LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The expectations in the past few weeks have grown like some mutant life form. First we wondered if he could make the team in spring training. Then we wondered how many cars he would destroy in batting practice. Now there’s a thought he has first ballot Hall of Famer stamped on his forehead. And if not, what’s wrong with those crazy voters?
It wasn’t like this even for Tommy Hanson. Or Jordan Schafer. Or Jeff Francoeur, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Andy Marte or Chipper Jones. No Braves prospect in memory has created the stir that Jason Heyward has.
Even Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton said he has never seen a player with the combination of Heyward’s talent, attitude and maturity. Never.
All of this begs the question: Is there a danger in expecting too much too soon? We’re one candlelight vigil short of the kid being declared a deity.
“To be fair to Jason, the general public is going to need to realize there’s going to be a learning curve,” Jones said. “Whether it’s the beginning of April or the end of May, or whenever, I hope people temper their expectations a little bit. We all hope he comes out like a house of fire and he’s another Albert Pujols. But he’s under enough pressure. Just leave him alone and let him play.”
Pressure? If Heyward is stressed, he excels at hiding it. Sitting on the floor, legs stretched out in front of his locker, wearing jersey No. 71 and tucked into the back room of the clubhouse with the slightly more obscure “non-roster invitees,” Heyward looks at people like they’re from Neptune when they ask about concepts like pressure and high expectations.
There’s a circus around him. But he’s oblivious. Understand, he isn’t merely a great prospect. He is a home-grown, great prospect. He is bright, talented and good looking. Pepsodent smile. Idol material. An African American in the city of Atlanta.
Whether we’re talking baseball or marketing, Jason Heyward is a grand slam.
“I’m not going to put pressure on myself,” Heyward said. “There’s no pressure for me to do anything. I just want to have fun playing the game. If I go for 0-for-4 or 0-for-19, I mean, that’s life. It’s baseball. It’s just a game.”
And there’s no thought of what media or fans are projecting?
“I couldn’t tell you what other people’s expectations are,” he said. “When I was a fan growing up, I didn’t have high expectations. I just watched the game and enjoyed it for what it was.”
There is a chance he makes the team out of spring training. There’s a chance he starts the season in right field and takes up permanent residency. Maybe he becomes a staple, like Henry Aaron, Dale Murphy and David Justice. (Francoeur shot up like a bottle rocket, then nose-dived just as fast.)
Jones already has noticed the 20-year-old standing in right field alone, learning how to take angles on fly balls. “I’ve noticed because I’m looking to help guys if they need it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have to say anything to him.”
Pendleton said, “A lot of players say they don’t live for the hype but they really do. They read everything about themselves. Not this guy. He’s just different.”
Heyward’s reaction to all this? Whatever.
“I’ve had emotions – I wasn’t born like this,” he said, trying to explain his even-keeled nature. “I’ve been exposed to a lot growing up. My parents have shown me everything, from my uncle living in a trailer park in South Carolina to their friends who are living in Beverly Hills.”
The Braves made a conscious decision to say Heyward could make the team in the spring. “He deserved it,” Bobby Cox said. “That’s when the hype really started.”
Cox is aware of the dangers of this, but said: “It depends what your expectations are. Can he beat somebody out in spring training? Yes. Is he going to hit .330 with 40 homers? No, not even close. Even Mickey Mantle almost had to go back down. Willie Mays got off to a horrendous start. Not that I’m comparing him to those guys.”
No. Not yet.
Earlier posts from Braves’ camp: