Gammons: Heyward works hard to play hard
Young phenom the product of athletic legacy, family sacrifice
The question put to the Braves' Jason Heyward was whether being the new "new" thing of the 2010 season was at all uncomfortable -- with his veteran teammates or his fellow Minor Leaguers or his manager, Bobby Cox.
Or with comparisons, as the phenom has been likened to Willie McCovey. And Willie Stargell.
"The [Darryl] Strawberry comparison isn't right. I'd say Fred McGriff," Cox chimed in.
Astros manager Brad Mills asked Cox, "When did you get Cliff Floyd?" Mills later added, "In five years he's Dave Parker."
Mills went on about the line drive off the bat of Heyward that his second baseman reached for -- only to see it rocket off the right-center-field fence.
"It's been great, because I love to play," said Heyward, the 20-year-old who stands at 6-foot-6 and a lean 245 pounds -- up from the 210 he weighed when he signed with the Braves in 2007. "There have been no problems. Everyone has been wonderful to me. Veteran players couldn't be more supportive. I love to play. I love to play hard. I try to play the right way. I was brought up by parents who taught me to treat everyone with respect, to treat them the way I want to be treated. It's a simple way to go about life, but my parents taught me that from an early age."
"Not only is he the real deal," said veteran teammate Brian McCann, "but he's the real deal off the field. Everyone loves him. Man, does he play hard."
"This kid," said Eric "Mr. October" Hinske, "isn't real. He might be the best 20-year-old ever."
"I saw him when he was a freshman in high school [at Henry County High School in McDonough, Ga., 35 miles south of Atlanta]," said Braves scout Brian Bridges. "I was there to see a pitcher [teammate Mike Rozier, who got $1.5 million from the Red Sox after being drafted in 2004 and never panned out], and [Heyward] jumped out at me. He was six-foot, maybe six-foot-one, lean body, but he could really hit. Jason always was a hitter, a pure hitter. Disciplined. Then he got huge.
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"But I'll never forget being at the Perfect Game Showcase in Florida the summer before his senior year, and I told him to slow down, pace himself from playing so hard all the time. He looked at me and said, 'Mr. Bridges, I always play hard. There's no other way to play.' Great parents. There's a lot to be said for scouting families, be it Derek Jeter or Joe Mauer or Dustin Pedroia or whoever."
There is no chance involved with Heyward. This is all about being raised by Eugene and Laura Heyward.
"When I was coming out of high school, I had a full ride to UCLA for baseball," said Heyward. "But I've got a lot to thank Dartmouth for."
It was in Hanover, N.H., that Laura, a French major who spent her junior year in Paris, met Eugene, an engineering major who was also on the Dartmouth basketball team. Eugene's coach, Gary Walters, was on the 1964-65 Princeton team with Bill Bradley that finished third in the country. One of Eugene's best friends in college was Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's vice president of baseball operations.
Laura was raised in Queens, N.Y. Eugene was born into a military family in Beaufort, S.C., and when his parents divorced, they sent him to Los Angeles to live with his uncle and attend a private school. That uncle was Kenny Washington, who was the sixth man on the 1963-64 and 1964-65 UCLA national championship basketball teams, John Wooden's first two championship teams.
"I was able to spend a lot of free time at Pauley Pavilion, working out, playing with Kareem and Marquis Johnson and guys like that," the elder Heyward said. "It was fantastic. Dartmouth recruited me, and I was really excited, and was able to go back East so I could visit my father."
Understand Eugene Heyward's family. His grandfather always made him say "please" and "thank you" and attend to civility.
"His favorite expressions were 'books before basketball' and 'academics before athletics,' " Eugene said.
When that grandfather retired from the military at the age of 66, he went back to high school and got his diploma. Eugene's mother went back and got her graduate degree at the age of 34.
After Eugene received his graduate degree in electrical engineering from Dartmouth in 1982, he and Laura lived in New York. Jason was born in 1989, and when he was two years old, the family moved to McDonough. Eugene worked for ITT Industries on the Warner-Robbins Air Force Base and Laura eventually became a systems analyst for Georgia Power.
"I never wanted Jason to play basketball," said Eugene. "My first love was baseball, and he took to it before he was six."
