It has finally arrived: the opening weekend of the MLB. The time of year when all of the football highlights are dead and gone, college basketball season is crowning a champion, and the NBA is nearing its season in June, thus tuning in to SportsCenter's top 10 results in 5-6 home runs and a few great Web Gems (but sometimes they just get too repetitive).
However, as an Atlanta Braves fan, I have a highly positive outlook for this season. The past few years have been rough on Braves fans, and it seems year in and year out that GM Frank Wren either makes a home run decision or a strikeout. However, this year, the atmosphere is different around Turner Field, and it is all due to the newly dubbed "Heyward Fever."
Rookie Jason Heyward, a product of Henry County High School, earned a starting right field job for the opening game today against the Chicago Cubs, and approximately 53,000 fans showed up, all eager to see if the rookie would play up to his billing. Heyward had previously lived up to expectations in the Braves' farm system, earning the Minor League player of the year award in September 2009 with the AAA Gwinett Braves. Now, however, it's time for the Big Leagues.
Taking his first at-bat in the seventh spot of the lineup, Heyward slammed a three run homer in his first major league swing . Incredible. To top it off, the guy is 20 years old, but by the look of him, seems like a Ken Griffey Jr. Apparently, he hits like the man too (in his younger years, at least).
After all the Heyward Hype, there is, of course, the fear of a repeat of the Francoeur Flop. Right fielder Jeff Francouer made his major league debut in 2005, and like Heyward, he debuted against the Cubs (however, his debut came about two months into the season in July).
Like Heyward, Francoeur hit a 3-run homerun to Center Field (it, too, being his first Major League hit; however, it came during the eighth inning rather than Heyward's first inning bomb to right field). Both play right field. That year, Francouer batted .300 with 58 strikeouts. However, as the next few seasons progresses, those numbers decreased and increased, respectively, as his BA went down to as low as .239, and his strikeouts increasing to a high of 132. Ultimately, Francouer was traded away to the Mets (where he seems to be getting his groove back).
However, Francouer became the hometown hero. Fans loved him. Women everywhere wore his jersey. Trading away the Parkview native seemed like a ludicrous idea since he was such a fan favorite. Yet, when it came down to it, the trade was a great and right decision.
Because now, after Ryan Church's fill-in stint, fans have come to rally behind rookie Jason Heyward, Jeff Francouer 2.0. However, I have a strong feeling that Heyward will not turn out to be a bust like his 25 year-old counterpart, not merely because of the hype surrounding him, but because the guy is just a crazy-good power hitter.Now, it just needs to be seen if he has that amazing right field arm that was Francoeur's only prized possession.
Heyward, though, doesn't just bring a great power hitter. He brings an inspiration to a city in need of a hometown hero for it's baseball club. Sure, we have Chipper Jones, but his name has become so commonplace amongst Atlanta Fans that everyone knows he is one of the greatest to play the game. However, the team is more than just one guy. Heyward provides that ever-needed spark amongst fans that this year's team, and Manager Bobby Cox's last, is special. With a great catcher, a talented center fielder, a solid pitching staff, and Chipper Jones, the new right field position might just be the key addition to bringing another World Series championship back home to the fans in Atlanta. Jason Heyward, rookie of the year? Don't be surprised. He might just be the rookie of the decade.