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Friday, April 23, 2010
Meet the J-Hey Kid

By Shaun Powell
ESPNNewYork.com

ATLANTA -- In some ways, the Atlanta Braves haven't seen someone this young, this composed and already this famous since 1996, the difference being that Derek Jeter didn't exactly help them.

Jeter hit .361 that postseason, capping a sensational rookie year by aiding the New York Yankees' rally against the Braves in the World Series. But if you believe in karma, then the Braves will bring what they hope is their own next-generation star to New York this weekend to show that what comes around might indeed go around someday.

Jason Heyward, all of 20, is already dealing with much of the fuss once made over Jeter, and the circumstances, too. He also was born in New Jersey (Ridgewood) and raised elsewhere. (His family left for Georgia when he was a toddler.) He tore up the minors and was elevated quickly. His major league debut, when he crushed a home run in his first plate appearance, hinted at potential stardom. His manager, who doesn't gush often, is gushing often. (Bobby Cox: "He's exciting.") He has a presence about him that you notice right away, hard to miss when he's 6-foot-4, 245. He plays the game with the joy of a kid holding a Wiffle Ball bat. Oh, and like Jeter, he's African-American, a novelty in a sport that otherwise collects talent from all corners of the globe.

"I haven't seen a 20-year-old have the same impact since I've been around," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "There's been some guys with talent, but he brings more to the table than that. He's a good kid who works harder than anybody."

Jason Heyward
Henry Aaron says Jason Heyward can be an inspiration for young African-American ballplayers. No pressure!

Probably the best thing about the J-Hey Kid might also be the riskiest: his age. That's what endears him to the Braves organization and anyone who has watched him in such a short time. That said, plenty of expectations are being heaped on him already, which has become a commonplace in a sports age that wants too much too soon from its young athletes.

Maybe the most curious slab thrown on his young shoulders came when the great Hank Aaron mentioned that Heyward "can be an inspiration for African-American kids" given the obvious problems Major League Baseball has had in raising interest among those who'd rather play basketball or football. This is an ongoing issue for the majors, 63 years after Jackie Robinson's debut. Ever since the 1970s, when blacks represented roughly 17 percent of rosters (now it's 6 percent), the game has slowly drifted away, especially from city kids who fell for Michael Jordan.

And then, when the majors were gifted with a star who brought tremendous talent and probably became the best player of his generation, the guy happened to be Barry Bonds. You might say he didn't exactly resonate heavily among black kids, and his ambassadorship came with, um, issues.

Laid-back by nature, Heyward seems to accept the notion if not completely embrace it. Perhaps it's a pretty tall order for a kid who right now is just trying to get his own career off the ground.

"I can be a positive role model for a lot of people," Heyward said. "But no matter what I do or how much love I have for the game, I can't choose the sport for anybody else. That's their choice. If I play the game well, it's going to make them think about playing baseball, but it's still their choice to make."

Growing up about 45 minutes outside Atlanta, Heyward miraculously escaped the clutches of youth and high school football coaches. To understand that rarity, you must first understand the popularity of football in the South. Almost as steep as peach cobbler and sweet tea.

"But it wasn't their choice for me to play football," Heyward said. "It was my choice, and baseball was the first sport I ever played. I didn't really like football too much. I played some basketball and when I got to high school, my father told me to choose one. Baseball was it. Loved it."

Yes, every so often, a black kid slips through the cracks and gives himself a legit chance to make the majors. Heyward was the No. 1 slugging prospect last year, and the decision to fax him immediately to the majors wasn't especially difficult for the Braves. He had an epic spring training, complete with a soaring home run that shattered a car sunroof in the parking lot beyond the outfield fence.

In his first two weeks in the majors, besides his debut homer, Heyward smacked a two-out, two-run single to beat the Rockies in the ninth inning (sitting on four pitches first) and hit .302. So you see where his potential as an ambassador, among other things, is being discussed.

"He's ahead of his time, being a 20-year-old with a 30-year-old mind-set, and that helps," Braves coach Terry Pendleton said. "What he does on the field will help the Braves and baseball and the African-American community. And kids from other communities, too, who'll watch how he's getting it done.

"If I'm sitting with an African-American kid and wanted him to watch how a player plays and practices and goes about the game, Jason would be the one I'd want that kid to watch."

High praise, for sure, but there must a reason for that.

"I just love the sport," Heyward said. "Everything I'm doing is coming from the love for the game."

Shaun Powell is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.