ATLANTA — Jason Heyward remembers making daily drives past Turner Field as a teenager on his way to batting practice with his private instructor.
Riding with his parents on the interstate, Heyward would stare at the facility and dream of playing in the major leagues.
Heyward and his youth instructor, C.J. Stewart, were together again on Friday night for his first game at Turner Field as the Atlanta Braves’ starting right fielder.
Heyward, 20, says he is fortunate his family in Henry County, about 30 minutes south of Atlanta, could afford the lessons. Now Stewart is offering free instruction to Atlanta inner-city middle school and high school kids.
Before the exhibition against the Chicago White Sox, Heyward told Stewart’s kids they don’t have to be baseball stars to be successful in life.
“Not everyone has someone to support them,” Heyward said. “Not everyone has an opportunity like I had. Baseball takes time. It takes facilities. It also takes people to provide instruction, and this provides exposure and opportunity for that.”
Stewart on Friday announced a partnership with the Braves for his program called L.E.A.D. for Launch, Explore, Advise and Direct. Unlike other programs designed to steer top black athletes into professional baseball, L.E.A.D.’s goal is to help the players earn college scholarships through baseball.
“Our measurable outcome is college,” Stewart said. “That’s our main focus. We want to be able to get young men from the high school level to college and also with our program to connect them with a network of individuals so that when they’re out of college they can go straight into jobs. We don’t discourage them from going for professional baseball, but our sole purpose is to help them go to college.”
Heyward encouraged the youngsters to take advantage of Stewart’s program.
“You can learn something about how this can push you further, and it doesn’t have to be baseball,” Heyward said. “It means a lot to me to be able to help somebody out and to show what it really means to have someone show you support and do something you want to do with your life. There are a lot of things you may not know out there, but L.E.A.D. is going to say ‘Hey, let’s go do this and let’s have a good time doing it.’”
To remain in the program, players must maintain at least a C average and participate in community service.
“Many of these young men see the stadium from their backyard,” Stewart said.
Heyward received a loud ovation before his first at-bat.
No doubt, many Braves fans are eager to see what the Heyward hype is all about.
Heyward was named baseball’s top prospect by Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com after he hit a combined .323 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs at Class-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett last year. The national media focused on Heyward this spring as word spread of his long home runs in batting practice.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Heyward says he is “having a blast” playing baseball.
“It’s awesome. It’s just awesome,” the usually soft-spoken Heyward beamed. “It’s my first big league game here.”