Heyward making Mom and Dad proud

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jason Heyward’s father was never a
professional baseball player. But like a lot of them, he’s the superstitious
type. So he stressed he would not put on an Atlanta Braves baseball cap until
his son made the team.

But while sitting in the Braves’ dugout at ESPN’s Wide World
of Sports complex on Saturday morning, Eugene Heyward did what was the result
of one of his proudest moments as a father: He took off his Mississippi Braves
cap – representing one of the Minor League teams Jason starred for during an
eye-opening 2009 season – and swapped it for one of the Major League version of
the Braves – the one Jason will start for on Opening Day thanks to tremendous
talent and an excellent spring.

heyward_2.jpg

After putting up a .366 batting average and .500 on-base
percentage in his first 16 Grapefruit League games, Heyward was called into
manager Bobby Cox’s office on Friday morning and told he was making the big
league club with just two full seasons of Minor League Baseball under his belt.

Heyward then shot a simple text message to his mother,
Laura, who called her husband, Eugene, who immediately left work.

“My brain went numb, I couldn’t do anything else at work,
and I just told them I’m leaving work for the day,” Eugene said. “[They said,]
‘We understand,’ And I walked out.”

“It’s almost like those tears of joy, but you don’t really
cry, but you can feel the emotion,” Laura added. “It was a lot of emotion
there. Very excited.”

After going back-and-forth on the issue, Laura, Eugene and
Jason’s 14-year-old brother Jacob – a freshman corner infielder at Eagle’s
Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga. – woke up at 4 a.m. ET, then made
the 6 1/2-hour drive to Central Florida to watch Jason and meet some critical
members of the Braves.

“It’s cool that they came down,” said Jason, who went
0-for-4 with a strikeout and a stolen base in the Braves’ 4-0 win over the
Nationals. “They both had already seen me play, but it was my brother’s first
time seeing me play in big league camp here. He didn’t get to come last year,
so it’s just cool that they made it down for the day.”

The level-headed, too-mature-for-his-age Jason comes from a
solid upbringing.

Heyward’s parents are both Dartmouth graduates. His father,
a former collegiate basketball player whose first love was baseball, is an
engineering consultant for the Air Force, and his mother is a quality analyst
for Georgia Power.

While Jason was growing up in Henry County, Eugene and Laura
said they never pressured him into baseball – though they mandated he play
absolutely no tackle football – but always pushed him to be the best at any
venture he undertakes.

“Even when you make it, you’re working hard not to just get
there, but to be one of the best players that ever played the game. That’s the
idea,” Eugene said. “Enjoy that, but do something with it.”

On the day the Braves decided to make Jason’s ascension to
the Majors official, you couldn’t find anybody in the Braves’ clubhouse – not
even Jason himself – who was in any state of surprise over the call.

Eugene wasn’t one of them, either.

“I know my son, I watched him play,” Eugene said. “The stats
speak for themselves. It’s a numbers game. Minor League Player of the Year [in
2009 by Baseball America], no fluke. He played. And I know how hard he works. I
know the sacrifices he made. And he’s always, at every level he’s played, he’s
excelled. He loves baseball. He loves practice, and that’s weird. Weird kid.
And if you love practice, this is gravy.”

Despite that, Eugene checks to make sure every once in a
while.

“I ask him every year, ‘Are you still having fun?'” said Eugene, who has made
the trip to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., twice this spring and a countless amount of
times since Jason was a toddler.

“He’s having fun. I know he’s having fun.”

When you have the tools of somebody like Jason – who hit
.323 with 17 homers, 63 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 99 games while playing in
three levels in the Braves’ farm system last year – it’s pretty hard not to.

After that impressive showing, the Braves went into Spring
Training saying they’d give Heyward – the No. 1-rated prospect by MLB.com and
several other outlets – a realistic shot at cracking the 25-man roster, and
he’s done nothing this spring but impress (and smash car windshields beyond the
right-field fence at Champion Stadium).

The hype has surrounded Jason for a while now, and the
attention will only escalate if he keeps showing this much promise.

“It may be time to get caller ID,” Laura said.

But before any of the spotlight shun on Jason, life was one
long car ride.

Jason’s parents live about 30 miles away from Turner Field,
but they had to drive about 50 miles through traffic to take Jason to school and
baseball practice every day. Eugene said his 1999 GMC Suburban has accumulated
300,000 miles and, “You go in that car, it smells like baseball,” he said.

Back in those days, it was just the local Braves who really
played close attention to Jason. In fact, at 10 years old, Braves scout Al
Goetz was already watching him play.

Now, it’s funny to think 13 teams passed on him in the 2007
First-Year Player Draft.

“I was shocked in the beginning that he didn’t go top five because they picked
a couple of high school players in the top five,” Eugene said. “And I thought
that he was, I’m not saying a better player, but his stats were just as
comparable. I thought he had a higher ceiling point with his size and
athleticism.”

But none of that matters now.

What matters is that in nine days, Jason will be jogging out
to his position at Turner Field on Opening Day. At 20 years old, he’ll be
counted on to help get the Braves get back to the playoffs and give Cox – retiring
at the end of his 26th year with the club – a nice little parting gift.

Or something else?

“He’s trying to change Bobby’s mind,” Eugene said with a
laugh.

“Extremely emotional,” is how Eugene said he’d feel upon
watching his son on Opening Day. “I’m not going to lie about that. I’ve shed
tears watching movies nowadays – I don’t let anybody see me do it, but I do it.
But it has to be.”

Headlines

* Jurrjens leads Braves’ shutdown of Nats

* Braves option Acosta to Triple-A

* Escobar, Ross out as precaution

* Easy decision: Heyward makes Braves

* Chipper: Heyward’s ready for big time

— Alden Gonzalez

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