Just when it looked like all the uber-athletes were gravitating to football, basketball and (gulp!) soccer, along comes Jason Heyward to prove everyone wrong. Groomed for superstardom since the day he picked up a bat and glove, he is the first in what may be a new wave of linebacker-sized baseball stars who never gave football (or HGH) a serious thought. An All-Star before he could take a legal drink, Jason is already drawing comparisons to Aaron, Mays and Mantle—and, perhaps more notably, reigniting baseball fever in Atlanta. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jason Adenolith Heyward was born on August 9, 1989 in Ridgewood, New Jersey. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Eugene and Laura, met while attending Dartmouth University in the late 1970s. Another son, Jacob, was born six years after Jason.

Eugene, an engineer, stood 6–3. He came from a tall family—an aunt and great grandmother both stood 6–1. Eugene’s family was from South Carolina. Laura’s family was from New York City.

Eugene had been an outstanding high school and college basketball player. He took note of the fact that baseball was unique—it was an individual game within a team sport. A young player could develop his skills fully regardless of the team environment. Coaching and competition were more important. Eugene saw potential in Jason and encouraged him on the diamond.

When Jason was still an infant, the family moved to the town of McDonough, Georgia, 30 miles south of Atlanta. He showed early promise in baseball and was immediately mainstreamed into the world of travel-team competition, a phenomenon that developed during the 1990s. This required Jason’s parents—Eugene in particular—to make drastic changes to their lives. Indeed, Jason’s father became a consultant so he could set his own work schedule around his son’s practices and games.

This suited Jason perfectly, He loved baseball. He mimmicked the swings of Braves stars, inlcuding Chipper Jones. His heart, however, remained with the Mets and Yankees. J’asons parents had lived in New Jersey during the dual ascents of phenoms Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Both were long-limbed, fluid athletes. Jason showed the same kind of skills.

As long as Jason showed a passion for baseball, his parents made the sacrifices required to put him in the best possible position to fulfill his dream of being a major leaguer. That included driving home the importance of excelling in the classroom. Eugene tutored Jason in math and science, while Laura handled social studies and English.

Each day after school, Jason would travel to baseball practice—often an hour or more away—wolfing down an early dinner and doing his homework in the car. Over the years, the Heywards put more than a quarter-million miles on the family van.

Jason joined the McDonough Dodgers when he was eight-years-old and played in more than 60 games in 1997, culminating in a national title at the AABC World Series in Denver. The Dodgers beat a youth-league team from Puerto Rico in the finals. Jason was named tournament MVP. A year later, he was invited to join an elite travel club, the Georgia Nitro. He played with the Nitro for five years, competing all over the region and up and down the East Coast. He pitched and played the outfield.

At age 11, pro baseball teams began keeping tabs on Jason. He was already pushing six feet and had the build of a high school senior. One opposing manager, Al Goetz, saw Jason before a game and had to look twice to determine whether he was a player or coach. Afterwards, Goetz called Rob English, a Braves’ scout and insisted that he start tracking Jason.

After Jason urned 14, he began splitting his time between the baseball team at Henry County High School and the East Cobb Baseball Complex in Marietta. For the Warhawks, he quickly became the baseball team’s star attraction. As a freshman, he won the starting job as first base. Later in his career, he would earn All-America honors.

Most of the year Jason would play for one of East Cobb’s many travel teams—often 100 games in the summer and another 75 in the fall. The program boasted a state-of-the-art complex on a 30-acre piece of property. It was a veritable first-round pick factory, producing players such as Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Matt Capps, Stephen Drew and Nick Markakis. Jason received top-of-the-line coaching and played against the best competition he could handle. Working with hitting coach CJ Stewart and a personal trainer, he developed into an elite teen prospect. His intelligence and work ethic blew everyone away. He soaked up knowledge like a sponge.

After Jason’s junior year at HCHS, there was little doubt that he would be a high first-round pick. Goetz, who had been coaching against Jason for years, realized that the Braves would be picking in the middle of the 2007 draft. He arranged for the Atlanta brass to evaluate Jason in a private workout at East Cobb. He blasted 25 balls over the fence with a wooden bat.

The Braves have a close relationship with East Cobb, and the big-league team is recognized for its skill at keeping local prospects under wraps. In Jason’s case, Atlanta went all-out. As the 2007 draft approached, the only unfettered access other teams had to the teenager was at high school contests during his senior year. He rarely saw pitches to hit in these games and was disciplined enough to take his walks. Scouts only saw Jason swing during warm-ups, and most weren't willing to base their evaluations on batting practice . Even so, the two players who came up most often in comparisons were Willie McCovey and Dave Parker.



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Darryl Strawberry,
Black Book Partners archives

     
 

On draft day, the Braves had to sweat out 13 selections before they could use their 14th pick. They were most concerned about the Marlins, who had seen a lot of Jason. The Atlanta brass was jubilant when Florida used its pick at #12 on Matt Dominguez, another high school star. The Braves were so high on Jason that hey claim they would have taken him ahead of #1 pick David Price.

Friends and family were somewhat disappointed that Jason had “slipped” to the 14th selection. Jason couldn’t have been happier. When he ended up the Braves, he was stunned at his good fortune. He signed in August, in time to play eight games for the team’s rookie-level club, were he roomed (and became friends with) Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s second-round pick. Jason finished the year with the Danville Braves, another rookie-level club. He batted over .290 at both stops.

