His baseball career has taken him from Danville to Rome to Lynchburg. This winter, it took him south of the border to Panama.
Now he’s hoping it takes him, eventually, to the Major Leagues.
He’s had ups and downs — he’ll point you to his fluctuating stats — but Gainesville grad Robby Hefflinger is no less determined to pursue his dream entering his fourth season in the Atlanta Braves minor league system.
His progress throughout the past year has been a sign in the right direction.
“My main focus is to get to the big leagues,” he said by phone from minor league spring training in Orlando, Fla. “So my main focus is to do what I can control, and do my best, and the pieces will eventually fall into place.”
That’s why the former Gainesville and Georgia Gwinnett College star was fine-tuning his Spanish language skills in Central America throughout the winter months, playing with ex-big leaguers like former New York Yankees pitcher Ramiro Mendoza, and fighting off 98-101 mph pitches from Dominican fireballers.
“Playing winter ball helped; I’m not as rusty,” Hefflinger said. “Instead of being in the cage, I was playing a game, now I’m more prepared.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound outfielder did well in Panama, continuing a trend of success that started last season in Single A Rome, which is where he returned to for a second stint after struggling in High-A Lynchburg to start the 2012 season.
Back with the Rome Braves, he hit .284 with 12 home runs and 58 RBIs in 84 games.
This spring, he’s training with players from the Double A Mississippi Braves, a possible, and positive, destination for Hefflinger if his recent surge can continue.
“He did really good at Rome last year — something clicked,” said current Flowery Branch assistant coach Nathan O’Hanlon, formerly a Gainesville coach who remains in close contact with Hefflinger. “He began thinking more as a pro guy, less hardheaded. I think he’s learning how to sit on certain counts, and he reaped the rewards of that last year.”
Heading down south for more baseball for the first time was one of a few changes the now 23-year-old has made entering another minor league spring training. He’s no longer a wide-eyed rookie, and at this stage he’s learned how best to do things, and how best to be ready for the season in April.
“It’s kind of like being in high school, you know everybody now, you know what to expect,” he said. “I know now what to do to prepare myself, I know now how to get myself ready for the season, I know what kind of shape I have to be in.
“My first spring training I was kind of unsure.”
Unsure, yes, but O’Hanlon said he could never imagine the former Gainesville slugger contemplating giving up, even after the tough start last season in Lynchburg, or the early years in Rome.
Hefflinger has already been through bigger struggles.
“He’s gone through a lot in his life,” his former coach said. “The passing of his mother his senior year matured him a lot. And he’s progressed so much from a mental standpoint.”
Hefflinger was born in Buford and now lives in Flowery Branch, but he transferred to Gainesville for his sophomore season, where he played third base and pitched for the Red Elephants. As senior in 2008, he hit .476 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs and was a Times All-Area first-team selection, All-Region and All-State selection, while helping lead the Red Elephants to a Region 7-AAA title in 2007 and region runner-up in 2008.
His former coach, current Gainesville athletic director Wayne Vickery, still keeps up with his star player’s progress, and was quick to note his makeup.
“A great kid, worked hard, worked for everything he has,” Vickery said. “He comes in early, leaves late, always wants someone to throw batting practices for him.”
The hard work paid off.
He went to Georgia Perimeter College, and hit .324 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs as a freshman outfielder, and went 7-0 on the mound with three saves, five complete games, 60 strikeouts and a 2.68 ERA in 14 appearances and eight starts.
The standout year of college got him noticed, and the Atlanta Braves selected him in the seventh round and shipped him to rookie league ball in Danville in 2009 at 19 years old.
Four years later, he’s far from the rookie he was.
Instead of just trying to hit the fastballs, he’s more discerning at the plate.
“In Lynchburg the guys don’t give in to you being in a hitter’s count; you’ll see a 3-1 or 3-2 curve ball, so I had to make adjustments,” Hefflinger said. “I know if I stick to my approach I can make the adjustments better.”
He added that in Rome, one of his biggest assets is not the hitting but the pitching coach, Derek Willis, who has helped him with his hitting.
“He knows what pitchers have,” he said. “So in between innings, we’ll talk.”
Hefflinger said sinkerballers still give him the most trouble, especially when they throw it in on him, a part of the strike zone he still has some trouble with.
Another challenge the Flowery Branch resident has had to work on mastering over the years is simply getting used to the daily grind of the season, to playing around 140 games instead of 40 or 50 in college and around 30 in high school.
“Every year he’s had to endure the long season. In the bus for so many trips, it wears on your body,” O’Hanlon said. “But I think he’s got the hang of it.”
That’s the key for Hefflinger for the 2013 season: Getting the hang of it.
Playing winter ball for the first time has only helped with that. He’s already shaken the rust off, and is already doing live batting practice, according to O’Hanlon.
Hefflinger’s former hitting coach expects that all the work, much of which has already started to pay off, will only do more so as he continues on in the sport he loves. Even with the promotions and demotions, bad stats and promising outlooks, the former Red Elephant’s coach expects his former player to keep it up until he can’t anymore.
O’Hanlon isn’t waiting for Hefflinger to tell him he’s quitting the next time he has a tough stretch.
“No, he’s not that kind of person,” O’Hanlon said. “From my viewpoint he’s always been hardheaded, and that’s a good thing. He doesn’t like to fail, he refuses to be average. He probably pushed me and Jeremy (Kemp) to be good coaches more than we pushed him.
“This guy, he’s a special kid.”
Hefflinger’s growing up appears to have done nothing to change that.