"You can tell with your eyes closed when Heyward is hitting," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "It's louder than when anybody else hits."
When Heyward connected with Zambrano's fastball, the sound was so percussive that his teammates immediately jumped and ran up the dugout steps. The baseball flew some 446 feet, into the back of the Braves' bullpen. Turner Field erupted—delight, awe and disbelief all wrapped into the kind of noise veteran third baseman Chipper Jones said he hadn't heard in Atlanta since the late 1990s. Jones, the face of the franchise, was the first off the bench to greet Heyward, throwing both arms around the kid before he reached the dugout.
At 20 years, 239 days, Heyward became the third-youngest player in major league history to hit a home run in his first at bat, and the youngest in 60 years. "He might be the best 20-year-old rookie to ever play," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said.
"Jason called me later," Eugene says. "He said, 'When we got to the locker room everything was normal. Later on they jumped on me and pounded me on the head at my locker. It was great.' He felt like they legitimately like him. I have yet to hear anybody say my son is not a nice person, at home or now with the Braves. I'm proud of him becoming the man he is becoming."
It is difficult to believe Heyward is so young. He has the goateed face of an elder and a deep, honeyed voice that has little use for inflection, as if he has come this way before. His hands are massive and meaty. Shaking hands with him is like reaching into the bottom of a burlap sack; your hand disappears. He is broad-shouldered and thick in the arms, but tapered at the waist with sprinter's legs. Teammate Eric Hinske, when asked if the kid needed any playful rookie scolding this spring, replied, "Not once. But who would get on him, anyway? He could pick me up and throw me into a locker."
"I'm not saying anything to him; he could beat the crap out of me," closer Billy Wagner said. "He's really just a great kid. He said to me, 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Wagner.'"
And yet, despite having arrived seemingly fully formed, Heyward is still growing. He bought some suits in November. By January he had to let them out. He grew an inch over the winter and has gained 25 pounds in the past two years. His father, who played basketball at Dartmouth, is 6'3" and 250 pounds. His great grandmother is 6'1". An aunt is 6'1". "We're from the low country of South Carolina," Eugene says of his lineage. "We are farmers. We have big people in our family. He's just growing into his man strength."
But here's what is so special about Heyward. Yes, he is big and a natural athlete. But he is also an honest-to-goodness ballplayer, with a keen batting eye (aided by 20/10 vision), cunning baserunning instincts, premium defensive skills and a coach's nuanced understanding of how to play the game. Heyward is what Joe DiMaggio would be if Joltin' Joe grew up playing nothing but baseball, as many as 200 games a year all over the country from the time he was eight, on exquisitely groomed fields, with a private hitting coach, a fitness trainer and a father dedicated to ferrying him around greater Atlanta, which has become one of the world's greatest amateur baseball hotbeds. Heyward's story is increasingly how 21st-century stars are made: bigger, faster, stronger, specialized and, having played so much baseball growing up, far ahead of what used to be the sport's long learning curve.
"I kind of forced it," Eugene says of Heyward's baseball specialization, an idea that piqued the father's interest when he watched Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry play for the Mets while the family lived in Ridgewood, N.J., where Jason was born, in the late 1980s. "Here's my logic: I think in baseball the team doesn't have to be great for him to stand out in terms of showing his ability."
Eugene's logic is sound: His son's legend was established long before that Opening Day laser. Heyward's spring training exploits might as well have been catalogued by Thomas Bulfinch, such was the mythology that sprang up around him. In Orlando, where the Braves have held spring training for 13 seasons, Heyward smashed home runs where no one had hit them before, into an employee parking lot beyond the rightfield wall about 450 feet from home plate. He busted the side mirror of the media-relations director's car and caused $3,400 in damages to the sunroof of the assistant general manager's ride. At the end of spring training the Braves put up protective screening—the Heyward Nets—to protect vehicles that never needed protecting before this kid showed up.