Is Jason Heyward Hype All Too Much?
The question was about the suffocating hype engulfing the 20-year-old world of Jason Heyward, but Chipper Jones just laughed. After a pause to gather himself at his locker inside of the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, the future Hall of Fame third baseman began to respond with a few words. Then he laughed again.
What's so funny about this?
Here you have Heyward, a rookie without even a full week in the major leagues, but given that he is physically and mentally gifted as a player, and that he is an African-American in a city full of them, and that he has charisma, and that his hometown is just 20 miles to the south of the ballpark ...
Well, here's the question: Is it wise that Jason A. Heyward (the "A" likely stands for Awesome) is designated around this franchise and throughout this city as Hank Aaron 2.0 or even as a 21st century Jackie Robinson in some ways?
I don't know. I really don't. Then again, I've rarely seen a young player with this much swirling around him stay so calm in the middle of it all.
Before Wednesday's game against the Chicago Cubs, Heyward stood in the middle of the clubhouse talking to a couple of reporters about poetry. "That probably was my best subject in school. English, writing. Stuff like that," he said, somewhat shyly, but nevertheless making eye contact with each of his visitors. He attended nearby Henry County High School, where he was pushed toward respectable grades courtesy of his parents, who both are Ivy League graduates.
T.I. Jay-Z. Then Heyward left in a rush, because the Braves' Superman had work to do in the batting cage and on the field -- despite the world tugging on his cape. He has interview requests from every publication and Web site you can name. The same goes for television and radio shows. According to members of the Braves public relations department, they've never had anything close to this many people seeking to speak with one of their players at the start of his career.
"I try to picture myself going through what he's going through at 20 years old," said Jones, straight-faced before he burst into more giggles. While sitting three weeks shy of his 38th birthday, he thought back to the mid-1990s, when he also was a universally hyped prospect. "Oh, my goodness. Jason compared to me? We're not even in the same hemisphere when it comes to that," said Jones, of Heyward, who wasn't allowed under baseball rules to have his shirts or jerseys sold to the public until after he officially played his first game. When that officially happened after five innings were completed on Monday night, the Braves sold 500 of them.
This also is official: J-Hey mania is unrelenting and unbelievable, with no signs of stopping for maybe a decade or so.
"When I was 20, I was in A-ball, and he's in the majors," said Jones, shaking his head, while glancing toward Heyward across the way. "When I was 20, I would have been severely overmatched at this level. He's not. He's just a freak."
Whatever Heyward is, he continued as exactly that Wednesday night during his second game in the majors. Soon after his first at-bat for the evening began with loud and spontaneous cheers ("Jason Heyward, clap, clap -- clap, clap, clap"), the 6-foot-5, 240-pound left-handed linebacker of a slugger lashed a double into the right-field corner to knock in the game's first run.
It was Monday night all over again.
Monday night will live forever for the Braves Nation.
Monday night was Heyward's debut in the majors, and with his first swing ever in the bottom of the first inning, he broke a 3-3 tie with a blast into the Braves' bullpen beyond the fence in right-center field. There were two runners on base at the time.
You can still hear the noise, which is why Braves general manager Frank Wren couldn't stop grinning on Wednesday night with the memory.
"Oh, wow. I got a tingling feeling, because that chanting that started when he came up to the plate was unlike an Atlanta crowd," said Wren, before adding, "It was something you would hear in New York. When it started around the stadium, and then when he took the first two pitches, and then he hit the third pitch a mile, you know. The place went crazy, because it was a special moment."
Heyward got another hit Monday night that produced his fourth RBI along the way to 16-5 rout for the Braves, but he wasn't as impressive Wednesday night. He followed that double with a couple of strikeouts.
It didn't matter, though. Not only did the Braves win anyway -- when Jones ripped a two-run homer in the eighth to push his trailing team toward a 3-2 victory -- but Heyward still was hugged throughout the game by the choppers and the chanters, because he has all of those designations.
Those huge ones.
That African-American thing: There are a dwindling few in the major leagues, and the Braves have been conspiciously low. For one, Atlanta's African-American population is among the biggest in the nation. For another, the Braves averaged more than five African-Americans on their rosters during the early-to-mid 1990s when they were sprinting to a record 14 consecutive division titles.
Once, the Braves even had 11 African-Americans on their roster, but since 1997, when they traded the significant likes of David Justice, Marquis Grissom and Jermaine Dye, they've averaged between zero to one.
That top rookie thing: According to Baseball America, no prospect is better out of the 30 teams in the majors. (FanHouse's Frankie Piliere ranked him fourth in baseball this January.)
That history thing: The Braves have featured a slew of highly touted rookies since they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. They've had four Rookie of the Year winners during that stretch in Earl Williams (1971), Bob Horner (1978), David Justice (1990) and Rafael Furcal (2000). Plus, they've had Dale Murphy starting his near Hall of Fame career during the mid-1970s before Tom Glavine and John Smoltz began their inevitable sprints to Cooperstown during the late 1980s.
There also were those hyped starts for the two Joneses. You already know about Chipper, but then you had Andruw, who became better than Mickey Mantle in 1996 by homering in a World Series at 19. He topped the Mick's old record by a year as the youngest player ever to do so. He did so at Yankee Stadium, too, which was Mantle's old roaming grounds. If that wasn't enough, Andruw actually slammed two homers in his first two World Series at bats, and he did all of that on Mantle's birthday.
"For Andruw to do that, and to live up to that for a long time (through 2007), it was pretty evident that he had something special, especially with that swagger and with that cockiness of his," said Smoltz, now a color analyst on Braves telecasts. "But we've also seen what can happen on the other side with Jeff Francoeur, when everything is great, and then you can have a piling on of too much."
For instance: Francoeur was on the cover of Sports Illustrated during his rookie year in 2005 as an Atlanta-area native, but he was booed out of town with a trade to the New York Mets during the 2009 season as a local bust.
"As for Heyward, I'm happy, ecstatic, all the words I can think of when you see a guy accomplish something in a quick time, being 20, having the tools that he possesses," said Smoltz, before a long pause. "I'd be very cautious just knowing the nature of the beast, you know, but I think it's all because this kid has the makings of being something special for a long time."
Which brings me back to my original question.
Is this just too much?
"I really don't think it fazes him," Jones said. "If his abilities garner attention from the national media, if they garner attention from the local media, if they garner attention from the black community, he can handle it. You know what I mean? And to be honest with you, I think he welcomes it."
Actually, Heyward has no choice.