Colorado Rockies assistant director of player development Walter Sylvester saw his second-cousin, Jason Heyward, play baseball for the first time back in 1998. "I was working for the Memphis Redbirds, and my cousin told me to come over to Atlanta and see Jason," said Sylvester. "He was eight years old. He was good enough to play with the teenagers in Memphis." Twelve years later, Heyward is showing he can still play with an elder crowd. The second youngest position player in the big leagues, the 20-year-old Heyward not only has been labeled the latest future face of the Atlanta Braves, but none other than Hall of Famer Hank Aaron has proclaimed Heyward to be someone who can help baseball recapture the interest of the African-American community.
Braves manager Bobby Cox wants to temper the expectations, which is why he is hitting Heyward either sixth or seventh in the lineup, even though he went into the weekend leading the team with four home runs and 16 RBI while maintaining a respectable .269 average.
He's also a very visible athlete, who the Braves are proud to promote. Consider that on Opening Day, in front of a crowd of 53,081, the largest day-game crowd in Braves history, it was Heyward, the Braves' latest right fielder, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Aaron, the original right fielder for the franchise when it moved from Milwaukee for the 1966 season.
He's 20. He's a hometown guy. Less than three years since he was the 14th player taken in the 2007 June draft, he has become the face of the Braves' future.
It's a heavy load, as Jeff Francouer knows. Six years ago, it was Francouer who was the Braves local talent being counted on to make good and carry the franchise in the next decade or so. Francouer, however, has taken a detour, and last July he was shipped to the Mets for outfielder Ryan Church, who was not offered a contract last winter and since signed with Pittsburgh.
"My first two and a half years were great, and hopefully Jason will do me one better," said Francouer, who is quick to say he is very comfortable in his new home with the Mets, where he had relaxed and refocused.
Similarities between Francouer and Heyward? Francouer hit a three-run home run in his first big-league game, just like Heyward, who did Francouer one better. He did it in his first at-bat and he did it in Opening Day.
"We have the same agent," Francouer said, "so we've gotten to know each other. I told him to just be himself. He's going to be good. He's going to have his challenges to deal with, and he will handle them fine."
The Braves are convinced Heyward will adapt.
"We believe in him enough that last winter we let him know that he was going to compete for a job [during spring training], and if he was the best player he was going to get the job," manager Bobby Cox said. "He was the best player. He got the job."
General manager Frank Wren said it was a no-brainer to him. He shakes his head in disgust at the mention of spring speculation that the Braves would send Heyward to the minor leagues to open the season long enough to at least delay him attaining the six full years of big-league service necessary to become a free agent and maybe long enough to make sure they delayed his arbitration eligibility.
"Those aren't issues that enter our thought process," Wren said. "Our goal is to win, and to do that we know we need to have the players that are most capable of allowing us to do that. We gave the kid a chance to compete and he showed us he was ready to be here."
The cynics pointed to pitcher Tommy Hanson, who was in the minor leagues the first two months last season.
Wren, however, said the Hanson decision was about development, not finances. He said the Braves initially were trying to maintain big league flexibility for the possible return of lefty Tom Glavine, but nearly two months into his comeback attempt in the minor leagues it was apparent the comeback would fall short.
They also felt the young pitcher needed more time in the minors.
"With young players you have to make the right decision," Wren said. "You want to bring them at the right time. You want to make sure they are in a position to have success."
And with Heyward, that time came at the start of this season.
"We're not expecting miracles from him," Cox said. "There were only two miracle guys, [Joe] DiMaggio and [Ted] Williams.
"He'll have his struggles, probably, like any other 20-year-old that's in the big leagues, but he's a very talented kid. And when he's not hitting, he's going to help us in the outfield. He's a very gifted athlete."
He is, after all, the emerging Face of the Franchise in Atlanta.