It was March 26. Opening day for the Atlanta Braves was 10 days away. Manager Bobby Cox decided to end the suspense.
Terry Pendleton, Atlanta’s hitting coach, saw 20-year-old Jason Heyward in the Braves’ clubhouse.
“Skipper wants to see you,” Pendleton told the former Henry County star.
Heyward walked down the hall and sat in Cox’s office.
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“Hey, Jace,” Cox said, already giving his young player a nickname, “You’re on the team.”
It was a three-minute conversation. Cox congratulated Heyward, and the two shook hands. And with that, a Major League Baseball career was born.
“It was cool,” Heyward said. “I’ve never experienced it before, and it won’t happen again. It was a great feeling.”
Some 20-year-olds would scream at hearing the news, take a deep breath or maybe run outside the clubhouse to call their mother, father or even a girlfriend. But Heyward took the news in stride. That’s how he is — very calm and simply focused on what he has to do to start his career.
Heyward was one of the top stories in Florida for spring training and not just for the Braves. Reporters and fans all went to Lake Buena Vista to see this giant of a young man who was making a name for himself.
It started the first week of spring training. Heyward was taking batting practice, firing line drives into the outfield, and then he got a hold of one. Heyward sent a ball beyond the Braves’ bullpen in right field. It landed about 50 feet out of the park and broke the sunroof of assistant general manager Bruce Manno’s car.
Then on March 8 in Lakeland the Braves were playing the Tigers in the seventh game of the exhibition season. Heyward hit a mammoth home run to right field. Some estimated the shot went more than 500 feet.
That’s what Heyward does — he hits the ball hard, almost every time he makes contact. Take that with his 6-foot-5 frame, and it adds up to a young player who is getting plenty of attention.
“That dude is enormous,” pitcher Tommy Hanson said. “He’s a monster. You shake that guy’s hand, and it just swarms you.”
“He’s an imposing figure,” explained outfielder Matt Diaz. “Nate McLouth and I have decided if he’s in right field on days we start and there’s a pitching change, we’re meeting over in left field, because we don’t want to look that short next to him.”
Heyward’s size is only part of his impressive package. There aren’t many 20-year-olds that big, and he’s probably not finished growing yet.
Add the fact that he’s a five-tool talent, which is rare in baseball. That’s why people have tried to compare him to some of the greats, like Willie McCovey, Dave Parker and even Albert Pujols.
Heyward doesn’t swing for the fences, and he’s a very patient hitter at the plate. His swing has a balance that many young players don’t have. He’s completely under control when he’s at the plate.
In the field Heyward covers tremendous ground in right field, and his arm is like a cannon. He’s also extremely smart on the bases, and despite his enormous size, Heyward is a threat to steal a base.
“He’s got a chance to be a really good one,” first-base coach Glenn Hubbard said. “You try not to put, ‘He’s a Ryan Howard-type guy’ on him. He’s Jason Heyward. Let him be what he is. He’s a total package guy, and he’s a great kid. I like that as much as anything.”
That’s what gives the Braves complete confidence Heyward is not going to be overwhelmed by the experience of being a big leaguer. He’s extremely mature, which will help him when he goes through the normal struggles during the course of a long season.
“Jason is a kid beyond his years, as far as his makeup and maturity,” said Brian Snitker, the Braves’ third-base coach. “He’s just a classy, classy young man. He’s a great player, but he’s an even better person. He’s a very polished kid, good kid. There’s nothing but good that you can say about that young man on and off the field.”
Brad Hainje is the Braves’ director of media relations. He worked for the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2001 when Pujols made it to the major leagues. Hainje has had to deal with all the national reporters coming in to talk with Heyward.
“It’s been a different monster than anything I’ve dealt with before,” Hainje said. “Nothing has compared to Jason. Talk about somebody who could really handle it. He’s a very sharp individual. He has a really good idea of how things work. He’s been a perfect pupil.”
Hanson understands some of what Heyward is dealing with.
“I dealt with that a little bit last year but not to the extent he got this year,” said Hanson, who is going into his second big league season. “There are people all over him 24-7 in the clubhouse. It’s insane. He’s a pretty low-key guy, and he’s handled it really well.”
Chipper Jones knows what living up to hype is all about. Sixteen years ago he was one of the top prospects in baseball, and now he’s trying to pay back a courtesy given to him when he was trying to make his first big league roster.
“He’s so much better than I was that rookie year,” Jones said. “The biggest thing for me was having the solid veterans there to take me under their wings and teach me the ropes. Freddy McGriff, David Justice, and Marquis Grissom — they all did it for me. Now it’s my job to kind of show him the ropes.
”I was brash and cocky. He’s a lot more introverted. He doesn’t take the hype very seriously. He’s just focused on playing a good right field and being a good teammate. As long as he does that, there won’t be any problems.”
Heyward’s laid-back demeanor has helped him cope with the hype this spring, although he’ll never admit it has been a hassle.
”I’ve been focused on baseball the whole time,” Heyward said. “If it’s not fun, I’m in the wrong business. I’m playing baseball, and I’m loving it.”
Heyward finished spring training with a .305 batting average and with 10 walks helping his cause, a .423 on base percentage. His performance left no doubt that Heyward deserved to be in the starting lineup today when the Braves open the 2010 season.
“We’re taking the 25 best players, and Jason Heyward is certainly one of them,” Jones said. “He’s not intimidated up here. There’s no fear of him being overmatched. He’s had a great spring, and he’s worked as hard as anybody. ”
Heyward’s journey starts today. He’ll wear No. 22 and hit seventh in the lineup. If all goes according to plan, it’ll be the first day of a long and successful career.
”He could come out of the gates and be rookie of the year and all that. You never know,” Diaz said. “But at some point, with his mental makeup and his physical tools, he will be a superstar in this game.”