Eugene Heyward woke up with his hands on the steering wheel, his GMC Suburban careering on two wheels through the predawn darkness in the middle of a highway somewhere in Georgia. It was headed for an 18-wheeler until Heyward, exhausted but suddenly alert, regained control of the vehicle. Before his heart stopped pounding, he thought, Whoa, you're pushing too hard. Got to get your rest.
This is an article from the April 19, 2010 issue
Eugene, Dartmouth class of 1981, married to Laura, Dartmouth class of '79, is an engineering consultant in suburban Atlanta. But for the last decade that job was often a second priority to Eugene's labor of love: raising a son who may be—body, mind and soul—the perfect postmodern baseball player, a well-mannered, 6'5", 240-pound triumph of parenting, training and a new amateur baseball paradigm that is as close to professional baseball as you can get without the paycheck.
For years Eugene arranged his career around the baseball schedule of his adolescent son, Jason, whom the Braves began scouting at age 11. The father would wake up at three o'clock in the morning at the family home in McDonough, Ga., 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, and drive 90 minutes to work in the town of Warner Robins. He'd put in his eight hours in time to get back to pick up Jason from school, then drive an hour or more across the traffic-choked Atlanta metroplex to take Jason to the East Cobb Baseball complex in Marietta. Jason would eat fast food and do his homework on the drive, looking up as the Suburban cruised past Turner Field, home of the Braves, and wondering what it might be like to play there. When Jason's baseball day was done, Eugene would drive back to McDonough in time to get enough sleep (or perhaps not) to do the same thing all over the next day. Today the Suburban has nearly 300,000 miles on it and, says Eugene, "enough baseball clay in it to build a pitching mound."
Gone are the days when the next generation's All-Stars were bred on sandlots and schooled by crusty high school coaches. In the new paradigm a kid with a major league dream needs talent, drive and parents as committed to the cause as the player—the ultimate soccer moms and baseball dads.
"When I was 10, I saw a couple of big league games, and I said, 'I want to do this the rest of my life,'" says Jason. "They had a plan, my parents. I appreciate that they did everything they could to get me in front of all the right people. But my dad said, 'Without you saying you wanted it, it wouldn't have happened.' Every year he asked, 'Do you still want to play baseball?' By my senior year I looked at him like he was stupid. And he said, 'All right. I will never ask you again.'"
April 5 was the first day of the rest of Jason Heyward's life. On a Georgia afternoon as sweet as a tall, cold glass of Southern tea, Heyward, just 20 years old and three years out of Henry County High School, made it inside Turner Field. It was everything a boy (and a father) could have imagined from behind the window of an SUV. Eugene and Laura watched from the stands behind home plate as Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, wearing his familiar number 44 Braves jersey, threw the ceremonial Opening Day first pitch to Jason, who was wearing number 22 and about to play rightfield in his first major league game.
"My wife broke down," Eugene says. "I thought, Oh, my God. This is almost symbolic. It's like Hank, the rightfielder, is passing the ball on to the next rightfielder, and saying, 'Here it is, kid. Catch it.'"
Also in the stands were 64 friends and family members, including Jason's 14-year-old brother, Jacob, and Tammie Ruston, his British literature teacher from Henry County High and the mother of Andrew Wilmot, one of Jason's high school teammates, who died in a 2006 car accident. Heyward chose number 22 to honor Andrew, who wore it in high school. (The Braves sold 541 Heyward jerseys and T-shirts after they went on sale in the bottom of the fifth inning, or about one every eight seconds.)
As Jason stepped into the lefthand batter's box in the first inning for his first at bat, the crowd of 53,081 chanted, "Let's go, Hey-ward!" There were two runners on, and hard-throwing Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano, a four-time All-Star, was on the mound. Zambrano opened with two attempts at intimidation: angry fastballs near Heyward's body. The kid calmly took them both for balls.
Zambrano came back with a third fastball, headed for the inside half of the plate. Heyward tapped his front foot and placed it back down ("Like a dance step," Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton says), uncoiled his massive body and brought his bat to meet the ball with more violence than beauty. Heyward doesn't so much swing as slash, bringing his hands down and then flat through the strike zone. Like a purely struck one-iron, Heyward's blasts are line drives with backspin. His home runs don't soar, they scream and climb. "You wouldn't teach someone to hit that way," Pendleton says. "Me, I just leave him alone."
"You can tell with your eyes closed when Heyward is hitting," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "It's louder than when anybody else hits."
