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Published: Thursday, December 30, 2010

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Eugene Heyward is back in the Perfect Game starting rotation. In reality, he probably never dropped out.

Heyward, the father of current Atlanta Braves star Jason Heyward and up-and-coming high school sophomore Jacob Heyward, was at the Boston Red Sox 5-Plex Player Development Complex Thursday morning (Dec. 30) for the final day of Perfect Game’s National Underclass Showcase-Main Event.

He was a fixture at Perfect Game events at the East Cobb Complex in Marietta, Ga., and other locales while encouraging Jason along his lightning-quick path from 2004 through 2006. He’s now back watching 15-year-old Jacob learn the game and progress through the ranks.

“I enjoy it because they do,” Eugene said before the start of one the final Top Prospects games, in which Jacob was taking part. “I like baseball, anyway. Once I retire, I think I’m going to coach baseball, the kids.

“And I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t stop myself from coming down here.”

If Eugene had anything to do with the development of his sons, he should make a fine youth coach.

Jason Heyward made his Major League debut on Opening Day last at Turner Field in Atlanta last April 5, less than four years after he had competed in his final Perfect Game event as a high school senior in McDonough, Ga., an Atlanta suburb.

It was quite an MLB debut. In his first at-bat in the Majors and facing the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano, Jason hit a long home run that got the Braves started on their way to an easy victory. Eugene and his wife, Laura, were at Turner Field to see it.

“That was more amazing because of the people that were there,” Eugene said. “Guerry Baldwin (from East Cobb) was there, his Little League coaches were there, family and friends; that’s what was important. (Jason) took advantage of the situation and things worked out. That’s what was amazing is things worked out.”

Eugene said it was also a very special moment when Hank Aaron tossed Jason a ball before his debut in what appeared to be an impromptu “changing of the guard” gesture.

“That you would never imagine. You would never imagine meeting Hank Aaron,” Eugene said. “You would never imagine your child would stand next to Hank Aaron.”

Jason Heyward went on to be selected to the 2010 NL All-Star team in fan voting, although he didn’t play because of a thumb injury). He batted .277 with 18 home runs, 29 doubles and 72 RBIs in 142 games and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting to fellow Perfect Game alum Buster Posey from the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

In just less than four years, Jason Heyward had gone from Aflac All-American (2006) to Major League rookie sensation, and his father Eugene has been there for the entire – albeit short – journey.

Eugene recalled fondly the three years from 2004 through 2006 in which Jason participated in 16 Perfect Game tournaments and showcases on his way to Aflac All-American status. He is especially proud of a video compilation Perfect Game put together that documented the progression of Jason’s maturity level from a 6-foot, 170-pound 14-year-old to a 6-4, 220-pound 17-year-old.

“It keeps you humble because every year it’s more and more challenging,” Eugene said. “That’s the way he took it – one step at a time. You say, ‘This year you were here, next year you’ve got to show this … and next you’ll be there.’

“These are set goals. The ideal way of doing things is this goal, this goal, that goal. And I think that’s the way Jason took it. He was challenged at every level.”

Eugene Heyward is an electrical engineer at Warner-Robbins Air Force Base who played NCAA Division I basketball in the Ivy League at Dartmouth University (where he met his wife).

He said he learned a great deal from his uncle, Kenneth Washington, who played basketball for John Wooden at UCLA. It was his uncle who taught him the value of being dedicated to a tight training regimen, something he has tried to pass on to his sons.

Eugene also gives a lot of credit for Jason’s and Jacob’s development to their mother, Laura, who is a systems analyst for Georgia Power.

“Without her, we couldn’t do this,” Eugene said of attending the National Underclass-Main Event. “Who’s going to let me come down to Florida while it’s freezing in Atlanta … and I’m not doing anything but moving (Jacob) around.

“She’s baseball-minded because her dad played baseball in New York. She knows more about baseball than most people I know.”

Eugene is appreciative of the way Perfect Game’s showcases are formatted and the way its events are arranged by age groups. He’s noticed in his own sons how much young players grow and develop between the ages of 14 and 16.

“You come in here as a 14-year-old (and) you’re going to run into these 16-year-old guys who have been around for awhile and they’re big strong kids, and they have no fear and they’re pretty much set on where they want to go. (The 14-year-olds) are challenged,” Eugene said. “Then they’re 15 and they say, ‘OK, I can get better.’ You don’t think you’re the top guy, you’re the middle of the road guy, but ‘Hey, I can compete now.’

“Then you’re the 16-year-old and the top guy and now you’re the top of the hill and you want to tell these young guys, ‘Hey, these are the goals you have to reach. You have to keep it that way, and keep it fun.’”

Eugene talks a lot about keeping the game fun. Baseball is a difficult and sometimes frustrating game, and Eugene told his sons that if the joy ever leaves, they in turn should leave the game behind.

“If you’re not having fun, we don’t want to do this,” Eugene said he told them. “It’s a way of life for these kids. You can’t do it if you don’t give them that. You have to get up in the morning, you have to be disciplined, you have to sacrifice hanging out with your buddies. We talked about it a lot of times (with Jason) and it was difficult, but he did it and he’s happy he did it.”

Although basketball was the game Eugene pursued on the collegiate level, he had no problem with his sons pursuing baseball and taking part in Perfect Game events.

“My first love was baseball. The first organized sport I played was baseball,” Eugene said. “If (Perfect Game events) had been available, would I have done it? Of course I would have. We tell ourselves, ‘God, you kids are blessed.’ You know how we are: ‘We walked 10 miles in the snow backwards everyday to school.’

“But no, it’s a blessing and I enjoy it and I appreciate it. It gives the kids an idea to gauge where they are as players and it builds character. If you look at a child that’s 14 and then one that’s 16, you’ll see the difference in confidence as they walk around and how they talk to the adults.”

Eugene said he and Laura probably won’t make it to as many Braves games as they’d like to next summer because they will be taking Jacob to as many Perfect Game events as possible. He anticipates a lot of travel.

“My life has never been mine,” Eugene said with a hearty laugh. “It’s Jacob’s turn. He’s progressing really well and I’m very happy for him.”

 
 
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