Henry Aaron's ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day was caught by Jason Heyward, which was symbolic and significant. Aaron, a man too dignified to ever wallow in hyperbole, later discussed what he believed to be Heyward's prospective role in baseball in Atlanta, one of the only major cities in this country where African-American kids are playing baseball.
Aaron was not anointing the 20-year-old Heyward for a place in Cooperstown. But he was there in the city and felt the buzz that moved the earth in anticipation of Heyward's debut. He heard the deafening chant of "Let's Go Heyward! Let's Go Heyward!" that led to the kid stepping into the batter's box for the first time. Braves general manager Frank Wren says, "I don't think they ever did that for Chipper," and Chipper Jones will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Aaron then saw and heard the tsunami of cheers that erupted when Heyward launched his mammoth homer in that first at-bat. It matters to Henry Aaron that baseball has seen its African-American population dwindle for more than 20 years, as it matters to socially conscious active players like C.C. Sabathia, Torii Hunter and Jimmy Rollins, who are giving of their time and money to try to revive the game in urban communities.
Aaron called Heyward "important." Which, at the risk of placing unfair expectations on a young man who would be a junior in college had he not signed after being drafted in 2007, is true.
The Opening Day crowd of 53,081 was the largest in more than a decade in Atlanta, coming off a 2009 season in which the average attendance of 29,304 was the smallest since 1991, when the Braves' unprecedented run of excellence began. It was wild and crazy, with the tomahawk chop borrowed from Florida State and the novelty of what Bobby Cox built and which John Schuerholz developed. There was a long stretch when the Braves had four surefire Hall of Famers -- Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones -- and yet after the novelty wore off, they never seemed bigger than Georgia or SEC football. That's just the way it is.
Then along comes this humble, highly intelligent, 6-foot-6, 245-pound kid from suburban McDonough, a product of the great East Cobb youth program, and all of a sudden baseball in Atlanta matters.
"I've lived here most of my life," says one friend who went to Monday's game, "and I've never seen or heard anything like it. This entire area has gone bonkers for Jason Heyward."
"The last time this city went crazy was for Michael Vick," says another friend. "I think this is bigger, because everyone here sees Jason as one of us."
Is Jason Heyward going to hit .356 the way Alex Rodriguez did at 20? Of course not. But as one area scout says, "Watch what Heyward means to the African-American kids across Georgia. You're going to see a generation of kids who want to be the next Jason Heyward." That is what Henry Aaron was talking about.
There are people in many other cities wondering why or how Heyward lasted until the 14th pick in the 2007 Draft. Part of the reason was that it was a strong Draft, with college players David Price, Matt Wieters and Matt LaPorta up top. Oh, the old Pittsburgh regime took a left-handed pitcher named Daniel Moskos with the fourth pick, the Nationals took Ross Detwiler sixth, and the Indians took Beau Mills 13th. There was a split among the Marlins and they decided to take third baseman Matt Dominguez at No. 12, which cost one of the game's best scouting staffs getting Heyward and Mike Stanton in the first two rounds.
But while some Marlins fans might not like hearing it, the fact that Jason Heyward was drafted and signed by his hometown Braves was the best thing for the game. He wouldn't have the impact anywhere else that he will have in Atlanta. He wouldn't have kids wanting to be him anywhere else.
Heyward will have to learn to protect his time and privacy as every media outlet comes to profile him, but in his hometown, who he is will ring louder and get greater public due. Former players across America were taken by the hug Chipper gave Heyward after he crossed home plate, a hug that told other players how much respect and acceptance this 20-year-old has received from his veteran teammates who have promoted -- rather than dismissed -- the hype he has received.
In Atlanta he will have the forum for everyone to see that family matters, and how Laura and Eugene Heyward raised their son, the anti-Vick for whom education and civility, humility and grace has been in the blood of his family for generations. That can all be part of what being like Jason Heyward is about.
On Wednesday, in Boston, Sabathia took an hour of his time with kids from the South End Little League at Fenway Park. Gary Greenberg and the law firm Greenberg Traurig bid to sponsor the meeting, and Sabathia, who sponsors his own Little League in California, spent an hour with the kids, because he cares. Mariano Rivera poked his head out of the visitors' dugout, asked what was going on, and when he was told this was part of a fundraiser for inner-city non-profits and kids, he walked over, joined Sabathia, signed autographs, posed for pictures and talked with the teenagers.
In a business in which the economic realities have created a disconnect between players and their fans, Sabathia and Rivera connected with people, not sponsors, and the kids from the South End Little League spent the Yankees-Red Sox game talking about the real people they'd met, who happened to be a superstar pitcher and the best relief pitcher who ever lived.
Jason Heyward matters because people in Atlanta feel a unique connection with him. Maybe 10 years from now there will be a bunch of great prospects coming out of the area. Better yet, maybe there will be thousands of kids who emulate Heyward and do what he was raised to do -- look in the mirror every day and ask, "Am I who I want to be?"
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.