ON THE RISE

Jason and Freddie put on their own personal horror show for enemy pitchers as they worked their way up the organizational ladder. In 2008, they roomed together at Class-A Rome, where Jason hit .323 with 11 homers. In 2009, Jason rocketed to Triple-A, splitting the season between Class-A Myrtle Beach—where he hit .296 with 10 homers in 49 games—and Class-AA Mississippi, where he hit .352 with seven homers in 47 games. Jason finished his great season with a three-game promotion to Class-AAA Gwinnett.

Jason arrived at the Braves’ spring training camp in 2010 with a good chance of making the team. He also had to be measured for a new uniform. He had grown an inch since the team last saw him and had added more muscle—enough to have the suits he purchased the previous fall taken out. This translated into even greater power. Jason hit several balls into the previously unreachable employee parking lot of Atlanta’s Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, some 450 feet from home plate. He racked up several thousand dollars worth of damage until the team erected the “Heyward Nets” to protect the cars.

The Braves had opened up right field the previous year by trading underperforming Jeff Francoeur to the Mets for Ryan Church. When Church became a free agent after the season, Atlanta let him walk, leaving a vacancy for their 20-year-old prospect. The Braves explored the possibility of signing Johnny Damon in case Jason wasn’t ready, but the rookie convinced them to make him their everyday right fielder with a potent hitting display throughout March.

Jason would share the outfield with Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera, anchoring a defense that would have to support the team’s young and talented pitching staff. Jason, meanwhile, was expected to ascend to the middle of the order, joining Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Troy Glaus as the team’s primary run-producers as soon as he was ready. He was ready sooner than anyone imagined.

On Opening Day in Atlanta, Hank Aaron threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Jason. The symbolism of the team’s Hall of Fame rightfielder passing the torch to its future Hall of Fame right fielder was lost on no one that day, especially Laura Heyward, who wept in her seat behind home plate. Tears turned to cheers in the bottom of the first inning, when her son turned on a Carlos Zambrano fastball and deposited it 433 feet away in the back of the Braves’ bullpen for a three-run homer.

After the game, Jason came into the dressing room walking on air. He was amazed to see how quiet his teammates were. Having never been in a big-league clubhouse during the regular season, he simply assumed that this was how the pros handled themselves. So he sat down quietly in front of his locker ... and then was mobbed by his jubilant teammates. It was a baseball classic: The Silent Treatment.

MAKING HIS MARK


Jason Heyward, 2008 SAL card
     
 

There were more dramatics to come. Later in April, Jason came to bat against the Colorado Rockies with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the bases loaded, and Atlanta trailing 3–2. He calmly took two balls and two strikes before lining a pitch to the opposite field for the win. The Braves mobbed Jason as he rounded first base.

A few nights later, Jason tied a game against the Philadelphis Phillies with a two-out, ninth-inning home run. The Braves won it in the 10th.

In May, Jason delivered another victory with a two-out, ninth-inning hit, this time against the Cincinnati Reds. His double broke a 4–4 tie. The Braves, meanwhile, were busy ascending from worst to first in the National League East on the strength of Jason’s bat and the power of his personality.

Through the first third of his rookie season, Jason showed no signs of slowing down. He was among the team leaders in runs, RBIs, homers, extra-base hits and stolen bases, all with a respectable batting average and team-leading slugging and on-base percentages. Even a sore back could not keep him out for more than a few days.

As Jason went though the league a second time, opponents gathered enough tape on him to formulate a pitching strategy against him. But Jason showed he could adjust to the adjustments. Rather than chasing pitches off the plate, he would be content to walk 100 times if that’s what opponents were giving him. Now opposing pitchers were forced to adjust to him again.

Fate can be stunningly fickle where 20-year-old power hitting prospects are concerned. Indeed, baseball history is littered with the bodies of can't-miss kids who failed to evolve past their first few headline-making swings. Jason, at least figuratively, appears to be in a different league. The connection between mind and body is fluid and seemingly unbreakable. If one lets him down him—as often happens in sports—the other should pick up the slack until he rights himself.

No one deserves to play under the weight of being dubbed the next Hank Aaron. But those comparisons have not stopped. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox can’t help but think it every time he hears the ball come off Jason’s bat. However, if anyone has earned that accolade, it is Jason. And with Chipper soon to end his Hall of Fame career in Atlanta, it appears another one has just begun.

JASON THE PLAYER


Jason Heyward, 2010 Topps
     
 

Jason has a baseball IQ that is off the charts. He is a cagey baserunner, a smart all-around player, and has Gold Glover written all over him in right field. He is a slashing hitter who produces screaming line drives and hissing grounders. His home runs are basically line drives with backspin, which rise as they head toward the outfield.

Jason’s strength and quickness come together in a powerful stroke. When he makes solid contact with a pitch, it makes a snapping sound similar to the one described by the teammates of a young Hank Aaron. Although Jason works tirelessly with batting coach Terry Pendleton, the former NL MVP claims he has very little to teach him.

Jason’s strike zone judgment is well developed for a young player. After his torrid start, enemy hurlers began to approach him differently, trying to set him up to swing at difficult pitches. Once he recognized this trend, he wouldn’t nibble. Years of intense training and discipline—along with 20/10 vision—have honed this skill to near perfection.

Jason is a steely competitor who is able to stay calm in pressure situations. That makes him a natural leader. Teammates are drawn to him, partly because of his production and partly because of his desire to win.

 


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