LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman watched Braves icon Chipper Jones handle the ”face of the franchise” role seemingly with ease in recent years. He knocked out the various unwritten duties of that post effortlessly, including dealing with the media during good and bad times, all while he fought the effects of age and injury in an effort to keep playing at a high level.
Heyward and Freeman, former Myrtle Beach Pelicans, are 17 years younger than Jones. They don’t have to worry about having fluid-filled knees drained every month or taking cortisone injections on a regular basis to relieve creaky joints so they can play.
But when it comes to being faces of the Braves franchise – most agree Heyward is and Freeman could be soon – youth and inexperience are not assets. More often, they are issues that must be overcome before a player feels confident speaking for himself, much less being asked at times to speak for others, such as at the end of a disappointing series when reporters have deadlines and some teammates might choose to spend a little more time decompressing in the players-only dining room.
”How he handled the media and how he handled all the fans,” Freeman said, smiling and shaking his head. ”When I’m sitting a couple of lockers down last year, watching how he handled things, you try to take it in and do the best you can. Some people are just gifted that way. He was one of them. You try to take in everything you can and hopefully, you can just put it into what you do while your career progresses.”
Jones said he was fortunate to not have the burden of the role when he was a rising major league star in his early to mid 20s.
”I mean, you’re talking about some really young guys coming up to the big leagues,” he said of Heyward, voted to start in the 2010 All-Star game as a 20-year-old rookie right fielder. Freeman, 23, is beginning his third season as the Braves’ starting first baseman after producing consecutive 20-plus homer seasons and a team-high 94 RBIs in 2012.
”Whereas in ‘95 when I was a rookie, I was 23 but I got to draw from that experience in ‘94 when I spent the whole year on the DL,” said Jones, who tore a knee ligament during 1994 spring training and spent a season on the disabled list. ”These guys have had to actually play through it since they were 20 and 21 years old. I mean, they’ve still got baby fat.”
Freeman shed 11 pounds of ”baby fat” this winter. But Heyward has looked like a chiseled Greek statue since the day he and Freeman arrived as non-roster invitees to their first big-league camp at 19.
Jones, who retired after last season, visited camp as a guest instructor this spring. He likes everything he sees in the continued development of Heyward and Freeman, players he always said would becomes faces of the franchise along with catcher Brian McCann, if McCann remained a Brave beyond 2013 and pending free agency.
Jones pointed out another difference in the demands on Heyward and Freeman, compared to what he faced.
”It takes a while to mature and you’re starting to see that,” he said. ”But they’re going to have to mature a lot quicker than I did. They’re going to be the faces of the franchise at 23, 24, 25 years old. I wasn’t the face of the franchise at 23, 24, 25. We had (Greg) Maddux, (Tom) Glavine and (John) Smoltz, and those guys didn’t shove off until I was 30. So it took a little of the pressure off me. These guys are going to have it pressed upon them a lot earlier.”
Heyward, a native of McDonough, Ga., and a first-round draft pick in 2007, has been the focus of Braves fans since before he put on a major league uniform. He was a minor league player of the year and Baseball America cover boy as a teenager (he and Freeman would later pose together for a Sports Illustrated cover).
When Hank Aaron threw out a ceremonial first pitch to Heyward before the 2010 season opener, a torch was passed. And when Heyward then homered in his first major league at-bat in that game, he sprinted the bases with that torch.
But the Braves’ unofficially designated Next Golden Boy would run into some adversity. A thumb injury marred his rookie year and a shoulder injury slowed him for much of a disappointing second season in 2011.
Jones said publicly while Heyward was on the DL that the kid needed to understand the difference between being injured and playing dinged-up, because most players were always playing with aches and pains as a season wore on. Heyward needed to know, Jones said, that even at 80 percent he was better than other options the team had to replace him.
If Heyward took the criticism as anything but constructive, he never said so publicly. And in 2012 he produced career-best numbers while emerging as a go-to guy for reporters, always at his locker after games. He only had to look 20 feet to his right to see an example of a great working relationship with media. There, Jones was surrounded by reporters before and after games.
Heyward could also look immediately to his left to see another such example: Martin Prado. Or between him and Jones, a few more always-accountable types: McCann, David Ross and Eric Hinske.
Jones, Prado, Ross and Hinske are now gone. McCann will likely miss the first weeks of the season recovering from shoulder surgery and the six-time All-Star catcher’s future with the Braves is uncertain beyond this season.
Heyward is under contractual control through 2015 and the Braves will presumably try to sign him and Freeman to long-term deals before free agency.
”(Jones) was definitely a guy you watched, a guy who led by example,” Heyward said. ”He’s not always going to get it done (in big situations), but more times than not, he wanted to be that guy in that situation. And even when he failed, he took full ownership of everything. …
”Unfortunately I’ve kind of been called out for that since I’ve been on this team, at 20 years old. But at this point, it’s kind of the norm. Being at your locker to talk about the game, that’s understood. No problem doing that. I’m here for my teammates, they’re here for me. We all have the same goal in mind.
”Like last year when we (Heyward and reporters) talked after that game about that ball that (Washington’s Bryce) Harper hit to me. It took a bad hop or whatever and the way I went at it wasn’t the best way and he took the extra base. You take ownership of things like that. I said, ‘Hey, that’s on me.’ But also, I was just (ticked) off because my pitcher struck a good hitter out and now you’ve got the No. 2 guy on base and you’ve got the 3-hitter coming up. I take ownership.
”I understand that I’m going to screw up sometimes. But I really mean well.”