Jason Heyward is bonding quite well with his new St. Louis Cardinals teammates. If he was going to leave the Atlanta Braves -- the only pro baseball town he has ever known -- then joining the Cardinals is most def a come up. St. Louis sports the best record in baseball at 34-18 and are chilling on its usual perch, atop the National League Central standings, six games ahead of the upstart Cubs and pesky Pirates.
It has taken a few games, but Heyward has officially eliminated any lingering ATL bounce from his system, and is finally feeling comfortable in his St. Louis digs.
"Get one thing straight. I didn't choose it. I got traded," Heyward told The Shadow League. "So that's between teams, but for me, I like St. Louis a lot. It's been a great experience so far. I like the mindset and the mentality we bring. It's a one day at a time attitude and we never give up and we never feel like we are out of any game."
Though Heyward is still only 25 (just one year older than Cardinals newbie basher Kolten Wong as Heyward likes to remind us) he is a chiseled MLB vet in his sixth year of service. Originally the Braves' first-round selection in the 2007 MLB Draft from Henry County High School in Georgia, Heyward began his minor league career at age 17. Heyward soon became one of the top-rated prospects in all of baseball for his multi-faceted skill set and debuted as Atlanta's starting right fielder Opening Day, 2010 with fanfare and expectations on 100.
He was projected to be the second coming of Darryl Strawberry, Willie McCovey or Willie Mays and was even given the nickname "J-Hey Kid" (Mays was known as the Say-Hey Kid) and hit 18 homers and finished 20th in the MVP balloting and second in the Rookie of the Year vote. He homered in his first MLB at bat, which in hindsight is probably the worst thing he could have done, because from then on people expected him to become an overnight Hall of Famer.
It was probably unfair for folks to limit Heyward's "star appeal" by putting him in a box and defining him as merely a baseball player who hasn't lived up to the billing. Heyward is actually already an American success story and when speaking to him, it's obvious in his eloquence that he's not only intelligent and insightful, but respectful to people and the game of baseball. Say what you want about his baseball steez and the fact that he hasn't had that breakout 30-homer, 30-steal, 100 RBI year, his worth as an MLB player and the way he represents the African-American community is invaluable.
Heyward is the son of Dartmouth graduates and was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. His pops, Eugene, is from South Carolina, and mother, Laura, is from NYC. They are an Ivy League love story having met at Dartmouth. Eugene played basketball and majored in engineering and Laura studied French. Eugene's uncle, Kenny Washington, played basketball for two John Wooden-led NCAA championship UCLA teams in 1964 and 1965. Jason's younger brother Jacob is also a right fielder and plays college baseball for the Miami Hurricanes.
The Heywards moved to the Atlanta metropolitan area in Georgia soon after Jason was born. The pressure of being a hometown product and playing in the shadows of so many great African-American Braves players of the past added to the already massive challenge of adjusting to big league life. As if Heyward needed any more over-the-top expectations, Hank Aaron of all people, hailed him as the future of baseball.
Prophecies of that magnitude usually go unfulfilled. Heyward's "slow progression," injuries and his part in the highly-hyped and expensive failure of the "Soul Patrol" (Signing the Upton Brothers to huge contracts and teaming them up in the Braves outfield with Heyward in 2013) made it increasingly clear that if greatness (or even total happiness) was in Heyward's future, he wouldn't achieve it or be recognized for it in Atlanta.
New Home, New Appreciation
Heyward is far from a finished product, but as the Braves franchise began to rearrange its executive office in preparation for the future, signs pointed to his inevitable departure. Concerned that Heyward would soon leave as a free agent and rebuilding with an eye toward their new stadium, the Braves dealt him and reliever Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for promising pitcher Shelby Miller and a minor-league prospect.
The switch to St. Louis is already turning out to be a major power move for J-Hey, who describes the Cardinals organization and fan base as one of baseball's treasures.
"I feel like St. Louis has a lot of tradition, a lot of history in the game, he told TSL. "It's a very baseball savvy city and the fans understand the game and are very appreciative of the small things in the game and that's what I respect the most about Cardinals fans."
Asked what he has come to like most about St. Louis in his first 50 games with the team, Heyward points to the fact that he's just another guy on the squad. He doesn't have to be Frank Robinson. All he has to be is two-time Gold Glover Jason Heyward, one of many potential championship pieces on a perennially dope Cards squad.
"It's early," Heyward said, cracking a smile that reflected his relaxed and confident state of mind. "Right now just being on the field is (knock on wood) number one. Trying to stay healthy and come through in big spots to help the team. I feel like on any given night a different guy has helped us so far and it's a good team and a stable lineup with a strong bench as well. We have guys who can come in and give guys a breather with no drop off in talent and and I feel that's huge."
A few days after we had this conversation Heyward's St. Louis indoctrination entered the safe zone when it was his turn to step up by hitting a game-tying homer off Arizona's Brad Ziegler to lead off the ninth inning. It was an inning that ended with Peter Bourjos' single and eventual slide into catcher Jordan Pacheco to force an error that gave St. Louis a 4-3 walk-off win to complete a three-game sweep of the Diamondbacks on May 28.
The Best Is Yet To Come
Before that home run Heyward was hitting a disappointing .231 and still surviving with his superior leather game. Over the past month, however, he's on fleek in Nellyville, hitting .292 in his last 15 games. Over his last seven games he's mashing .351 (7-20) and slugging .550. The brother is starting to look damn good in those Cardinals colors. He's even beginning to hit like a typical Cardinals player; showing more patience, putting the ball in play and striking out less.
"(We) needed somebody to step up and we talk about different characters figuring out how to get it done," said Mike Matheny, who elaborated on Heyward's theory. "We were about out of opportunities and (Heyward) changed the complexion of that game."
Heyward may not admit it but changing games -- whether it be with his inconsistent but potentially lethal bat or his always formidable glove skills, speed and rifle arm -- is why the Cardinals gave up a solid young hurler to bring him into the fold in November of 2014. Heyward was also the perfect available piece to replace highly-touted outfielder Oscar Tavares, who died in a tragic car crash the previous month.
Signs of that respect was evident before Heyward ever stepped on the Busch Stadium field. Matheny, who wore No. 22 since his days as a pro player, volunteered his number to Heyward, who wears it to honor his deceased best friend and H.S. teammate Andrew "Willie"Wilmot. Wilmot, who wore No, 22 when he and Heyward led the school to the 2005 Georgia state championship, was killed in an automobile accident the next year.
Heyward is yet to live up to the numbers hype as Bryce Harper finally has, but Hank Aaron's prophecy is partly correct. Heyward is surely a part of baseball's future. He's still young, crazy talented and now part of a baseball machine and one of MLB's elite franchises. Heyward is good money. He couldn't have entered a more ideal situation and with the strength and stability of Cardinals Nation behind him, Heyward's peak years are on the horizon and his final baseball tune will be a happier song than the one that he's used too.