Eugene coached Little League with a man named Ricky Archer, who Eugene said "taught us all the fundamentals -- throwing, catching the ball the right way, bunting, taking secondary leads."
When Jason was eight years old, his team won the AABC National title after busing 18 hours to Colorado for the tournament. Then, from the ages of 9 to 13, Eugene was his coach.
"It was great, because almost all of the dozen kids were from our church," Eugene said. "We'd raise money any way we could. I remember the kids standing along the side of I-75 selling donuts. We were called Georgia Nitro, and we were in the WABC championships every year. Jason pitched, played first."
The father-and-son pair would go to Braves games together, and Eugene would say such things as, "Look at that secondary lead."
Jason would remind his father to just enjoy the game.
Every year until his son signed with Atlanta in 2007, Eugene would ask, "Do you still love playing?"
Jason always said yes, and Eugene would remind his son, the future star, to every day ask himself, "Am I who I want to be?"
When Jason was finished with Little League, Eugene enrolled him in one of the nation's finest amateur programs, East Cobb. That required sacrifice.
Eugene's commute to Warner-Robbins was an hour and a half in one direction, so he'd get up at 3 a.m. to get to work between 5:30 and 6. He'd get out of work at 1 p.m., drive the 90 minutes back to McDonough, pick up Jason and drive another 90 minutes in the opposite direction to the East Cobb practice. One condition: Jason had to do his homework in the car to and from practice.
During Jason's senior year in high school, he was told by his father that his college tuition had been spent on baseball, so he needed to get a scholarship. No problem. Many schools were interested, but the family connections prompted UCLA to offer a full baseball scholarship. Washington, now in law enforcement helping inner-city kids work their way out of gangs, would be a familial influence if and when Jason moved to Los Angeles.
The scholarship was never necessary. Looking back, what is amazing is that Heyward lasted until the 14th pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
"A lot of scouts came in [to see Heyward play], and he got walked so much, many of them thought he wasn't aggressive enough swinging the bat," said Bridges.
But that discipline is one of the things that will make Heyward's jump to the big leagues easier. Through Monday he had five walks, one homer, five hits and one strikeout in 12 plate appearances, and Cox says thst one strikeout came on two bad calls.
Heyward is quickly becoming part of Atlanta's baseball lore, so unlike the situation with Tommy Hanson last spring, it is going to be very difficult for the Braves to send him to the Minors to start the season, especially given their need for outfield power.
"He plays defense," said Cox. "He throws. He is a great baserunner. ... He does everything, and he does it fundamentally sound."
But, perhaps most important, he's Laura and Eugene Heyward's son.
Part of the joy of Spring Training is searching out the "Jason Heywards" rising toward the game's highest level, and finding among them talented young players whose passion elevates them. Such as Pirates rookie Tony Sanchez, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
"I think I was the happiest person in the world when I was told to get in there," Sanchez said of his debut last week, which included a home run, a great throw on a steal and another rocket on a bunt.
"Sanchez is going to be catching for this team for a long time," said Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has become attached to rookie outfielder Tyson Gillies, acquired in the Cliff Lee deal.
"He plays like Pete Rose," said Manuel.
Gillies homered last week, and he ran so hard that scouts clocked him at 4.1 seconds to first and 16.5 seconds around the bases.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Manuel.
People never stop talking about 20-year-old Cuban Jose Iglesias in Boston because of his hands, his energy, his intelligence, his mastering of the English language in months. They believe Iglesias is going to hit. They have a device to measure bat speed; Iglesias is second on the team, after Pedroia. They tested his sight; his eyes are the best on the team.
"He's going to be a star," said one Boston official, "and people will love him because he loves the game so much."
Those are great stories, and there will be miles and miles of hype about Stephen Strasburg's three home starts in Washington (ka-ching) before he is sent to the Minors. But the story of Spring Training right now is of a kid whose father drove six hours a day so his son could play with the best youth baseball program in the South.
"I cannot express how proud I was this weekend watching Jason play for the Braves," said Eugene. "My grandfather would have been really proud."
That same grandfather got out of the military at the age of 66 and earned his high school degree. The grandfather's great-grandson has the genes of UCLA national championships and the fiber of generations who were taught to look in the mirror and ask, "Am I who I want to be?"
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.