One swing on Monday night validated all the hype.
Since spring training, the league has been buzzing about the 20-year-old outfielder with power and plate discipline reminiscent of Albert Pujols. Jason Heyward, a top prospect for the Atlanta Braves, showed that the hype is real, blasting a three-run homerun in his first-ever Major League at-bat on opening day.
Heyward, an African-American player, has such tremendous talent, that he has been lauded with praise by just about every great baseball mind in the game. His manager Bobby Cox – who has managed in baseball for 22 years and been to five World Series – even compared him to home-run king and former Brave Hank Aaron, saying “there’s a little sound off the bat. [Heyward’s] line drives are kind of like ol’ Hank Aaron’s sound.”
Just being a 20-year-old baseball phenom is a great enough story in itself. But being a 20-year-old black baseball phenom means much more. It’s no secret that the MLB is losing potential black youths to basketball and football, and there’s hope that Heyward can be the catalyst for black kids to start picking up bats and gloves again.
“I was talking to (civil rights pioneer and former Atlanta mayor) Andrew Young about [how excited we are about Heyward], and he wants me to bring him out there to meet Heyward. It’s beginning to move through the black area. People are getting excited.”
If Aaron’s right, people should be getting ecstatic. According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 10.2 percent of major league players were black in 2008, an improvement over the league’s all-time low of 8.2 percent in 2007, but still a remarkably low number. Nearly 30 percent of the league was black in the 1970s.
Heyward’s a phenomenal player. He has the ability to finish his career with multiple All-Star appearances, MVP’s and World Series rings. But to put the weight of getting black kids interested in baseball again on his shoulders is unfair, and a bit unrealistic.
Look at Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard, who is black, has been one of the game’s best for the past five seasons. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2005 and the NL MVP in 2006. In 2008, he led the Phillies to their first World Series since 1980 and is also the fastest player ever to reach 200 homeruns.
Howard’s production hasn’t done much to change the culture of baseball. Black players like CC Sabathia and Torii Hunter have talked recently about the dearth of black players in the majors. Sabathia and Hunter are two of the top players at their positions, and they too have had trouble moving the needle with black kids.
To get black kids to play baseball will take more than just having Heyward become the best in the game. It’s not as simple as Heyward becoming great, black kids watching him on TV and then deciding they want to play baseball. Do you think those same kids are going to stop watching LeBron James or Larry Fitzgerald?
Heyward is just one player. One very young player, who will be spending these next few years adjusting to the major league game and trying to blossom into the player everyone wants and expects him to be.
The kid’s already shown commitment to promoting the game, taking part in the Braves Launch, Explore, Advise and Direct (L.E.A.D) program, which aims to helps inner city kids earn college scholarships through baseball, but there’s only so much we can ask of him.
Alone, Heyward can’t change the culture. He, along with Howard, Hunter and Sabathia can certainly help by continuing to play well.
There was one thing Aaron said that can’t be overlooked.
“We do need to have many, many more Jason Heywards.”
That’s the key. We need more black superstars, and more players willing to try to promote the game to black youths.
Heyward can certainly play a part. But a part is all we can ask of him.