LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – This is what we do, and by “we,” I mean everybody – fans, media, ex-athletes who now clutch microphones, the occasional bitter coach or scout, certainly that anonymous subculture that exists behind wacky screen names and disseminates wonderful new damning statistics that were invented, like, seven minutes earlier.
In Year 1, we embraced and celebrated.
“Hitting a home run on Opening Day — that was awesome,” Jason Heyward recalled Wednesday.
In Year 2, we questioned and trashed.
“Unfortunately I got hurt and I can’t control that,” he added moments later. “And as far as fans, media, whatever — I can’t control that, either.”
Why do we do this?
Jason Heyward is 22 years old. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that. Were you a finished product and ready for public consumption/dissection at 22? We watch and hear about athletes from the time they’re in high school now, and something in our brain says, “OK, I’ve known this kid for five years. He should be ready.”
Heyward was runner-up for the National League’s Rookie of the Year award in 2010. He hit .277 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs. His first major league at-bat: a three-run homer. He was projected as the Braves’ next great star. He was forecast as Atlanta’s next great sports icon. Young, athletic, good looking, Atlanta native, African American — marketing nirvana for the home franchise.
Everybody started erecting the scaffolding for the elevated stage a little too soon — because that’s what we do.
So when a few things started to go wrong last season – the slow start, the shoulder injury, the messed-up swing as a result of changes prompted by the injury, the drop in production that led some fans to scream, “We want more Jose Constanza!” – Heyward faced public criticism for the first time. When Chipper Jones said Heyward needed to learn what injuries he can play through, some concluded he was throwing Heyward under the bus. (He wasn’t.)
The spotlight can be overwhelming for a young athlete when so much is expected so soon. Former Brave Fred McGriff has been in camp this week and worked with Heyward, watching him in the cage and counseling him. McGriff said he had it easier when he broke into the majors with Toronto.
“When I came up, I played with Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, all those older guys,” he said. “They hit me eighth in the order, so I had a lot less pressure on me. If I did well, great. If I didn’t, that was OK, too. I could ease into it.”
Heyward says he’s fine. He also wants to correct a few misconceptions: This isn’t the first time in his baseball life that something has gone wrong. It’s just the first time on such a grand stage. So the obvious question: How does he respond?
“All of us got here by doing what we know how to do, whether it’s mentally, physically, what have you,” Heyward said. “You want to stay as close to that as possible. Keep having fun, keep trying to get better. I’m 22 years old, and I didn’t get here this quickly by not making adjustments, by not learning on the fly, by not handling pressure situations, by not knowing how fans or media might take things. I’ve done a lot of things the right way, and that’s why I am who I am and part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”
He has had a lot of people in his ear. Probably too many. As general manager Frank Wren said, “From the time you have an 0-fer, somebody’s got a reason why. It could be as simple as, ‘The pitcher’s better than me today.’ Sometimes we try to make it way too complicated. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and go after it again.”
Heyward will do that. Depending on how this season goes, he’ll be viewed as either the next Clemente or the next Francoeur. Because unfortunately, that’s what we do.
By Jeff Schultz