LOS ANGELES – The man who would be in right field at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night, almost impossibly wide in the shoulders, turned and grinned at the memory of his first week in the major leagues.
He'd hit home runs, driven in runs and been compared athletically to some of the best to play the game. After a few at-bats, he'd inspired a citywide crush. A softer soul might have found it to be too much, but not him. It was all too good, too fun, so special in that you're-only-young-once way.
"The time of my life," Jason Heyward said, meaning all of it, from then to now. "The time of my life."
He's 23, a little more than a year older than Yasiel Puig.
Not so long ago, he'd introduced himself to Atlanta as Puig has this week to Los Angeles. On that opening day in 2010, before 53,081 at Turner Field, he'd started by catching the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron. To the afternoon's poets, that baseball came dressed as a torch.
Heyward homered on the third pitch of his first at-bat. He had four RBIs that day. By the end of that week, he had two more home runs and four more RBIs. After 13 games, he'd hit four homers and driven in 16. He'd be an All-Star, he'd be runner-up to Buster Posey in the Rookie of the Year balloting, he'd receive MVP votes.
Three years later, he seeks a regular, dependable game. Regular production. A reliable swing. Regular health. He's a career .254 hitter, almost 1,900 plate appearances in. And, still, just 23. There's a whole career out there for him.
The game is hard. Yesterday's mania is today's .185 hitter, or today's Hall of Fame lock, or is surviving somewhere in between.
"That's what we're all trying to do," Heyward said. "Find our way."
Before Thursday night, other than here or there on the late-night highlight shows, he had not seen Yasiel Puig. By late Thursday night, he was drifting to the right-field wall, following the arc of the grand slam Puig hit in the bottom of the eighth inning, the arc of the ball that would send shivers through the old ballpark.
Big, strong and bright-eyed as well, Puig is walking in Heyward's cleats, and those of so many before him. The Cuban defector has been a Dodger for four days and he is having the time of his life. Already they are selling his No. 66 T-shirts in the team stores. Already he leads the club in curtain calls. Already he has three home runs, nine RBIs. He is batting .438. And the people here yodel his name – "Pweeeeeeg!" – like he's been one of theirs forever.
He smiles back, gives a little wave. He answers their requests for his presence at the top step, where he'll raise his arms and smile broadly. Many others have stood in that spot, the next big thing. It wasn't all that long ago it was Puig's teammate, Matt Kemp, who last seen was being booed for his .251 batting average and 60 strikeouts.
The fans are fickle. The game even more so. Then along comes a young man who, for a moment, spins the game on his fingertip, as Jason Heyward did, as Yasiel Puig has, and it pits seven hits in 16 at-bats against a game that almost always wins in the end.
Straight out of Double-A and all of 229 minor-league at-bats, Puig singled twice Monday, homered twice Tuesday, was hitless in four at-bats Wednesday, then had two more hits Thursday. The second was an eighth-inning grand slam on an 81-mph slider from reliever Cory Gearrin that slung to the middle of the plate and then seemed, for an instant, to adhere itself to Puig's bat. The ball hadn't cleared Braves second baseman Dan Uggla when the reality struck, that this ballpark hadn't a chance to hold it. Or him.
"This cat's a different animal," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
The Dodgers led, 1-0, and then four grown men were dancing around the bases, Puig at the rear, the ballpark lit up, the crowd beside itself. And then the Dodgers led, 5-0, where it would stay.
Asked about what's next, and what he could possibly have in store for it, Puig shrugged.
"Tomorrow will bring," he answered soberly through a translator, "what tomorrow will bring."
This, he said, is what he's prepared himself for. To look for fastballs, to attack them with power and elasticity. And if something else comes, to find that, too. The veteran Jason Marquis handled him with some ease the night before, and then Tim Hudson found a way around him as well. More will come, and they'll test him, and then, as Heyward said, Puig will find his way or not.
Three years ago, the reliever Peter Moylan, then with the Braves, pied Heyward after his debut. Now, he watches Puig from the bullpen. When Puig homered twice Tuesday against the San Diego Padres, Moylan told his fellow relievers he would compare the moment to one other he had ever seen, that being Heyward's first major-league at-bat, the three-run home run off Carlos Zambrano that set off Turner Field.
In both instances, he said, "It's just raw euphoria."
Today, Heyward, recovering from an appendectomy and an early slump, is finding his way. He had two hits Thursday night, perhaps the start of something bigger. And Puig is living the life, taking over games with his bat, and a city with his enthusiasm, which Mattingly described as "just so fresh."
Meantime, the game lurks. It'll come for even him, like it did for Heyward, and therein lies the fight. It's what they're all trying to do.
"Baseball's been a humbling game for as long as they've been playing it," Heyward said. "That's just a part of it."
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