By Charles Odum/The Associated Press
ATLANTA — Hank Aaron expected Jason Heyward to make an immediate impact in a sport which needs young black stars.
The 20-year-old Heyward hasn’t disappointed.
He has become an overnight fan favorite, voted to start in Tuesday’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 NL’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 Tuesday, 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 can come 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.”
Heyward said he watched All-Star games on TV while growing up.
“That’s my only memories of them, watching on TV and seeing the home-run derby and watching the commentators on TV talking about everything and seeing all the players sitting down there with their families with their video cameras,” he said.
So will Heyward bring a video camera?
“I probably won’t,” he said. “I just don’t do much with video cameras. I’ll just watch and take it in.”
Aaron has been watching Heyward for some time. He was captivated by the young black star from the Atlanta area — a perfect for Aaron’s Braves and the sport.
Aaron, who is black, 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.
The first-place Braves can’t wait to see what a healthy Heyward can do after the break. Heyward is a significant part of the Braves’ hopes of holding off the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.
He hopes he will be able to grip a bat comfortably.
“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.”
Heyward’s stats took a beating when he tried to play through the injury. He was hitting .301 with 10 homers on May 30; he had only one more homer and his average had dropped 50 points when he was placed on the disabled list on June 27.
“He just comes out and battles,” said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton. “With that thumb sore, he still tried to battle every day. He tried to use what he has. It just got to a point where he couldn’t function.”
Heyward didn’t hesitate when asked if he should have been disabled earlier.
“No. Not at all. We made a big push in May,” Heyward said, referring to the team’s 20-8 record in the month. “We played really well in May and the beginning of June. … I was out there every day, just contributing.”
Fans will be watching to see how much more Heyward can contribute to the Braves, and baseball’s woes, in the second half.