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Heyward setting, reaching his goals

Heyward setting, reaching his goals

The repeated cracks of a wooden bat echoed through the thick summer air at Henry County High School. Sweat-stained construction workers, charged with refurbishing the school's softball facility, broke from their routine to watch Jason Heyward hit baseballs. He sprayed the field with one line drive after another, much to the dismay of the project foreman on site.

"He called the principal and complained," said Braves scout Brian Bridges, the man serving batting practice that particular day. "The principal came out, looked at Jason and said, 'I didn't come out here to get on you. I came out here to get you to sign some balls.'"

That was a smart move by the principal, if you ask Roy Clark, the Braves' scouting director. Because when Clark was asked his first impressions of Heyward, he said, "I thought he could be the next face of this franchise.

"He's the total package, on and off the field -- great kid, excellent family. We thought he might have the highest ceiling of any position player in the draft," added Clark about Atlanta's No. 1 draft pick in last June's draft.

No one in the Braves organization knows Heyward quite like Bridges, though. When he was a scout for the Florida Marlins in 2004, Bridges began tracking the progress of the now 6-foot-5, 230-pound outfielder when Heyward was entering his freshman year in high school.

"In eight years, not one kid I've scouted wants it as much as he does," Bridges said. "The kid sets goals for himself, and he will not let anything get in his way. The best thing he's got going for him is the head on his shoulders."

Drive and determination are rooted in Heyward's upper middle class background. The oldest son of Dartmouth College graduates Eugene and Laura Heyward, he was born in Bridgewood, N.J. The family moved to the Atlanta suburb of McDonough in November 1991, mere weeks after Atlanta's "Worst To First" season came to an end against the Twins in the World Series. By age 10, he was telling his parents he wanted to play professional baseball.

"A lot of kids say that," said his mother, Laura, a quality control analyst. "By the time they're 12, they want to do something different. It never changed with him."

Between eighth and ninth grades, Heyward grew seven inches -- from an average 5-foot-7 teenager to a 6-foot-1 man-child. He was identified as a potential prospect by several major league clubs, the Marlins and Braves included.

"He was a stringy first baseman," Bridges said. "I watched him grow and mature. It was a four-year process."

Heyward helped guide Henry County High School to its first state championship as a sophomore in 2005. He hit .371 with six home runs and 44 runs batted in. A year later, having grown into his body, he became a high school All-American when his average spiked past the .450 mark. Scouts came by the dozens.

"One day, when I got out of school, I looked out at the parking lot, and every spot was full," Heyward said. "Our parking lot had never been full. I was overwhelmed."

As a senior, he did not disappoint. Despite being pitched around with regularity, Heyward batted .520 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs. A 3.0 student, he committed to attend and play baseball at UCLA, where his uncle (Kenny Washington) played on the legendary John Wooden's first two National Championship teams (1964-65) and is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame. As products of an Ivy League school, his parents were ecstatic.

"The day he got into UCLA -- that was our greatest excitement," said Heyward's father, Eugene, an engineer. "We were already floating."

Then came June and the 2007 draft, which was to be televised for the first time in history. Heyward gathered family, friends, teammates and former coaches at his home and waited for his name to be called. He was projected to go as high as sixth in the first round to the Washington Nationals, but as the top 10 picks came and went, Eugene grew antsy. Scheduled to choose 12th, the Marlins had shown interest. Meanwhile, the hometown Braves were poised to select the 17-year-old at number 14, the earliest the team had chosen in 16 years. The drama deepened.

"I was more nervous about the Marlins picking him," his father said. "The Braves kept saying they wanted him."

Florida and Cleveland both passed on the power-hitting prospect, opening the door for the Braves to select what some considered the top position player in the draft. Heyward listened as his name was called live on ESPN2, and the Braves had their man.

"He's a man among boys out there," one unnamed National League scout recently told ChopTalk. "Physically, he is very strong, and he's an outstanding allaround athlete. It's amazing to me a guy like that was still on the board with the 14th overall pick."

Hours later, Heyward was at Turner Field watching batting practice and shaking hands with Bobby Cox, Jeff Francoeur and John Smoltz -- who debuted with Atlanta in 1988, a year before Heyward was born.

"That whole day was unbelievable," Heyward said. "I got to go in the clubhouse, and they put me on the big screen."

Still, Heyward had a difficult decision to make -- fulfill his commitment to UCLA or bypass college for a quicker route to the major leagues. Heyward's parents left his future in his hands.

"It was his decision," his father said. After two months of negotiations, Heyward and the Braves agreed to terms on a deal that included a reported $1.7 million signing bonus. He received a portion of the money up front. The rest is due in January.

"The decision was pretty easy for me," said the 18-year-old. "I do think about what I'll be missing in college sometimes, but [becoming a professional baseball player] has been my goal all along."

Having put pen to paper on his first contract, Heyward found himself employed for the first time in his life. His parents, who decided early to allow their son to focus on academics and athletics, gave him a crash course in managing his finances.

"Before I graduated, I'd never had a bank account, never written a check or made a deposit," Heyward said. "It was all new to me."

Most of his bonus money, his parents said, will be invested to provide a financial safety net, should a career in the major leagues fail to materialize. Fancy cars and flashy jewelry do not appear to be part of his immediate future, replaced instead by words like "nest egg."

"We're conservative when it comes to money," Eugene said. "We've always believed that you should live below your means. He's accepted that, and it's working out really well for him."

Noted for his plate discipline and command of the strike zone, Heyward received a brief taste of minor league life last summer. He played in eight games for the Braves' rookie Gulf Coast League affiliate before being promoted to the advanced rookie level Danville Braves in an effort to bolster their roster for the Appalachian League playoffs. Heyward hit .302 with a home run, four doubles and six RBIs in 12 combined games between the two stops. The transition to the wooden bat proved seamless.

"I've been playing with wood for a while," Heyward said. "The baseball part of it is not that different. Now, it's just magnified a little more. I was always told that it's not what you're doing when people are watching, but what you're doing when people aren't watching that matters most."

Heyward plans to leave for Atlanta's Florida spring training complex at Disney's Wide World of Sports on Feb. 26. In the meantime, he lifts weights three days a week in Kennesaw -- headquarters for the East Cobb Astros travel team he played with -- in addition to daily hitting and throwing. An outfielder by trade, he could figure into the Braves' future plans at either of the two corner outfield spots or possibly first base.

Heyward credits his father for his early athletic development. Eugene's experience as a college basketball player at Dartmouth prepared him to guide his son down the right path.

"That helped me tremendously," Heyward said of his father's influence. "He knew what to do to get it done, to get me in front of the right people. He's the reason I am where I am today."

The fourth Georgian drafted first by the Braves in the past eight years -- Adam Wainwright (2000), Macay McBride (2001) and Francoeur (2002) -- Heyward admits the idea of playing his home games 30 minutes from the house where he grew up is almost too good to be true.

"This is home for me," Heyward said. "This is where my family is, where I grew up, where I learned right from wrong. To be selected in the first round, to be able to start my career with the Braves ... that's great for me."

This article was reprinted from the January 2008 issue of ChopTalk, the official monthly magazine of the Atlanta Braves. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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