x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Welcome to the majors

Baseball's most promising newcomer is young, gifted - and black. Sean McAdam reports.

Jason Heyward follows the action from the Braves' dugout at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Jason Heyward follows the action from the Braves' dugout at Turner Field in Atlanta.

It is natural in spring training for hype to top reality, and in that regard, this spring was no different. For most of March, much of the focus was centred on two pitchers with extraordinary potential - Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman. Strasburg's numbers in college baseball were other-worldly, producing a record signing bonus with the Washington Nationals. Chapman, who defected from Cuba, was intriguing, at least in part, because so little was known about him. Both pitchers began the year in the minors, mostly for economic reasons. The longer teams can forestall the arrival of talented young players, the longer they can be controlled. Another prospect, however, was not about to wait to make his impact. And over time, as promising as Strasburg and Chapman are, Jason Heyward may be better than both. Heyward, 20, not only made the Atlanta Braves' 25-man roster, but he also cracked the Opening Day line-up. In Atlanta, Heyward could not be denied. Bobby Cox, the club's manager and a baseball lifer entering his final season in the Braves' dugout, is not one for overstatement. But even Cox could not hide his enthusiasm for Heyward's potential. "He's special,'' Cox told people throughout the spring. Indeed, Heyward's skills are obvious. His frame (6ft 4ins, 220 pounds) and sweet left-handed swing have invited comparisons to Darryl Strawberry, the uber-talented outfielder for the New York Mets in the 1980s who seemed capable of anything before succumbing to drugs and other demons. Heyward has size, speed, power, instincts and intangibles. There is little he cannot do. On Opening Day, as the Braves hosted the Chicago Cubs, Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from the Braves' legend, Henry Aaron, the game's one-time home run king. Aaron threw Heyward the baseball, but he might as well have passed him the torch. Then, as if to make the mythology complete, Heyward homered in his very first major league at bat, in his first very first swing. The stuff of legend? One inning into his career, Heyward's introduction to the big leagues seemed like something Hollywood scriptwriters would not have dared to dream up. The blast travelled more than 450 feet and some veterans on the Braves roster could not hide their admiration. "That," said Billy Wagner, the reliever, "was about as impressive a home run as I think I've ever seen. That ball was hit so hard. It was amazing. The chances of that happening are slim and none." In the stands, Heyward's parents beamed with pride and celebrated wildly. "We went crazy,'' said Eugene Heyward, Jason's father. "We were all hugging and high-fiving and going crazy. I didn't actually see it. We were being mobbed by each other. We just saw the ball go out and after that we just erupted." Even Heyward himself had trouble processing what he had just done. As he rounded the bases, he said: "I felt my legs, but I couldn't hear myself think." Heyward's magnificent spring and storybook debut were all the more surprising given that he had played exactly three games at Triple A before this year. In effect, he double-jumped a level on the minor league ladder and never missed a step. At every level, he was the best player - not just in the Braves organisation, but in that particular league. Beyond his obvious talent, Heyward is also a symbol for young African-Americans. Last year, black players made up just over eight percent of the major league rosters. As African-American athletes focus more on football and basketball, young Latinos have emerged as the face of baseball. Sensing that, Aaron labelled Heyward "important" for the part he can play in serving as a role model for other aspiring African-Americans, some of whom may find it difficult to relate to baseball. Surely Aaron was making a point when he called Heyward a "great young black player". Heyward's first week was not entirely magical. He had three hits and another home run on Saturday night, but in the games in between he went one-for-12 with seven strikeouts. "He'll have his struggles like any other 20-year-old who is in the big leagues," Cox said. Naturally. There are precious few 20-year-olds in the big leagues in the first place, and even fewer still with the skill set that Heyward possesses. And that, of course, is the point. Special, indeed. sports@thenational.ae