Bobby Cox couldn’t think of a suitable antecedent. Neither could Terry Pendleton. Neither could Chipper Jones, who was himself a rookie of immense promise.
“The media spotlight is 10, 20 times bigger than it was even 10 years ago,” Jones said, and that’s true.
When Jason Heyward picked up a bat and walked to the cage Monday, he took in his wake a camera crew and two still photographers. And when he, on his sixth practice swing — actually his fourth full swing, the first two having been bunts — he hoisted a delivery from China Cadahia over the fence in right-center, a writer who has been covering the Braves since 1984 (i.e., me) felt compelled to note it.
“Everyone who gets here has talent,” said Pendleton, the Braves’ hitting coach, speaking as he watched Heyward take his pregame swings. “What’s impressive about him is the way he carries himself, the way he goes about his business.”
Said Chipper: “He’s the real deal.”
Having been here these past 26 years, I can say with some measure of authority that there has never been a Braves rookie whose Opening Day debut has stirred such anticipation. Chipper was a September call-up in 1993. Andruw Jones arrived in August 1996. John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Tommy Hanson were midseason promotions.
Bottom line: There aren’t many rookies who ever make their first big-league start on Opening Day, and there have been few in the history of the sport whose advent has been a bigger deal than Heyward’s. Think not? Just click on this link and you’ll find a story by Ben McGrath in the The New Yorker, which isn’t to be confused with Baseball Digest, on Jason Heyward.
“We had Rafael Furcal start on Opening Day,” Cox said, “and he was 19.” Or thereabouts, someone noted.
“Sometimes 19, sometimes 22,” Cox said, laughing.
And Rafael Furcal, however old he was, wound up being the 2000 Rookie of the Year. If the projections for Heyward are accurate, he’ll win the 2010 ROY award and then the MVP before 2015. You wonder if the wattage of this spotlight will prove too great for any 20-year-old, but everyone who has been around Jason Heyward makes the same point: He’s not just another 20-year-old. He’s different. He’s special.
And we’ll be here all afternoon and into the evening to see how he fares. Join me for this august occasion. (Though technically it’s April. I made a little joke.) I’ll be obliged if you did.
Update: On cue, Jason Heyward hit a home run his first time up. Off Carlos Zambrano. Three-run shot way back into the bullpen in right-center. Crushed it. Whoa.