When Heyward connected with Zambrano's fastball, the sound was so percussive that his teammates immediately jumped and ran up the dugout steps. The baseball flew some 446 feet, into the back of the Braves' bullpen. Turner Field erupted—delight, awe and disbelief all wrapped into the kind of noise veteran third baseman Chipper Jones said he hadn't heard in Atlanta since the late 1990s. Jones, the face of the franchise, was the first off the bench to greet Heyward, throwing both arms around the kid before he reached the dugout.
At 20 years, 239 days, Heyward became the third-youngest player in major league history to hit a home run in his first at bat, and the youngest in 60 years. "He might be the best 20-year-old rookie to ever play," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said.
"Jason called me later," Eugene says. "He said, 'When we got to the locker room everything was normal. Later on they jumped on me and pounded me on the head at my locker. It was great.' He felt like they legitimately like him. I have yet to hear anybody say my son is not a nice person, at home or now with the Braves. I'm proud of him becoming the man he is becoming."
It is difficult to believe Heyward is so young. He has the goateed face of an elder and a deep, honeyed voice that has little use for inflection, as if he has come this way before. His hands are massive and meaty. Shaking hands with him is like reaching into the bottom of a burlap sack; your hand disappears. He is broad-shouldered and thick in the arms, but tapered at the waist with sprinter's legs. Teammate Eric Hinske, when asked if the kid needed any playful rookie scolding this spring, replied, "Not once. But who would get on him, anyway? He could pick me up and throw me into a locker."
"I'm not saying anything to him; he could beat the crap out of me," closer Billy Wagner said. "He's really just a great kid. He said to me, 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Wagner.'"
And yet, despite having arrived seemingly fully formed, Heyward is still growing. He bought some suits in November. By January he had to let them out. He grew an inch over the winter and has gained 25 pounds in the past two years. His father, who played basketball at Dartmouth, is 6'3" and 250 pounds. His great grandmother is 6'1". An aunt is 6'1". "We're from the low country of South Carolina," Eugene says of his lineage. "We are farmers. We have big people in our family. He's just growing into his man strength."
But here's what is so special about Heyward. Yes, he is big and a natural athlete. But he is also an honest-to-goodness ballplayer, with a keen batting eye (aided by 20/10 vision), cunning baserunning instincts, premium defensive skills and a coach's nuanced understanding of how to play the game. Heyward is what Joe DiMaggio would be if Joltin' Joe grew up playing nothing but baseball, as many as 200 games a year all over the country from the time he was eight, on exquisitely groomed fields, with a private hitting coach, a fitness trainer and a father dedicated to ferrying him around greater Atlanta, which has become one of the world's greatest amateur baseball hotbeds. Heyward's story is increasingly how 21st-century stars are made: bigger, faster, stronger, specialized and, having played so much baseball growing up, far ahead of what used to be the sport's long learning curve.
"I kind of forced it," Eugene says of Heyward's baseball specialization, an idea that piqued the father's interest when he watched Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry play for the Mets while the family lived in Ridgewood, N.J., where Jason was born, in the late 1980s. "Here's my logic: I think in baseball the team doesn't have to be great for him to stand out in terms of showing his ability."
Eugene's logic is sound: His son's legend was established long before that Opening Day laser. Heyward's spring training exploits might as well have been catalogued by Thomas Bulfinch, such was the mythology that sprang up around him. In Orlando, where the Braves have held spring training for 13 seasons, Heyward smashed home runs where no one had hit them before, into an employee parking lot beyond the rightfield wall about 450 feet from home plate. He busted the side mirror of the media-relations director's car and caused $3,400 in damages to the sunroof of the assistant general manager's ride. At the end of spring training the Braves put up protective screening—the Heyward Nets—to protect vehicles that never needed protecting before this kid showed up.
In Lakeland, Fla., in a game against Detroit, Heyward blasted a home run over palm trees and off the metal roof of an indoor batting facility, prompting Tigers manager Jim Leyland to compare him with Albert Pujols. In another game in March, Heyward hit a line drive so hard it whizzed past the right ear of the pitcher and curved through the gap in right center. Even 6'4", 255-pound Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard felt diminished upon seeing Heyward for the first time. Said the Philadelphia slugger, "That is one large individual."
Like some barnstorming hero from another era Heyward has been leaving audiences slack-jawed from coast to coast for more than a decade. He has been traveling the country since he was eight, when he was playing 65 summer games for the McDonough Dodgers, a travel team from the town where the Heywards moved when Jason was a baby. That team wound up winning a national title in Colorado by beating a team from Puerto Rico. Heyward was named MVP. He then played through age 13 for the Georgia Nitro, a nationally ranked travel team funded mostly by parents and kids washing cars and selling doughnuts—lots of doughnuts.
