Eugene Heyward woke up with his hands on the steering wheel, his GMC Suburban careering on two wheels through the predawn darkness in the middle of a highway somewhere in Georgia. It was headed for an 18-wheeler until Heyward, exhausted but suddenly alert, regained control of the vehicle. Before his heart stopped pounding, he thought, Whoa, you're pushing too hard. Got to get your rest.
Eugene, Dartmouth class of 1981, married to Laura, Dartmouth class of '79, is an engineering consultant in suburban Atlanta. But for the last decade that job was often a second priority to Eugene's labor of love: raising a son who may be—body, mind and soul—the perfect postmodern baseball player, a well-mannered, 6'5", 240-pound triumph of parenting, training and a new amateur baseball paradigm that is as close to professional baseball as you can get without the paycheck.
For years Eugene arranged his career around the baseball schedule of his adolescent son, Jason, whom the Braves began scouting at age 11. The father would wake up at three o'clock in the morning at the family home in McDonough, Ga., 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, and drive 90 minutes to work in the town of Warner Robins. He'd put in his eight hours in time to get back to pick up Jason from school, then drive an hour or more across the traffic-choked Atlanta metroplex to take Jason to the East Cobb Baseball complex in Marietta. Jason would eat fast food and do his homework on the drive, looking up as the Suburban cruised past Turner Field, home of the Braves, and wondering what it might be like to play there. When Jason's baseball day was done, Eugene would drive back to McDonough in time to get enough sleep (or perhaps not) to do the same thing all over the next day. Today the Suburban has nearly 300,000 miles on it and, says Eugene, "enough baseball clay in it to build a pitching mound."
Gone are the days when the next generation's All-Stars were bred on sandlots and schooled by crusty high school coaches. In the new paradigm a kid with a major league dream needs talent, drive and parents as committed to the cause as the player—the ultimate soccer moms and baseball dads.
"When I was 10, I saw a couple of big league games, and I said, 'I want to do this the rest of my life,'" says Jason. "They had a plan, my parents. I appreciate that they did everything they could to get me in front of all the right people. But my dad said, 'Without you saying you wanted it, it wouldn't have happened.' Every year he asked, 'Do you still want to play baseball?' By my senior year I looked at him like he was stupid. And he said, 'All right. I will never ask you again.'"
April 5 was the first day of the rest of Jason Heyward's life. On a Georgia afternoon as sweet as a tall, cold glass of Southern tea, Heyward, just 20 years old and three years out of Henry County High School, made it inside Turner Field. It was everything a boy (and a father) could have imagined from behind the window of an SUV. Eugene and Laura watched from the stands behind home plate as Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, wearing his familiar number 44 Braves jersey, threw the ceremonial Opening Day first pitch to Jason, who was wearing number 22 and about to play rightfield in his first major league game.
"My wife broke down," Eugene says. "I thought, Oh, my God. This is almost symbolic. It's like Hank, the rightfielder, is passing the ball on to the next rightfielder, and saying, 'Here it is, kid. Catch it.'"
Also in the stands were 64 friends and family members, including Jason's 14-year-old brother, Jacob, and Tammie Ruston, his British literature teacher from Henry County High and the mother of Andrew Wilmot, one of Jason's high school teammates, who died in a 2006 car accident. Heyward chose number 22 to honor Andrew, who wore it in high school. (The Braves sold 541 Heyward jerseys and T-shirts after they went on sale in the bottom of the fifth inning, or about one every eight seconds.)
As Jason stepped into the lefthand batter's box in the first inning for his first at bat, the crowd of 53,081 chanted, "Let's go, Hey-ward!" There were two runners on, and hard-throwing Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano, a four-time All-Star, was on the mound. Zambrano opened with two attempts at intimidation: angry fastballs near Heyward's body. The kid calmly took them both for balls.
Zambrano came back with a third fastball, headed for the inside half of the plate. Heyward tapped his front foot and placed it back down ("Like a dance step," Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton says), uncoiled his massive body and brought his bat to meet the ball with more violence than beauty. Heyward doesn't so much swing as slash, bringing his hands down and then flat through the strike zone. Like a purely struck one-iron, Heyward's blasts are line drives with backspin. His home runs don't soar, they scream and climb. "You wouldn't teach someone to hit that way," Pendleton says. "Me, I just leave him alone."