By Sam Crenshaw / 92-9 The Game Contributor
There are some things that you just don’t see coming.There are some things that are crystal clear,and then there are the things that you see but you really don’t want to see. The trade of Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves to the St. Louis Cardinals falls into the latter category.
This past weekend I served as emcee for a local youth baseball banquet at Turner Field’s 755 Club and Heyward was there. When it was time to introduce Jason, I mentioned his new gold glove and that we had seen him play many times at Turner Field, but for some reason I failed to mention the Braves. An oversight for sure that now seems more like a premonition.
The story of Jason Heyward is a familiar one for local baseball fans who watched a young Jeff Francoeur make a big splash in his Braves debut back in 2005, and gave cause for everyone to celebrate the hometown hero.
Heyward’s arrival was similar on Opening Day 2010, when he smashed a 3-run homer, on his way to earning All-Star status in his rookie season. Heyward would soon be seen in commercials for ESPN Sportscenter, but there was still more to the story.
Franceour came from Atlanta’s northside, Gwinnett County. The Braves had no trouble getting fans to make the drive into town to watch games. Heyward came from the city’s southside and helped the Braves with something the team had struggled to maintain in the prior seasons. The Braves had problems keeping an African-American player on their roster. Jason Heyward would give the black community a reason to return to the ball park.
It’s not that the Braves avoided having African-American players before Heyward, it’s just a fact that the pool of black players with the ability to play at the major league level is very shallow. So shallow that 3 MLB teams started the 2014 season with no African-American player at all.One of these teams actually ended up winning the World Series.
That brings me back to last weekend. L.E.A.D. is an organization whose goal is to bring baseball back to Atlanta’s inner city, encouraging young people to used the game to stay out of trouble while making education and leadership their goals.The best of the best of this group get to earn the title of L.E.A.D. Ambassadors, and Saturday night this years class of 31 Ambassadors from the Atlanta Public School System was honored.
Throughout his time with the Braves Jason Heyward has supported L.E.A.D. in every way possible.For the young men of L.E.A.D. seeing, meeting and touching Jason Heyward has let them know that someone can come from where they come from and make it to the top,through hard work and dedication.
“Most fans view professional baseball players as men that compete as a player in a sport,” says L.E.A.D. Co-Founder CJ Stewart.”Jason Heyward showed our Ambassadors and millions of baseball fans around the world that a professional baseball player responds in challenging circumstances with class because it’s the natural and right thing to do.Professionalism is a lifestyle. Playing baseball is a privilege,and being professional at all times is your civic duty ”
Now Jason Heyward joins a team that is consistently among the best in Major League Baseball.While the St. Louis Cardinals are a post season constant, they are also one of the 3 MLB teams that started the 2014 season with no African-American players on it’s Opening Day roster.In fact, when Jason Heyward takes the field on Opening Day 2015 it will be the first time the Cardinals will have an African-American player in the starting lineup on Opening Day since Preston Wilson started in right field in 2007.
St. Louis is a baseball town and the Cardinals clearly hold the key to the Gateway City. Unlike Atlanta, fans continue to pack Busch Stadium even after football season starts. Heyward won’t have the pressure of being the “Hometown Hero”, or have to be a cornerstone of the franchise. At age 25, Heyward’s best years are still ahead of him. All he has to do next season is stay healthy and be consistent.
I do expect Jason to continue to contribute off the field and with the continued unrest in nearby Ferguson, there is a twist of irony. Make no mistake about it, Heyward’s purpose in St. Louis will be to play his best each day for the Cardinals organization. I would never say that Jason could wave his hand and make the troubles of Ferguson magically go away. I can say with all certainty that seeing someone that you can identify with in a certain position makes you take notice and realize that the thing you thought was impossible is really within reach with commitment and determination.
You may say that Jason Heyward is just a baseball player and he can’t do all those things, and I might agree with you if I had not seen the 31 L.E.A.D Ambassadors last weekend.I listened to them express their desire to be future leaders of their community and I knew that Heyward’s involvement had made a difference.
Next Spring I will miss seeing Jason’s big smile greet me in the Braves Clubhouse. I will continue to follow his progress and will be rooting for him right down until the final weekend of the regular season when the Cardinals come to play at Turner Field. I’ll have to root for the hometeam that weekend, but it will be great to have J-Hey back in town and I’m sure that many of the young lives he touched through L.E.A.D will be there to greet him and say thanks.
Read more on this topic and others at samcrenshaw.com