"Baseball took me to Texas, St. Louis, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Boston, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi ...," Heyward says. "I came to play at Disney when I was 11. I was small then, so traveling didn't hurt so bad."
Well, not that small. One time, when Heyward was 11, the coach from an opposing team saw him before a game and thought he was a coach. "Facially, he looked like he was about 30," says the coach, Al Goetz. "His body was mature. He hit a home run, and it looked like a 17-year-old on a peewee field. He was probably six feet tall. He pitched too. He hit my son in the hand with a pitch. My son was so frightened, it took two weeks for him to get back into a batter's box."
Goetz was also a part-time scout for the Braves. After watching this preteen stud, Goetz called up one of Atlanta's full-time scouts, Rob English. "I know this sounds crazy," Goetz said to English. "I know it's early. But this kid is a beast at 11. We definitely need to stay in touch and follow him."
In 2004, when Jason was 14, Eugene decided it was time to bring him to East Cobb Baseball. What Silicon Valley is to computer chips, East Cobb is to youth baseball: the heart of the sport's research and development. East Cobb began in 1985 when Guerry Baldwin, a Pony League coach in Marietta, thought the traditional youth league structure, in which kids of varying abilities get thrown together based simply on age and/or home address, was broken. He decided kids should play at the level of their ability—better players should play with and against other better players. He took a core of kids, most of whom had won the 1983 Little League World Series with a team from Marietta, and won four straight Pony League and Babe Ruth League national titles. "Eight of the players were the same," Baldwin says. "That's sort of what made East Cobb East Cobb."
The father of one of those players happened to be fabulously wealthy. To show Baldwin his appreciation, he gave the coach a state-of-the-art, 30-acre baseball complex: eight perfectly manicured ballfields carved among the stately pines of suburban Cobb County. The East Cobb program became a magnet for not only the best players in Georgia but also others from the Southeast (and occasionally farther) who would stay with local host families or in the host house on the grounds of the complex.
Since 1985 East Cobb has won 146 national titles and produced 150 pro players, including 21 drafted and signed last year alone. It has grown to 85 teams for ages eight through 18. You might see as many as 600 scouts and college coaches at the complex at a time; they're engaged in the baseball equivalent of catching fish in a barrel. Among the major league stars who have played at East Cobb are McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Jeremy Hermida, Nick Markakis, Micah Owings, Matt Capps, Stephen Drew, Dexter Fowler and Gordon Beckham—and that doesn't include the 14 first-round picks in just the past three years. "It definitely changed the way baseball is looked at in Georgia," Baldwin says. "It used to be an afterthought to football. It's not that way anymore. A lot of the better athletes play baseball now, where 20 years ago they didn't."
Heyward was "a gangly, good-looking athlete" when he arrived at East Cobb, "a good baseball player, not a great baseball player," Baldwin says. But he quickly blossomed into an elite prospect, thanks to the work he did with a personal hitting coach, former Cubs farmhand C.J. Stewart, and a personal trainer. "His work ethic became unbelievable," Baldwin says. "He's truly the best player I've ever been around at 15 and 16, and not just in sheer talent. His mental approach and understanding of how to play the game and maturity were just unreal, which is why I'm sure he can handle big league baseball without a doubt."
At ages 14, 15 and 16, Heyward, by his own estimation, was playing about 200 games a year: 30 high school games, 90 to 100 summer games with East Cobb and another 60 to 80 fall games with East Cobb. His summer and fall games included one- to two-hour pre- or postgame practices. And that didn't include the 1,000 swings per week Heyward would take against his father on their own time. Says Heyward, "I get to professional baseball and it's a piece of cake, as far as the games, infield and outfield, early hitting...."
At ages 15 and 16, his teams at East Cobb were 86--8 and 90--6, respectively, while traveling the country, usually playing against 18-year-olds and sometimes using wood bats. Baldwin says the fee to play on his team is $1,400, but a Braves official familiar with the program said costs can escalate to $10,000 per year. "Not true," says Baldwin. "I guess [it's possible] if you had two kids and the whole family went everywhere they went—I think that's what some people do—but not for one kid."
Goetz, who became a full-time scout for the Braves before leaving to work as an agent in July 2007, saw Heyward often at East Cobb. Each time his reports back to Atlanta were filled with more superlatives. By the fall of 2006, his senior year of high school, Heyward had grown into such a superb prospect that Goetz, knowing the Braves picked 14th in the 2007 draft, figured there was no way the team would get him. "He was so far ahead of his age in terms of intelligence, batting eye, strike zone discipline and work ethic," Goetz says. "I said, 'Heyward's got every tool you could possibly have.'"
