Heyward keeping calm, cool amid hype
Braves' top prospect not looking ahead as opener nears
BRADENTON, Fla. -- While Braves fans eagerly anticipated his arrival, Jason Heyward approached what were his final days as a Minor Leaguer with the calm demeanor usually reserved for a seasoned Major League veteran.
"I think he's always going to be like this," Minor League first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "He's got that head on his shoulders and he's very mature. He knows what he has to do on the field, and he's always going to stay calm. He doesn't want to get out of his zone."
Having seemingly provided all of the necessary positive impressions, Heyward made it easy for the Braves to formally announce on Friday what was assumed for quite some time: he will be the Braves' starting right fielder when they open the season on April 5 against the Cubs at Turner Field.
"I would've had to be blind not to see what he showed," manager Bobby Cox said on Friday, shortly after informing Heyward that he had made the team.
Just three years removed from his stellar career at suburban Atlanta's Henry County High School, Heyward is nearing the realization of a special dream, and at the same time, he's hiding his emotions in a manner that may draw the envy of some members of the professional poker circuit.
When asked Wednesday afternoon if he shared some of the assumptions being drawn by the many who expected to see him in the Opening Day lineup, Atlanta's 20-year-old outfielder calmly said, "My only assumption is that I'm hitting seventh and playing right field today."
"The fact that he doesn't want to think about it just shows his maturity," outfielder Matt Diaz said. "He just wants to think about today. I think that's one of the reasons he is able to walk around so calm, because he's really only worried about things he can control.
"If he thinks something is out of his control, I don't think he stresses over it too much. If he does, he does a great job of hiding it, because you can't tell by looking at him or talking to him that he's worried about it one way or the other."
During the early days of this Grapefruit League season, Heyward calmly and successfully accepted the challenge provided by the opportunity the Braves gave him. He compiled a .440 (11-for-25) batting average and drew nine walks before Saturday, when the Blue Jays were able to snap his 12-game streak of reaching base safely.
After being retired in his first two at-bats against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon, Heyward had gone hitless in nine straight at-bats. Within this mini-slump, the heralded outfielder, who is widely considered the game's top prospect, showed some emotion when he slammed his bat in frustration at the conclusion of one at-bat.
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"We're going to see a little more excitement," hitting coach Terry Pendleton said. "That's my belief. If he could stay this way all year, it would be great. But he may have some struggles, and if he does, we'll see how he reacts to that."
Heyward has destroyed car windows during batting practice and displayed an advanced plate discipline that led Tigers manager Jim Leyland to draw a comparison between Heyward and a young Albert Pujols. While recording three hits in the six at-bats that followed his mini-slump, the young outfielder has also provided further indication that he won't be emotionally handicapped by the inevitable ups and downs that he is sure to experience.
"It's just fun, that's really all it's ever been," said Heyward, who has hit .375 through his first 16 Grapefruit League games. "It's never been anything more than a game. You learn from it. You just take what it gives you. You're not going to be perfect every day."
As his legend has grown throughout the baseball world this year, Heyward has never seemingly been affected by the widespread attention he has drawn from national media members who have come to camp to tell the story of one of the game's next projected superstars.
"Nobody has been out there on the field with me," Heyward said. "So being on the field is definitely a place where you can keep sane."
According to Freeman, the only time he has seen his close friend antsy or frustrated during the past couple of weeks has come during those instances when he hasn't been able to watch what he wants at their Spring Training residence.
"He doesn't like my 'American Idol,'" Freeman said. "He wants his sports. We play sports, so sometimes I like to watch something else. I'm always the one with the clicker. So that's not my fault. He should choose what I choose. If he wanted it so bad, he would take the remote."
While Heyward hasn't put up too much of a fight to watch sports or some of his favorite crime-solving dramas like "NCIS" or "CSI: Miami," he has seemingly conquered the challenge to prove that he is ready to begin his reign as Atlanta's starting right fielder.
"I just feel prepared," Heyward said. "I don't feel like anything is going to faze me or sneak up on me. Life is valuable, and you've got to take it as it comes."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.