ATLANTA – Hank Aaron expected Jason Heyward to make an immediate impact in a sport which needs young African-American stars.
The 20-year-old Heyward hasn’t disappointed.
He has become an overnight fan favorite, voted to start in today’s All-Star Game.
Is it because he’s young and talented? Yes, but it’s more than that. Is it because he’s a hometown kid who made it? Sure, but it’s more than that. It is because he is an African-American? No doubt, but it’s more than that.
It’s all those things – and more.
Heyward said fans identify with the way he plays.
“I look for excitement,” he said. “This is entertainment. I just go out there and have a good time and fit right in. I don’t put myself above the game. It’s a team game. I enjoy that part of it.”
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox agreed.
“I think they like watching him play, to be honest with you,” Cox said. “It doesn’t hurt to have a little hype. … The team is playing well, too, but a lot of it is seeing a young kid who plays hard.”
Heyward received more votes, about 2.7 million, than any other Atlanta player, including Martin Prado, the N.L.’s leading hitter. If not for a thumb injury, Heyward would have been the youngest All-Star starter since Ken Griffey Jr., who was two months younger when voted to start in 1990.
Though the Braves said Heyward won’t play today, he doesn’t plan to miss his first bow on a national stage.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going into because I’ve never done it before, but I’m just looking forward to taking it all in and being able to tip my cap to the fans when they announce the names, if that happens,” he said.
Heyward’s start is especially strong considering he’s been playing with the injured thumb the last two months. He jammed it while sliding head-first into third base on May 14 and still has 11 homers and 45 RBIs.
Heyward came off the 15-day disabled list on Monday and plans to take batting practice at the All-Star game in Anaheim, Calif.
“I just want to enjoy the players, enjoy the fans and that environment and the family and friends that I have with me,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of the fans’ voting. It’s very exciting for myself, for my teammates and for my friends and family.”
Aaron has been watching Heyward for some time. He was captivated by the young star from the Atlanta area – a perfect fit for Aaron’s Braves and the sport.
Aaron, told The Associated Press after Heyward’s debut that he could bring excitement back to baseball. “Not only for Atlanta, but also for African-American players,” Aaron said. “We do need to have many, many more Jason Heywards.”
And though he has played well, Heyward could have a better second half.
“If I can bend my thumb and move it all the way and bend it like I need to, I’ll be ready to play ball,” he said.
Heyward said he doesn’t worry about what his numbers might be if not for the injury.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I know we’re in first place. We have one of the best records. That’s what is most important.”
Cox said Heyward is genuine in his team-first approach.
“He’s concerned about winning and losing,” Cox said. “Kids that young aren’t always that way. They’re a little bit more interested most of the time in personal stats and things like that. I don’t think he thinks like that at all.”
Fans will be watching to see how much more Heyward can contribute to the Braves in the second half.