Buzz surrounding Heyward is inescapable
Attendance, jersey sales show Atlanta is behind outfielder
ATLANTA -- Whether he has been doing business in Atlanta, walking the grounds at Augusta National or conducting meetings outside the state of Georgia, Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk has been delighted that he cannot escape the buzz that Jason Heyward has created during the first two weeks of his Major League career.
"He's having an effect in Atlanta and an effect throughout the country," McGuirk said. "Everywhere I go, they are talking about Jason Heyward. You expect the buzz to be here, but you don't expect it to be as high as it is everywhere else."
Widely regarded as the game's top prospect, Heyward has spent the first two weeks of his Major League career providing an indication that it might not be long before he is regarded as the game's newest superstar.
In the process of collecting a team-high 15 RBIs through his first 12 games, the Braves 20-year-old outfielder has electrified Turner Field with his memorable Opening Day homer and his two-out, two-run walk-off single in Sunday's 4-3 win over the Rockies.
"He's a special kid," Braves 24-year-old pitcher Jair Jurrjens said of Heyward, who is just three years removed from his successful career at suburban Atlanta's Henry County High School.
Five years ago, Jeff Francoeur traveled a path very similar to Heyward's. Francoeur started building his legendary status as a two-sport superstar at suburban Atlanta's Parkview High School. Less than two months into his tenure as the Braves' right fielder, he was labeled on a Sports Illustrated cover as "The Chosen One."
But as the residents of Atlanta grow excited to watch the development of their newest hometown hero, they obviously recognize differences between Francoeur and Heyward that extend far beyond plate discipline.
While Francouer was once considered to be the next Dale Murphy or the next Chipper Jones, Heyward has the opportunity to follow his own path to greatness and serve as an inspiration to members of Atlanta's African-American population.
"If you want to look at a potential big-time player going a long way, Jason is the guy," said former Bravers outfielder Brian Jordan. "He is the guy that Atlanta has been waiting for."
Since ending his days as a two-sport star who enjoyed stints with the Braves and Falcons, Jordan has become a broadcaster and continues to be a key figure in Atlanta's African-American community. He met Heyward nearly five years ago and has come to recognize that this mature young outfielder's contributions to his hometown could extend far beyond the diamond.
"When you talk about intellect and athleticism and you combine it, this kid has a bright future outside of baseball, just with his intelligence and the way he handles himself," Jordan said. "You've got to have more than just being a great athlete. That's where a lot of guys lose it. If you're going to get the media and corporations behind a guy, this is the guy."
Sponsors will likely line up soon -- looking for Heyward to help them sell a product or a brand name -- but the fans of Atlanta are already attracted to the presence of the new right fielder.
From a merchandising standpoint, Heyward jerseys and T-shirts are selling at about the same pace as the Francoeur ones did during his first two weeks in Atlanta. But from an attendance standpoint, the Braves are able to at least guess that Heyward is bringing a few more people to the ballpark.
The Braves have drawn 44,440 more fans than they did through the first six home dates of the 2009 season. For sure, they benefited from opening this season against the popular Cubs. Last year, the first two home series were played against the Nationals and Marlins.
But while listening to fans roar and chant Heyward's name as he came to the plate on Opening Day, Braves manager Bobby Cox is convinced that Heyward has already influenced the attendance numbers at Turner Field.
"He has excited these fans," Cox said. "We're getting some pretty decent crowds right now with some teams that we don't normally draw that well with. He's a big part of that."
Heyward was featured in last week's edition of Sports Illustrated, and as he continues to draw media attention, the Braves know that the benefits he can provide extend far beyond his athletic skills.
"It's a good thing for our franchise," McGuirk said. "We need a little spotlight on us. It allows everybody to know that it's time and we're ready. We're expecting to contend this year."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.