butterflies. That was a big season for me because at the end of that year I remember warming up to go into a game and I wouldn’t even be nervous. The feelings kind of subside because you are doing it every night.”
Now Hepple will be pitching in front of the fans at New Britain Stadium, where no doubt a kid in the crowd with mitt in hand will be dreaming to one day be in that same position.