That fall Goetz asked Baldwin if he could arrange a private workout for Heyward at East Cobb for the Braves' top player development officials, including then scouting director Roy Clark. Baldwin calls what happened next "one of the most amazing things I ever saw." With a wood bat, Heyward hit 25 balls over a huge scoreboard in rightfield. He hit another 10 over the towering batter's eye screen in dead centerfield. "We had all the Braves' hierarchy out here," Baldwin says, "and their jaws just dropped. They were saying, 'Is this kid for real?' I said, 'Yeah, he pretty much is.'"
The Braves rated Heyward the best draft-eligible player in the country, ahead of more highly publicized prospects such as Vanderbilt pitcher David Price and high school third baseman Josh Vitters. Somehow, no other club rated Heyward that highly. How could that be? Baldwin smiled wryly when asked that question, paused a moment or two and finally said, "Ummm, what can I say and what can't I? ... Years from now I'll tell you."
The Braves have a cozy relationship with their backyard friends at East Cobb. Since 2000 they have drafted 18 players out of the program. They donate equipment to the organization through their foundation. Braves president and former general manager John Schuerholz sent his son, Jonathan, to play at East Cobb. Atlanta's scouts regularly attend tournaments and workouts there.
"We started really concentrating on East Cobb about 10 years ago," Schuerholz says. "We said, 'This is one of the top amateur programs in the country. Let's make sure we're at the forefront of culling talent out of our own backyard.' We were able to do that for a few years. And all things being equal, we may take the East Cobb player over another player if only because we see them so much and know them so well."
Eugene Heyward believes he knows why other teams were not as high on his son as the Braves: Baldwin and the team quietly downplayed his ability and visibility. They sandbagged the competition. "Roy Clark was a very shrewd man," Eugene says. "They wouldn't update his size information. I believe Jason went to a [showcase event] and was listed at 6'1", 198. Jason was 6'1", 198 maybe two months in his life. The Braves did an excellent job. They lowballed his size.
"Guerry played a part in that. He'd say, 'If you go hit for the Marlins, they're going to pick you.' Guerry is a Braves man. He and Clark and those guys, they did a number."
Says one general manager who passed on drafting Heyward, "The Braves have a history of doing that. [Georgia native Adam] Wainwright's medicals were bad—until it was their turn to pick. They did it with Francoeur and McCann. It's good baseball. They're good at it. You can go ask anybody in baseball and nobody had [Heyward] above Price and Vitters and those guys. He was not in the top five group."
But didn't other teams watch him play? Yes, but in his high school season before the draft, Heyward rarely saw pitches to hit. "I told Jason, 'You have to take your walks,'" Baldwin says. "'You can't change who you are. If scouts aren't smart enough to see that, tough. That's their fault.' He was smart enough not to fall into that trap. Most think, All these people are here to see me hit. They don't want to see me walk."
Says Goetz, "He wouldn't hit on the field before a game. He usually hit in the cage. Most teams in that [high school] league were not going to pitch to him. So big league teams would send their scouting directors to see him, and he'd hit in the cage, walk three times and ground out in the game, and they'd walk away with a lot of questions."
What about all those games with East Cobb? Heyward didn't play the summer after his senior season, and even if he did, because the draft is held in the first week of June, scouts would have seen him only for a glimpse. And the previous summers? Goetz says that at the time many organizations re-assigned their area scouts after the high school baseball season to pro coverage. Given how many prospects, because of the rise in travel baseball, play their most competitive baseball in the summer and not in high school leagues, major league clubs were operating on a broken model.
On the day of the draft, about 20 Braves executives gathered in a room at Turner Field. They wanted Heyward badly, but 13 teams would pick ahead of them. They were especially concerned about the Marlins, who held the 12th pick and had a scout, Brian Bridges, who had watched Heyward often. "When you talked to [Heyward]," Goetz says, "you didn't know if you were talking to a high school kid, a college senior or a 30-year-old. He was intelligent beyond his years, and the tools were there. And we knew he was going to work harder than anybody. The bottom line is we saw him more than anybody, and the more you saw him, the more you liked him."
The Rays, picking first, took Price. The next three teams, the Royals, Cubs and Pirates, took three players who have yet to play in the big leagues (shortstop Mike Moustakas, Vitters and pitcher Daniel Moskos, respectively). The next four choices were college players: catcher Matt Wieters to the Orioles, pitcher Ross Detwiler to the Nationals, first baseman Matt LaPorta to the Brewers and pitcher Casey Weathers to the Rockies.
