Heyward, Freeman fan favorites

More than half the beauty of having a Class AA baseball franchise in your area is trying to predict the ballplayers who will make it on the Major League level – and, harder still, the ones who will become superstars.

There are times when it is as easy as opening your eyes. Or your ears. For instance, if you were around Smith-Wills Stadium in the summer of 1982, all you had to do was listen when Darryl Strawberry came to bat. When he connected, the sound was different — louder, sharper, explosive. He hit 34 home runs as a 20-year-old in a ballpark that was notorious for turning home runs into long fly balls.

You knew Strawberry would make it. You knew he would make it big. To tell the truth, I thought he would hit far more than the 335 home runs he eventually hit in the Major Leagues. Of course, you never could have predicted that the polite, shy guy we knew at 20 would have so many personal problems later on.

As Strawberry himself put it near the end of his career, “When I look in the mirror, I look at the enemy. There is nobody to blame but myself...”

Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward have had no such enemies. When they came through Pearl and Mississippi Braves in 2009, it seemed almost like having two Strawberrys in one minor league clubhouse.

They were tall like Strawberry, lean like Strawberry and when they connected, bat meeting ball sounded like a small explosion.

Both were 19 years young. And both were clearly headed for The Show, sooner rather than later. Heyward, at the time, was the highest rated prospect in baseball. Freeman was rated the No. 11 prospect in baseball. They were best friends.

Phillip Wellman was their manager and he didn’t mince words. “I keep waiting to see a weakness,” Wellman said. “I keep waiting to see a hole in one of their swings. I haven’t. They hit left-handed pitchers as well as they hit right-handers. They hit fastballs and breaking pitches. They have such disciplined approaches for 19-year-olds. I mean, sheesh, do you remember what you were doing when you were 19?”

I would have predicted – and probably did – that Heyward would become the superstar Major Leaguer. He surely seemed the more advanced of the two when they were in Mississippi.

I was wrong. So were the guys who rated Major League prospects. Nine years later, Freeman is clearly the better Major Leaguer, one of the most feared sluggers in baseball.

Nine years later, Freeman has hit .293 with 186 home runs and 663 RBI as a big leaguer. Heyward has hit .263 with 122 homers and 510 RBI.

Back then Heyward hit the longer home runs. One night, Wellman gave him the hit sign on a three-ball, no-strike count. The pitcher grooved a fastball, and Heyward hit it nearly to Brandon. They measured it at 450 feet. It was at least that.

And Heyward made it to the Atlanta Braves faster, playing the entire season there, although Freeman was called up at the end of the 2010 season.

Heyward hit a home run in his first Big League at bat. He made the All-Star team as a rookie.

But since then, Heyward has hit a plateau. He has averaged 16 home runs a season at the Major League level with the Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.

Freeman has averaged 26 homers, all with the Braves. In the recent and successful overhaul of the Atlanta lineup, he was the one constant, the guy they kept in place.

Currently, Freeman is hitting .320, with 20 home runs and 77 RBI for the Braves. Heyward is hitting .280 with seven homers and 50 RBI for the Cubs.

Both are fan favorites. Both are popular with teammates. Heyward makes $21.5 million a year. Freeman makes $21 million, a bargain at that. Heyward just turned 29. Freeman is still 28.

They’ve done OK.

Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

Holly Springs South Reporter

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