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ELCA's Heyward makes his own path

Jeff Hurndon Photography / Jacob Heyward has had to endure heckling from opposing teams’ fans because of his older brother, Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves’ rightfielder. But at ELCA, where he plays with friends he’s known since 7, Jacob is just Jacob.

Jeff Hurndon Photography / Jacob Heyward has had to endure heckling from opposing teams’ fans because of his older brother, Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves’ rightfielder. But at ELCA, where he plays with friends he’s known since 7, Jacob is just Jacob.

McDONOUGH — Monroe, Ga., is part of Atlanta Braves country, and so students at George Walton Academy know who this 6-foot-1, 190-pound, right-handed slugging outfielder is as he walks to the plate.

He can tell the student section that fills the stands behind homeplate has done their homework by how swift it starts. It only takes a few steps until he hears, ‘Where’s your brother?!’

At some point in the game, he knows a favorable call will be interpreted as Braves loyalty, and he’ll hear a grown man say, ‘Come on, call it the same for everyone!’

“He catches a lot of [stuff] about it,” Eagle’s Landing Christian baseball coach Doug Campbell said.

Certainly, Jacob Heyward can never escape it, as if he even wanted to. He is the younger brother of former Henry County High standout Jason Heyward, star rightfielder for the Braves, Sporting News Rookie of the Year in 2010, Golf Glove winner last season and hier to Chipper Jones as the face of the franchise. He is proud of his brother’s accomplishments.

Like it or not, Jacob Heyward has become the face of the Chargers. As if the target wasn’t already mammoth-sized for No. 1-ranked ELCA going into its Class A first round series against Landmark Christian today, it also has Jacob. Expectations climb a little higher. Spectators lean in a little closer.

Because everyone wants to know the same thing — how much is he like his brother?

~ ~ ~

In many ways, it was easy for the Heyward family to have no precedence.

Jason Heyward’s rise to local prominence was unparalleled in Henry County. Here was a player with a combination of stature (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and five-tool skill never seen before. Scouts flocked to Henry County High, where he led the Warhawks to the Class AAAA championship in 2006.

Jason’s rise to professional success was almost swifter. After being the No. 14 overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft, it took only two years for him to be named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America and USA TODAY. A year later, he was the Braves’ starting rightfielder.

Now, he’s on billboards and the front of the Braves’ official program. When Jones retired after last season, the Braves gave his locker to Jason, a decision that was widely consider symbolic.

So there’s the shadow hanging over Jacob, one older brother never had to endure.

“I think it’s made it more difficult because of his brother,” said their father, Eugene Heyward. “It’s tough when people know who you are and you’re out there playing the game and people are looking at you and making comments about your brother. They forget that he’s his own person.”

Peoples’ first instinct, Eugene said, is usually to compare the two, so let’s get that out of the way.

Jason is 23.

Jacob is 17.

Jason is 6-foot-5.

Jacob is 6-foot-1.

Jason is left-handed.

Jacob is right-handed.

Jason can be calmer like his mother.

Jacob can get fiery like his father.

“Jason would’ve been a great football player,” Eugene said.

But that was never an option. The Heywards thought football was too dangerous, and so Jason and Jacob were raised on the diamond.

There’s one thing in common.

“Growing up, it’s what we both loved to do,” Jacob said.

~ ~ ~

Jacob grew up learning the game from Eugene at home and at Richard Craig Park, where he played with or against many of his current ELCA teammates.

By middle school, Jacob was showing plenty of potential. He decided against playing middle school baseball so he could play travel ball with the East Cobb Astros, one of the top club teams in the Southeast. As a freshman, Campbell called him up to the varsity team late in the season. As a sophomore, he was the team’s starting third baseman. Last season, he switched to rightfield.

Jacob emerged last season. He hit .333 with six home runs and 30 RBIs to lead ELCA to the Region 5-A championship and quarterfinals of the state tournament. Pitchers showed him caution; he had 32 walks and a .565 on-base percentage. This past fall, with Jason on-hand, he signed a scholarship with Miami, one of the top college baseball programs in the country.

This season, Jacob said his performance has been mixed. He struggled early as pitcher refused to give him fastballs to hit. Only recently, he said, has he been able to adjust.

“I could’ve done better in the first half,” Jacob said. “I’ve got to recognize people aren’t going to pitch to me. Now I’m OK with taking 2-3 walks a game.”

But Jacob knows the postseason changes that. Teams will have capable pitching and feel more compelled to challenge him. He’ll have a chance to erase whatever struggles he endured during the regular season

“Nobody’s looking at your numbers now,” Jacob said.

But, as always, they will be looking at him. Every time he walks up to the plate. Every time he makes a play in rightfield. Every time he flies around the base paths.

That shadow older brother created? Others see it.

ELCA doesn’t.

“People respect me for who I am,” Jacob said. “Here, I don’t feel any different.”