Five more picks before it was the Braves' turn. The next three were high school pitchers: Jarrod Parker to the Diamondbacks, Madison Bumgarner to the Giants and Phillippe Aumont to the Mariners. The Marlins were up next. Braves officials grew anxious—but Florida took Matt Dominguez, a high school third baseman. (Dominguez has hit .260 in the minors, with only 34 games played above Class A.) The people in the Braves' draft room shouted and high-fived. "If we could have, most of us would have been drinking," Goetz said.
Heyward, at home in McDonough, was in disbelief that he could end up with his hometown team. "I really couldn't even describe the feeling," he says. "Once it happens, you really don't know what to say. People ask me, 'How did you fall to 14?' I say, 'I couldn't tell you.' I'm very thankful that it happened."
There was still one more team to pick before Atlanta: Cleveland. The Braves weren't too worried about the Indians because they had not seen much of the Cleveland scouts around Heyward. "We just didn't see him swing the bat enough to feel comfortable taking him that high," says one Indians official. "When we saw him, he walked a lot."
The Indians took Beau Mills, a college corner infielder and son of current Astros manager Brad Mills. Atlanta's subterfuge campaign had worked. The Braves took Heyward and signed him two months later to a $1.7 million bonus, only slightly more than the unofficial "slotting" value for his draft position. The Braves sent him to their Gulf Coast rookie league team in Orlando, where he recognized the team's second round pick, Freddie Freeman, a first baseman. The two had met earlier that year at a high school All-Star game in San Diego. Heyward had reached first base, when suddenly he noticed dirt being thrown on his shoes. He looked up and saw Freeman smiling.
Heyward, the kid from Georgia, and Freeman, the kid from Orange County, Calif., became best friends. They roomed together in Orlando and remained roommates at three other minor league stops (Class A Rome, High A Myrtle Beach and Double A Mississippi). They lived together again during major league training camp this year. Every morning at 6:30 they would be first in the clubhouse, where they lockered next to each other, numbers 70 and 71. Only when Cox told Heyward, a .318 hitter in the minors, that he made the team were they separated. (Freeman, a .293 hitter, began the season at Triple A and could be in Atlanta late this season or next.)
Asked to give a scouting report on his buddy, Freeman replied, "Menacing. When he goes up to bat, everybody gets quiet. It's fun to watch him play the game because he plays it the right way. Always hustling. Always doing what he needs to do."
His upside? "Hah!" Freeman cackled. Then, quietly and seriously: "I think what everybody else thinks."
The consensus is that Heyward can't miss, and his first week in the majors—he went 6 for his first 20 (.300), with two home runs, seven RBIs and a .391 on-base percentage—did nothing to dampen expectations. "The kid," Jones says, "is the real deal. There are only a few players in the game that when the ball comes off their bat you go, 'Whoa.' He's one of them. Pitchers will stop pitching to him. And when they do, he won't expand the strike zone. He'll walk 140 times.
"It's not a question of if he will be a star but a question of when. And he's a very humble kid."
Freeman and Heyward were born one month apart in 1989 and raised, in a baseball sense, the same way. They were professionals before they were professionals. Freeman played 150 games a year and traipsed to 15 combine-style showcase events around the country. He allowed himself to take off Christmas Day, so long as he was back in the cage with his dad the next morning.
"We're from opposite ends of the country," Heyward says, "but we like a lot of the same things: music, movies, just chillin'. Oh, he likes my music. I don't like all of his."
"He doesn't like my country," Freeman says. "He likes videogames, but not as much as I do. We both like to be inside. We don't like to be out. Both of us like to get our rest. We talk about anything. It's just fun to be around each other."
So who did the cooking when they roomed together?
They both laughed. Watching the two of them yuk it up recalled what was said about the Beatles: The most fun they ever had together was right before they made it really big, before a complicated life became the price of so much talent.
"You think about when you're kids," Freeman said during spring training, "and see these guys on TV and now you're in the same clubhouse as Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox. It's just so much fun to relax and just play baseball for a living. It's a great time in my life. I'm never going to forget it, and it's very humbling."
"For sure," Heyward said, continuing his friend's thought, like two train cars hitched to one engine. "Waking up every day and coming to the ballpark and playing baseball ... that's a good feeling."
It is the only life, the only game, Jason Heyward ever wanted. It is about to get so much bigger.
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