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Heyward needs his game to catch up to his brain

Heyward needs his game to catch up to his brain

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Braves right fielder Jason Heyward homered in his first big league game last April

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – About 100 people jammed the front row at Champion Stadium. There was the boy too young to understand what he was doing and the girl too excited to spit out words and the man who kept cutting in line because he's one of those slimy hounds who hoards autographs and resells them. The two security guards standing behind Jason Heyward(notes) warned him he'd already signed five items for the guy. "I know," Heyward said. He minted a sixth.

He started walking off the field until he saw a ball in the corner of his eye, flinched momentarily and caught it. "It's for my grandma," said the boy who had tossed it.

Heyward stared at him. The boy stared back. Heyward waited. The boy did, too.

"Please and thank you," Heyward said.

The boy wasn't sure what to say.

"Please?" he mustered finally.

Heyward looped a signature onto the ball, flipped it back and got his thank you. His inscription has evolved over the last two years. He used to at least make an effort at the final four letters of his first name and would embellish the Y in his last name. Now all he's got time for is two quick pen strokes, and the result looks more like a three-character message – SNL or 8ME – than Jason Heyward. If he bothered with his full name, he'd spend more time gripping a pen than a bat.

And Heyward understands that as much as he wants to satisfy those who deify him for his batting exploits – and there are plenty – he wants them to catch up to the part of the game that usually takes far longer to develop: the mental side. At 21, Heyward has the face, body and especially maturity of a man far older. He blends into an Atlanta Braves clubhouse littered with veterans. He accepts fame with gratitude. He plays Mr. Manners to rude kids, for heaven's sake.

He'd rather bathe in the sorts of plaudits that surrounded him last spring, when he destroyed cars with batting-practice home runs, launched a 476-foot home run in his first major league at-bat, got voted to start the All-Star Game and set a standard for rookie hype eclipsed soon thereafter by Stephen Strasburg(notes). Among that, and Buster Posey(notes) going out and winning a World Series, and a thumb injury that crippled Heyward's power in the second half, the supernova faded, and the impossible happened: His rookie year actually went underappreciated.

In their age-20 season, seven players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title finished with an on-base percentage higher than .380: Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez(notes), Mickey Mantle and Heyward. "I can do better," Heyward said.

The Braves agree. They brought Heyward into the major leagues to start last season, forgoing the service-time manipulation in which perhaps all 29 other teams would have engaged. Manager Bobby Cox, in his last season, wouldn't have dared to leave Heyward in the minor leagues after his daily spring homages to the kid one-third his age bordered on cradle robbing.

"To be able to handle that as he did, and still go out and have the kind of year he had, is impressive for a 20-year-old," said Bruce Manno, the Braves' assistant general manager and the first victim of Heyward's spring-training home run derby. One Heyward home run busted Manno's sunroof as well as the track along which it rolled. The damage: $3,400. Soon thereafter, the Braves put up a net to protect the cars beyond the right-field fence. This year, eight red tents cover the 16 parking spots.

"None of it distracted him," Manno said. "He handled it so professionally and maturely. That's one of the things that was most impressive: how he handled himself the day he got here with everyone looking and watching and talking and writing."

Conversations about Heyward often circle back to his wisdom. His new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, spent a day with him during a winter caravan tour to visit fans.

"I'm looking at him going, 'You're 20?' " Gonzalez said. "I've got an 18-year-old (son) running around, and I'm thinking, 'Man, oh, man, I hope those two years make a difference.' "

It comes naturally to Heyward, the son of two Dartmouth graduates who gravitated toward baseball even though his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame screams football and his long arms and graceful gait typify basketball. The Braves rejoiced when Heyward fell to them with the 14th pick in the draft and they nurtured him for two years in the minor leagues before he proved himself ready to play well before he turned 21 on Aug. 9.

Should the power return – Heyward did slug .456, one of only 14 to do so at that age and the first since Alex Rodriguez in 1996 – he could turn into the rare player with immense power and spectacular plate discipline. The modern standards are Albert Pujols(notes) and Frank Thomas, though Gonzalez warns: "Let's not start comparing. Let him get into his own."

Heyward is trying. He wants to play like Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) and Derek Jeter(notes) and "anyone who does things the right way." He won't change his approach to try and bump his home run total higher than last year's 18, figuring his size and contact skills will send enough balls flying, if not as far as the monster he hit off Carlos Zambrano(notes) on opening day.

"We're all given gifts," Heyward said. "We've got to take care of them. I use what I have. Everyone has something that makes them special, and I have to use my abilities. I have the ability to run a little bit, be instinctive on the bases. I have the ability to control the bat and make contact, and also the ability to hit a home run.

"Once you're consistent with your weapons, that's when you really arrive."

If he does, the Braves' hopes of contending alongside Philadelphia could be more than fantasy. They see the BP power, the in-game rockets, the weightlifting sessions, and they know all of that – not to mention the autograph marathons – happen without anyone having to say please.

Heyward need not worry about the thank yous. There will be plenty of those.

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