Jason Heyward is finding out what it means to be a star

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2010 - 10:55 PM

The hugely talented Braves outfielder is drawing early comparisons to other stars, and is bringing some much-needed inspiration.

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Jason Heyward

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Imagine knowing that just about every friend, classmate or second-cousin you've ever known wants an autograph. That every newspaper reporter, TV station and radio host requests an interview. Every school and church and neighborhood business wants a donation for a fundraiser. And the tickets, always the tickets -- can you help us out for Friday night's game?

It's why Joe Mauer can boil down his advice to Jason Heyward to one word: no.

"Be prepared to say no, even if it's difficult for you. You're going to be pulled in a lot of different directions, but the most important thing is getting yourself ready to play," said Mauer who, like Heyward, is the best player on his hometown's major-league team. "It's OK to say no to some things. You can't do everything."

Now he tells him.

It must sometimes seem to the Braves' supremely talented 20-year-old rookie that he's being asked to do everything, and that goes far beyond the mere fulfillment of the mundane obligations of modern celebrity. In Heyward, who is barely two months into his major-league career, various constituencies are projecting the hopes of a team. Of a city. Of a sport. Even of a race.

"I just enjoy playing the game, and all the rest of that stuff, it doesn't affect me on the field," Heyward said in the visitor's clubhouse at Target Field. "I just go play the game. Everything else, you have to filter it. Your team, your agent, everybody helps you stay focused on the game."

• • •

At the game, he's already astonishingly polished. A budding savant, he's among the league's top 10 in runs batted in, and only a half-dozen National Leaguers have been on base more. He's hit 10 home runs already; not since Albert Pujols' record-breaking rookie season in 2001 has a first-year player reached double-digits so quickly. He hit a home run with his first swing as a major-leaguer, then won a couple more games in April with crucial ninth-inning hits.

He is also the leading edge of a new wave of breathlessly talented youngsters who are replenishing the sport this season, perhaps taking advantage of the disappearance of chemically-enhanced veterans to return a little awe to the game.

"The group coming up now, we're seeing some really exciting young players like this kid," said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president for player personnel.

He recalls scouting Heyward in the spring of 2007, before the Braves took him with the 14th pick in the draft, and discovering that getting a good look at Heyward's swing wasn't easy.

"Nobody would pitch to him. You'd go to a game, and he'd walk three times. We had to use our reports from his junior year," Radcliff said. "But the Braves were on him for years. Other teams hesitated, but they knew him. And good for them -- this kind of talent right now is really good for the game."

If not necessarily good for parked cars. In spring training, Heyward became a legend by inflicting dings and dents and in one case a shattered sun roof to Braves' employees cars in a lot almost 100 feet beyond the right-field wall. The Braves spent all spring considering erecting nets to limit the damage, and enjoying the publicity the broken windshields engendered.

"He's got jaw-dropping power and incredible instincts," said John Manuel, editor of Baseball America magazine, which ranked Heyward the game's No. 1 prospect even before he burst into the Braves' lineup. "But what's really unusual is that he shows no sign of needing an adjustment period like virtually every rookie."

What stands out is his patience at the plate, said Manuel, who compares Heyward's skill set to retired All-Stars Dave Parker and Larry Walker. "He's not a hacker. He knows what a strike is," Manuel said. "That's precocious for his age, and with his size, it makes him doubly dangerous when he gets his pitch."

• • •

That size -- at 6-5 and 245 pounds, he resembles an NFL linebacker -- could help change the game, too. Baseball for decades has been losing young athletes to sports such as basketball and football, particularly among African-Americans. It's an issue that former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter has been vocal about.

Heyward certainly has the size to play those sports, but his father, Eugene, forbid him from trying football, and the youngster preferred baseball to hoops, playing the game year-round. Now his budding stardom may help convince other kids to give the sport a try.

"He can certainly help bring the excitement back, not only for Atlanta but also for African-American players," another Braves outfielder, Hank Aaron, told reporters after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch -- to Heyward -- on Opening Day. "We need to have many, many more Jason Heywards."

This one is doing what he can, lending his name and his time to an Atlanta program aimed at instructing inner-city children in how to play the game.

"The game of baseball doesn't have the most African-Americans, and to me, that comes from influences -- what people do before you," Heyward said. "If you don't see people playing the game, neither will you."

Lots of people, and lots of children, are seeing him now.

"The type of kid he is, with the background he comes from, both parents attending Dartmouth, he's not just a good player, he has a chance to impact the game off the field," Manuel said. "He's like [Nationals pitching phenom] Steven Strasburg -- we live in an era of hype, so when someone exceeds the hype, you're amazed."

• • •

He plays for a franchise that can use a little amazement these days. The Braves, better known as luckless losers for nearly two decades, reversed their history with 14 consecutive division titles -- but only one World Series championship, in 1995. Atlanta reacted to the predictable pattern with increasing apathy, and interest faded even more once the NL East titles dried up.

"The Braves need a new star," said Manuel, who is based in Charlotte, N.C. "Chipper Jones has been the face of the franchise for a long time, and he's popular. But that era is about over."

The Braves thought they had a new icon when another Atlanta native, Jeff Francoeur, broke into the lineup with a strong rookie year of his own in 2005. But all the adoration from his hometown crowds seemed to weigh on him, and his value declined every year until the Braves dealt him to the Mets two years ago.

"It's a lot less of a problem for [Heyward] than it was for Francoeur," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Francoeur was a lot more publicized getting there -- he was a high-school football star. And he was out there a lot, doing a lot of [publicity] stuff."

Now comes a new area hero -- Heyward grew up in Stockbridge, Ga., roughly 10 miles from Turner Field -- to reinvigorate the city's baseball fans. News that the local kid had made the Braves' roster set off a wave of Heyward mania. The Braves took more than 500 orders for Heyward's No. 22 jersey -- he took the number as a tribute to a Henry County High teammate who was killed in a car crash -- before they were even available.

"That was cool. I [said], 'Enjoy it, have fun. You're not going to get to do it your whole life,'" Heyward said. "There was a lot of excitement."

But nothing like what he experienced on Opening Day, when the magic from the Braves' worst-to-first thrill ride returned.

First inning, two runners on, Cubs fireballer Carlos Zambrano on the mound. The rookie, belying zero nervousness, watched the first two pitches of his first big-league at-bat sail inside, then picked out a 93-mph fastball.

The noise as he unleashed his lefthanded uppercut has been described as akin to a dam bursting -- or as Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley wrote, "the inside of a jet engine. ... One swing into his big-league life, Jason Heyward gave us a reason to get excited about the Braves in a way we haven't been in years."

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