Nearly 13 years ago I was watching a group of 7-and 8-year-olds play baseball as part of an American Amateur Baseball Congress tournament. I don't remember too much about the team or the game. Baseball games at that level don't stick in the memory bank all that long.
What I do remember is spotting the tallest 8-year-old I had ever seen. He looked a little out of place as he towered over the rest of the little boys on his team.
I also remember a couple of other things. I was told in no uncertain terms by a tournament official this young player belonged out there. They had his birth certificate to prove it. I guess he thought I was going to turn investigative reporter with questions about the kid's age, but really I never thought about it until he brought it up. In fact, I'm not sure I cared.
I was also told by a couple of "baseball junkies", the type who seem to live out at local recreation parks, and know the "great players" at their local park, I better keep an eye on this kid because he was going to be special.
Guess what, I let it go in one ear and out the other.
As a veteran of the sportswriting business, I have been tipped off about the community's "next great superstar" everywhere I have lived and work. With kids that young, it's better to ignore all the hype, because most players never pan out. Often they get burned out, try something else or just lose interest in the game .
Maybe I should have been listening about this kid. Because Jason Heyward might just be the game's next superstar.
I knew it when I was watching him play at Henry County High School, as he helped the Warhawks to some great seasons. Heyward didn't just hit tape measure shots back then, he hit balls so far into the stratosphere, I'm not sure they have all come down yet.
There is no doubt Henry County football coach Mike Rozier would have loved to have the young man built like a tight end play on his squad, but his parents, with their Ivy League education from Dartmouth, wouldn't allow football to become a part of their young son's life. He was a baseball player through and through.
Their wisdom paid off. When Heyward was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the first round in 2007, the family was nice enough to open their home to us at the paper so we could be there when the phone call came in announcing to the world their son had been picked by his hometown team.
As Heyward climbed his way up the Braves' ladder, it was clear the young man with local ties was the real deal. After all, he excelled at every level of the pro game.
I knew Heyward was going to make the big league club as he progressed in spring training this year. All baseball fans had to do was listen to Braves manager Bobby Cox talk about his young prospect if they had any doubt where he was going to open the season. Cox threw out adjectives such as special and gifted when talking about the 20-year old left-handed power hitting outfielder. He even compared him to former superstar Mickey Mantle. Closer to his own generation, some have said he reminds them of slugger Alex Rodriguez.
Hollywood couldn't have scripted a baseball movie any better than Jason Heyward's major league debut on Monday. In his first official at-bat with the Braves, the McDonough native watched as the first two pitches sailed out of the strike zone for balls, but on the third pitch, Carlos Zambrano served up one Heyward liked, and he made the Cubs pay with a blast that sailed 476 feet for a home run.
Heyward is just what baseball and especial the Braves need. At 20, there's a possibility the pressure could get to him. He is young, and he has a whole city and region counting on him, but Heyward is mature enough to handle it.
Will there be some tough days? Probably, but I look forward to watching Heyward shag fly balls at Turner Field for years to come, and maybe next time when somebody tells me to keep an eye on the career of a young 7-year-old, I might just listen.
After all, the Jason Heyward's of the world probably come along once in a sportswriter's career.
Doug Gorman is sports editors of the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.