LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA – The date is March 26, 2010 and it’s one to remember. J-Hey Kid made it to the majors.
Jason Heyward was called into manager Bobby Cox’s office about 8:45 a.m. on Friday morning in Braves camp and told he would be on the Opening Day roster.
“I said ‘I’m delighted to tell you that you’re on the team, Jason, simply because it makes us a better team,’” a beaming Cox relayed Friday morning from the Braves dugout.
Heyward will be the Braves starting right fielder on Opening Day. As chipper as Cox sounded, Heyward was just as cool.
“Not surprised, not relieved,” Heyward said when asked for his reaction, after batting practice. “It’s just says ‘Let’s go.’ I’ve got less than a week’s time to get ready for the season.”
At the moment he said that, Heyward had just finished off a plate of tuna salad and a bowl of fruit. He had not made any phone calls, not to his family or friends or agents. His closest friend on the team – Freddie Freeman – who lockers beside Heyward hadn’t even heard the news until coming into the Braves clubhouse after batting practice a little after 11 a.m.
Heyward said he would make his calls after the game.
It took some pressing, but Heyward eventually gave a little insight to the emotion he felt walking out of Cox’s office.
“It was cool,” Heyward said. “It was awesome. Never experienced it before. It won’t happen again. It was a great feeling.”
After only two full seasons in the minor leagues years, his talents and major-league readiness were undeniable. Entering Friday’s spring training game against Detroit, Heyward was hitting .366, with four doubles a home run and five RBIs. He’d recorded hits in 13 of the Braves’ first 16 games.
After ripping pitch after pitch this spring, obliging fans with late-night tweeting and autograph sessions, and handling constant media attention with calm and maturity, Heyward is headed for the big leagues.
It’s time to turn in No. 71, a typical spring training number that implies minor-league anonymity, for something lower. The Braves haven’t announced it yet, but it’ll be No. 22.
With a week to go before the Braves break camp and head for Atlanta, the Braves decided to put an end to the biggest question of spring training: would Heyward, arguably the top prospect in baseball, open the season on the team.
Cox and front office officials met Friday morning and decided to go ahead and tell Heyward and make the announcement.
“It’s time to tell him,” Cox said. “We’ve got a week to go, time to make the announcement.”
The decision had all but been made for them on the field. Heyward has been awing Braves camps for two years now with his towering home run shots in batting practice, shattering car windows beyond the outfield fence.
Heyward topped that with his towering home run off the Tigers in a game in Lakeland, but it’s been more than his power. It’s his patience at the plate – he’s drawn nine walks and has a .500 on-base percentage. He’s stolen three bases. And he’s made all the plays in the outfield, including a great running catch on Thursday against the Pirates.
“I would have had to have been blind not to see what he showed,” Cox said. “…He does everything good, runs above average, throws above average, his arm is above-average accuracy, he runs the bases way above average, he catches everything in right field. He’s not just a swinger. He’ll take a walk. For (age) 20, I’m saying a lot, OK?”
Heyward was hitting sixth in the Braves order for Friday’s game. That’s probably about where Cox will bat him as the season starts. Now that he’s arrived, the Braves don’t want to put anymore pressure on Heyward than necessary.
“We want to keep our expectations, with common sense,” Cox said. “Everybody is going to think he’s going to hit 40 home runs, hit .330 and drive in 150 runs.”
Cox wants Heyward to get comfortable, not that he’s anything but already. Cox said Heyward’s reaction Friday was calm, mature.
“I think his reaction would have been the same if I had told him you’re going to AAA,” Cox said. “He’s that far ahead of the game with maturity. He’s a ballplayer. He wants to play.”