Monday, April 5, 2010
Updated: April 6, 9:36 AM ET
Jason Heyward displays his star power
By Jerry Crasnick
ATLANTA -- Long before Hank Aaron threw out the ceremonial first pitch Monday, the Atlanta Braves' 2010 storyline was ordained: The revered presence in the dugout is yearning for one more postseason appearance, and the man-child in right field will play a big role in determining whether he gets it.
Bobby Cox's legacy in the game is secure. Jason Heyward's future seems as boundless as a fly ball sailing toward the clouds. All Cox has to do is write the kid's name on the lineup card, and it puts a smile on his face and a spring in his step. It hardly matters that Cox is 68 years old and has had both knees surgically replaced.
So here's the big question: After Cox watches Heyward for 162 games this season, will he actually be able to stick to that pledge to retire in the fall? How can a lifelong baseball man have this much fun watching a rookie this good and then just limp off into a cushy front office consulting job?
"It's going to make Bobby have second thoughts,'' Chipper Jones said. "I still have 161 games to talk him out of it.''
Heyward, the talk of spring training, upped the ante in Atlanta's 16-5 Opening Day victory over the Cubs. Three pitches into his major league career, he drove a sinking fastball from Carlos Zambrano an estimated 442 feet into the Braves' bullpen to turn a 3-3 tie into a 6-3 Atlanta lead.
The Turner Field crowd of 53,081, which included about 60 of Heyward's relatives and friends, summoned him from the dugout for his first curtain call. And three hours later, while holding court with local and national media, Heyward was treated to his first shaving cream pie in the face courtesy of Atlanta reliever Peter Moylan. He grabbed a towel, smiled as he wiped the gunk from his eyes, and calmly continued the interview session.
Long after Nate McLouth's great defensive display, Zambrano's early implosion and Yunel Escobar's five RBIs are forgotten, Heyward's coming-out party will be remembered as a springboard to bigger things. On a day when Tiger Woods held a much-anticipated news conference at Augusta National, Duke and Butler played for an NCAA championship, Stephen Drew hit an inside-the-park two-run homer and the woebegone Pittsburgh Pirates scored 11 runs, the kid still found a way to stand out in the crowd.
"Special people do special things at special moments,'' Braves pitcher Derek Lowe said. "I know I'm using the word 'special' a lot. But to have your first at-bat with the crowd chanting your name and then do that, it's special.''
Or as Jones said of the home run: "It was a spine-tingler. And it's going to be the first of many career highlights for him.''
Heyward, who turns 21 in August, arrived in spring training with lots of hype, and lived up to every gushing adjective. He hit .305 with four stolen bases in 22 Grapefruit League games, and earned a spot on the Opening Day roster long after the Nationals sent Stephen Strasburg to Double-A Harrisburg and Aroldis Chapman's bid to crack the Reds' rotation suffered a setback because of a back flareup.
While scouts and pundits compare Heyward to Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Darryl Strawberry, Dave Parker, Fred McGriff and Ken Griffey Jr. -- basically, every rangy, left-handed African-American slugger in memory -- Cox said that Heyward's well-rounded skill set reminds him of former All-Star outfielder Larry Walker. During a weak moment late in spring training, Cox also admitted that it pained him not to play Heyward in Florida, because he knew he might be punting a chance to see something wonderful that day.
"I miss him when he's not in there," Cox said wistfully from the home dugout at the Disney complex in Florida.
Beyond the fluid swing, the speed and the advanced plate discipline, Heyward approaches the game with a single-mindedness and maturity that the Atlanta veterans love to see. He doesn't elicit a trace of jealousy or resentment in the clubhouse, because his definition of success is so clearly rooted in deeds rather than words.
"He's by far the best 20-year-old I've ever seen, and the way he handles things is like nobody I've ever been around,'' Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He doesn't get overwhelmed by this. He is who he is, and he doesn't buy into the media stuff and the hype.
|Jason Heyward got some words of wisdom before Monday's opener from legend Hank Aaron.|
"If you keep reading his quotes, he just wants to play the game of baseball that he's played and we've all played since we were 4 years old. He was accepted here from day one.''
Heyward didn't chalk the fields or dust off the box seats before Monday's opener, but he did jog out to home plate to catch Aaron's ceremonial first pitch. During the subsequent handshake, he received some simple and well-intentioned advice from the Hall of Famer and erstwhile home run king.
"He just said, 'Go out there and have fun and keep doing what you've been doing,''' Heyward said. "I can't go wrong getting advice like that from Hank Aaron."
Heyward found a way to make a little history in the process. After working the count to 2-0 against Zambrano, he became the 105th player to go deep in his first major league at-bat. The list of instant home run swingers includes an Earl (Averill) and a Dukes (Elijah), a White (Bill) and a Brown (Gates) and a Moon (Wally) and a Luna (Hector), not to mention a Miller (Hack), a Tanner (Chuck) and a Dye (Jermaine).
Will Clark, Carlos Lee, Gary Gaetti and Tim Wallach went on to productive careers after homering in their first at-bats, while Charlton Jimerson failed to cut it and Brad Fullmer flamed out too soon. Barring injury or some other unexpected setback, there's little doubt which end of the spectrum Heyward will represent.
Lowe, who played briefly in Seattle with Alex Rodriguez in 1997, said Heyward is a "lot better'' than Rodriguez at a similar stage in their careers. He made that observation with all due respect to A-Rod.
"Look at all the really good young players in any sport, and they do stuff you can't teach,'' Lowe said. "Guys like Jason and [pitcher] Tommy Hanson come up here and expect results. They think they're as good as everybody else, and that mental aspect is half the battle."
Heyward-mania is already starting to resonate at Turner Field, and the rookie's No. 22 jersey is already a hot commodity on the Internet and in the stadium gift shops. After winning 14 straight division titles, the Braves haven't been to the postseason since 2005. If it takes the energy generated by a 6-foot-5, 240-pound phenom to help them reach the promised land and send Cox out on a positive note, so be it.
"I haven't felt electricity like this here in quite some time,'' Jones said. "This has been a place where Cubs fans have felt right at home, and today in pregame you couldn't hear them at all. I feel like this is going to be an exciting team all year, and everybody needs to embrace it, come out and support us. If they do, this team is going to take it to another level.''
One game and five at-bats into his major league career, Jason Heyward officially belongs, and he can consider himself embraced by his fellow Braves.
"If we didn't, he might beat us up," McCann said, laughing.
He's by far the best 20-year-old I've ever seen, and the way he handles things is like nobody I've ever been around.
-- Brian McCann, on teammate Jason Heyward
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.