Nothing enlivens spring training like a genuine spring-training phenom, and we have a monster brewing in Florida in outfielder Jason Heyward.
It’s one thing to have an obscure player who rises up to tear apart weak exhibition pitching. When I was in school at Cal-Berkeley in the 1970s, the Bay Area was abuzz in 1977 when an obscure outfielder named Randy Elliott raised his average to .692 in mid-March. He finished at .547 (29 for 53, with 18 extra-base hits) and made the Giants’ roster…then went on to hit a weak .240 that year. Elliott finished his career with a .215 average in 114 games over four seasons, hampered by a shoulder injury.
Nobodies don’t often transform into somebodies from one season to the next (not without a little pharmaceutical help, I guess). To me, the far more intriguing type of spring phenom is the rookie bursting onto the scene and giving us the first glimpse of true greatness. Ken Griffey Jr., to whom Heyward is being compared – overheated hype is part of the phenom game, remember – was like that. He showed up in Mariners camp in 1989 as a teenager, a non-roster player, and never gave the M’s a reason to ship him back down to the minors. Griffey hit .359 with two homers and 21 RBI that spring, made the team, and was on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
It’s far too soon to put the 20-year-old Heyward on his way to Cooperstown, but the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is eliciting raves with his play this spring – including a tape-measure home run today. All this after being ranked the No. 1 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, among others — ahead of Stephen Strasburg.
It really looks like the momentum is growing for Heyward to win the Braves’ right-field job. Bobby Cox says he’s open to that, if Heyward proves he’s the best man for the job. It would be a real rare thing for the Braves to make that call. The last 20-year-old to get 400 plate appearances in a big-league season after 50 or fewer games above Class A ball was none other than Griffey in 1989.
We’ll see what happens when the pitchers start spinning off more breaking stuff. But for now, it’s great fun to have a real, live phenom in our midst.
(Photos by Associated Press)