This year's crop of Myrtle Beach Pelicans don't have to look very far for a source of inspiration in their quests to make it to the major leagues someday.
At this time last year, Atlanta Braves' Opening Day hero Jason Heyward was one of them, trying on his brand-new Pelicans jersey for the very first time.
"Jason Heyward just a year ago was playing here in Myrtle Beach and look what he did [Monday] in the major leagues," said Pelicans manager Rocket Wheeler, whose 2010 team takes the field Thursday night
"That's what so great about our organization. We move guys but we move them for a reason, and that reason is to eventually get them to the big leagues."
Wheeler rattles off a laundry list of players who have made the rapid rise from Myrtle Beach to the majors, but none stands out more than Heyward, who was a 19-year-old, highly regarded prospect making his debut with the Pelicans at this time last season.
On Monday, Heyward fulfilled the potential Pelicans fans saw in him a year ago. He caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron before the game, then did his best Hammerin' Hank impersonation in his first big-league swing - a 464-foot home run that brought the Turner Field fans to their feet.
For Braves fans, Heyward is a quick-rising star. For Pelicans players, he's a shining example of what can happen when hard work meets opportunity.
"The first time I walked into the [Pelicans] clubhouse I said to myself, 'Jason Heyward was here last year,'" said first-year Pelicans pitcher Randall Delgado, the No. 7 ranked prospect in the Braves organization according to Baseball America. "He did a great job here and in [Double-A] Mississippi and [Triple-A] Gwinett and now he's in the major leagues. That's all of our dreams so we know that we can make it too if we work hard."
Unfortunately, overnight success stories like Heyward's are few and far between. Lots of can't-miss prospects have come through BB&T Coastal Field but failed to reach the big leagues. But what they do here goes a long way toward determining the difficulty and distance of their path to the show.
"It's part of the speech I tell these guys every year: You don't know how close you are to the big leagues," Wheeler said. "Guys look and say, 'Here I am in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the Carolina League in Single-A ball. I've got to go to Double-A and Triple-A to get to the big leagues.' Believe me, you're trip may be quicker than you think."
This year's Pelicans hope to follow in the fast-rising footsteps of predecessors like Rafael Furcal, Tommy Hanson, Brian McCann - all former Pelicans who are playing in the majors. But the decision about if and when they reach their ultimate destination is largely in their own hands - and arms, legs and feet.
"When they're ready to go they'll tell us they're ready, and Jason Heyward told us he was ready," Wheeler said. "Hopefully we'll get a Jason Heyward or two out of this bunch."