One swing into his big-league life, Jason Heyward made everybody go crazy. It had been loud before he turned on Carlos Zambrano’s fastball, but now the ballpark was the inside of a jet engine, a Spinal Tap amp cranked up to 11, a ballpark that didn’t feel like sedate Turner Field at all.
Said Heyward: “I couldn’t hear myself think. It was like … ” And here the rookie made a sound of a waterfall crashing, of a lion roaring, of how it felt to be rounding the bases in the center of stadium full of folks who’d waited all spring to see something like this. Only how could anyone imagine they’d see something exactly like this?
A three-run homer the rookie’s first time up as a big-leaguer? A three-run homer that broke a 3-all tie? A three-run homer that traveled, according to one estimate, 446 feet? You’ve got to be kidding.
Indeed, that’s what Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton reported those in the dugout were yelling to one another. “As soon as he hit it, we started high-fiving and saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ You can’t script something like that.”
Said Chipper Jones: “I haven’t felt electricity like that in a long time.”
Said Heyward: “I remember it being loud when I came to the playoffs against the Marlins in 1997.”
Jason Heyward was 8 at the time. At age 20 he authored the greatest Opening Day moment in Turner Field history. The vaunted prospect who’d spent spring training bombarding automobiles came north and, with one swing, took us back to those days when every trip to the old stadium yielded some fresh wonder: Three pitchers working a combined no-hitter; Otis Nixon scaling the fence; Sid Bream sliding home.
Jason Heyward, who’s 20 but who acts twice that, said the one swing meant only that his team had taken the lead. “If I didn’t know I belonged [in the big leagues] before that swing, then I don’t belong.”
The day had begun with Heyward hitting a homer on his sixth swing in batting practice and had continued apace with him catching the ceremonial first pitch delivered by Hank Aaron. And then the script got silly good: Five of the first six Braves reached and the No. 7 hitter punctured eardrums.
Afterward he got the full treatment: A shaving-cream pie in the face from Peter Moylan. (Heyward stopped his postgame interviews only long enough to wipe his face; the bulk of the session was done with his scalp covered with the white stuff.) For posterity, he was presented the bat, the ball — bullpen coach Eddie Perez retrieved it — and the day’s lineup card as autographed by Bobby Cox.
Pendleton: “It will be a big moment for a long time — for him, and for a lot of us … He was what the crowd had anticipated, and here he comes. He gives us a moment we’ll be buzzing about for weeks.”
You couldn’t script this sort of thing, but somehow when the ball was flying toward the distant bullpen you weren’t surprised. Because that is the promise inherent in Jason Heyward. He’s the best position player the Braves have developed since Andruw Jones, who famously hit two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. But even Andruw Jones didn’t hit a home run on his first swing.
One swing into his big-league life, Jason Heyward gave us a reason to get excited about the Braves in way we haven’t been in years. Five times he batted, and each time the chant came: “Let’s go, Hey-ward!” And, for a welcome change, not once did we hear, “Let’s go, Cubs!”
Said Heyward: “We’re Atlanta’s team. And we didn’t disappoint today.”
They’re Atlanta’s team. He’s an Atlanta guy. Neither disappointed this day.