The young and the Braves

Associated Press
February 20, 2011

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Freddie Freeman made the rookie mistake of breaking out a pair of shiny red spikes at his locker.

“Who talked you into those shoes?” Jason Heyward, sitting across the way in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, asked in a disparaging tone.

Freeman shrugged off the insults.

“I make ’em look good on my feet,” he finally declared.

If all goes according to the Braves’ plan, there will be plenty of good-natured banter between these guys over the next decade or so.

A year ago, Heyward showed he’s a star in the making. He homered in his first big-league at-bat. He was voted to start in the All-Star Game. He finished second to Giants catcher Buster Posey in the NL rookie of the year voting.

Now, it’s Freeman’s turn.

He’ll move up to the majors this season as Atlanta’s starting first baseman, hoping to follow the same path as his good friend — which would only be appropriate, since J-Hey and Freddie have seemingly been in lockstep for most of their young lives.

“Of course, we’d like to be the future of the team,” Heyward said. “That’s what people want to see. That’s why we’re here.”

Heyward was born Aug. 9, 1989. Freeman entered the world 34 days later. They met for the first time at an all-star game while still in high school. Then, in the 2007 draft, Heyward was picked by the Braves in the first round, Freeman went in the second.

They spent much of their minor-league time on the same team, starting out together in the Gulf Coast League, moving rapidly up the chain through Rome, Myrtle Beach, Mississippi and Gwinnett. Last year, when Heyward made it to the big leagues and Freeman played for the Braves’ Triple-A club in suburban Atlanta, they lived together in Heyward’s townhouse.

Freeman got a valuable preview of what he can expect this year.

“You can’t really try to do what other people want you to do,” he said. “Just calm down and relax, go out there and be who you are, be who you were to get to the big leagues.”

The Braves would be thrilled if Freeman came anywhere close to matching Heyward’s production last season, and it would be an added bonus if he displayed some of the charisma that made J-Hey an instant hit with the fans in Atlanta and around the country.

“He’s got that presence about him,” said Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves’ new manager, recalling their time together on the Braves’ winter caravan. “If you had told me this guy was 21 years old, I would’ve told you, ‘No way.’ Just the way he handled himself, the way he spoke, the way he interacted with people, the way he carried himself. Man, this guy has it.”

Despite a left thumb injury that kept him from playing in the All-Star Game and sapped his power for a good chunk of the season, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Heyward still managed to hit .277 with 18 homers, 72 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Most impressive was his discipline at the plate, with was evident from his team-leading 91 walks and .393 on-base percentage.

“What Jason did last year was amazing,” said teammate Brian McCann. “I would like to have seen what he could’ve done if he didn’t get hurt. He carried us for a good portion of the year.”

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Freeman is coming off an impressive season in Triple-A, where he batted .319 with 18 homers and 87 RBIs before a late-season call-up to the Braves. Gonzalez plans to bat him low in the order — probably seventh or eighth — so he doesn’t feel any pressure to be one of the team’s main run producers.

He’s already considered a defensive upgrade over anyone the Braves had first base in 2010, and he has a smooth, line-drive swing that likely will produce more power as he gets older.

“With Freddie, the sky’s the limit,” McCann said. “Once he learns the pitchers and learns what they’re trying to do to him, he’s going to do exactly what he’s been doing his whole life — hit.”

The same could be said about Heyward. Just imagine what this guy might do with a little experience under his belt.

It already feels a bit different reporting to spring training for Year 2.

“I’m more comfortable with everybody. I know who’s who,” Heyward said. But, he quickly added, “I’m still a kid.”

A kid who can do some damage.

Last spring, Heyward busted up plenty of luxury cars belonging to team officials with his towering blasts over the right-field wall in batting practice. This year, the Braves installed a series of protective tents to park those cars under.

Unfortunately, someone made the mistake of parking a van behind the wall.

Heyward smashed one off the roof.