Heyward's unforgettable debut came vs. Cubs

Heyward's unforgettable debut came vs. Cubs

MESA, Ariz. -- April 5, 2010, was not an Opening Day that Cubs fans want to remember, but it's one Jason Heyward won't forget.

"[Braves manager] Bobby Cox was saying he'd only seen one other guy hit the ball like that, and it was Hank Aaron, and [Heyward] hits a home run in his first at-bat," Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske said. "That was amazing."

The Cubs had a 3-0 lead in the top of the first in Atlanta, but the Braves wiped that out with a six-run first against Carlos Zambrano, highlighted by a three-run homer in Heyward's first Major League at-bat. Only 20, Heyward, who was batting seventh, connected on a 2-0 fastball that was middle in and down, launching it into the bullpen.

"I wasn't thinking it was the first home run or first anything," Heyward, whose dad was among the cheering crowd that April day, said Wednesday. "I knew what it was, but I just knew we were winning, 6-3, versus being down, 3-0, in the first half of the inning.

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"We were trying to win. If we had lost, that would've sucked. We won the game, 16-5. [Winning] was the highlight of the day for me."

The Braves' first-round Draft pick in 2007, Heyward was greeted by huge expectations. He was playing for the hometown team, and being dubbed the next Aaron didn't make it easier.

"I honestly didn't realize it until after," he said of the hype. "I never cared about anything but just playing baseball. As it went on, I noticed it some, but at the same time, I thought this is what the big leagues are like. I'd just come in every day and do what I can and hit."

Hinske and David Ross were teammates of Heyward's in Atlanta at that time, and Chipper Jones did his best to ease the transition for the rookie from the Minor Leagues to the big leagues.

"The person who talked to me the most was Chipper," Heyward said. "He'd say, 'It's the same game, 60 feet 6 inches, 90 feet between the bases.' He said all that stuff, and then as he was scoring [in the first of that opener], when I'm on deck about to go hit, he looks at me, gives me a serious, 'Let's go.' I'm like, all right, thanks. You gave me a pep talk before when you were calm, and now it's like, 'Let's go.'"

Hinske knew Heyward had to deal with more than just playing in front of his friends and family every day.

"He had pretty much the weight of the world on his shoulders," Hinske said. "They were calling him the next Hank Aaron, he grew up there, he's a hometown guy, Atlanta boy, and his first at-bat, he hit a 500-foot home run, and the place was packed and Chipper gave him a big hug. He was floating around the bases. It was one of the cooler moments in my big league career, honestly, to see that excitement and for him to have that type of pressure and do what he did in his first at-bat."

Heyward settling in with Cubs

And being able to handle it is one of the reasons Heyward may be a perfect fit for the young Cubs. If Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber want to know about dealing with pressure, Heyward is the man to ask.

"Throughout the year, that will definitely happen, and that's where you grow, relationship-wise," Heyward said. "If there's anything I see, I'll help them with -- I've told K.B. a couple times that I get where he's coming from, having to sign autographs all the time. I said, 'Trust me, I had to do the same thing.' I'm not saying that in a bad way, but he's popular. In Atlanta it was 100 percent, being from there, No. 1, and being somebody people wanted to see play, there was a lot of attention."

Heyward, 26, is excited about having Chicago as his hometown now.

"It's been better being out of Atlanta," he said, and, please note, he's not dissing Atlanta. "There are more baseball-savvy people in Chicago and St. Louis than Atlanta."

He's been treated well in Chicago as a visiting player, and expects the same this summer.

"The Midwest is different," Heyward said. "People in Chicago, St. Louis, they're happy to see you. They welcome you in to their restaurants or whatever, and it's more like they greet you and they let you go on about your day, and in Atlanta, it doesn't happen so much. It's more like they want to hang out with you the whole time you're doing something."

What about the right-field fans at Wrigley Field? Did they razz him?

"That's everywhere, though," Heyward said, laughing. "And it's not bad. People say all kinds of stuff. Chicago is not one of the worst. It's just fun, a fun atmosphere."

He doesn't have anything planned as far as interacting with the fans.

"I just go out there, and if you yell my name, I'll tip my hat," he said. "If they're clapping, I'll clap with them to start the game, and that's about it. I'm not saying nothing will happen. If they start something, I'll interact with them."

It seems as if it's a perfect fit with the young players.

"These guys need some direction," Hinske said. "He's a great leader. He's been through the fire. Him and [Anthony Rizzo] will be the leaders of that clubhouse, for sure."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.