Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – A dented Coca-Cola truck and a smashed sunroof on a team executive’s car. The carnage from Braves prospect Jason Heyward’s first rounds of batting practice Tuesday.
“He’s strong as an ox,” hitting coach Terry Pendleton said of the 6-foot-5, 245-pound rookie right fielder.
“Every ball was just scalded,” said manager Bobby Cox, who compared the sound of the ball off Heyward’s bat to when Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle took batting practice.
The Coke truck was rolling past the right-center field fence at Champion Stadium when Heyward hit a screamer towards the gap. The ball kept rising, the seemed to hone in on its target, smashing into it with the sound like a brick against a garage door.
A few swings later, the same truck was parked in a lot behind the right-field fence. Heyward, 20, hit a ball completely over it, smashing the sunroof of assistant general manager Bruce Manno’s car.
“I have a big frame, I guess that’s where some of that comes from,” Heyward said modestly, while standing in the Braves clubhouse, in an undershirt stretched tight around his bulging biceps.
He hit line drives to all parts of the field, including one up the middle that ricocheted with alarming ferocity off a T-shaped screen that protects the person – in this case Pendleton – throwing batting practice.
The coach threw the next pitch behind Heyward, and the big rookie laughed along with Pendleton and everyone else standing at the batting cage.
“The ball sounds a little different coming off his bat, doesn’t it?” Pendleton said later.
“His line drive is like the old Hank Aaron sound,” Cox said. “I don’t want to put him in that class, but it’s the same sound. The same ring off the bat.”
Braves officials say Heyward can win the right-field job if he shows he’s ready in spring training. The decision won’t be based on what he does in batting practice, obviously.
But power displays like this will make things more interesting this spring, while adding to an aura around the Henry County High graduate. Heyward insists he never tries to hit home runs – even in batting practice.
“I’m a line-drive guy,” said Heyward, rated baseball’s No. 1 prospect by ESPN, Baseball America and MLB.com. “Anything that happens to come after a line drive is great.”
Veteran utility man Eric Hinske, a former American League Rookie of the Year, hit in the same group as the young center of attention Tuesday.
“He looks like he’s all he’s been built up to be,” Hinske said. “His body reminds me of a bigger Carl Crawford, and he hits balls like Cliff Floyd — that hard. Low line drives.”
And plenty of line drives that start out low and keep rising … and rising.
“A line drive that just happens to go a little further,” Heyward said of his homers.
Hinske wasn’t around last spring when Heyward left a good impression as a 19-year-old non-roster invitee in spring training. But the veteran has noticed why other Braves and team officials laud Heyward for more than physical ability.
“He just comes in and does his work quietly,” Hinske said. “He knows he’s a rookie and knows he shouldn’t say much. That’s good. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”