Dynamic rookies keep fans energized

ATLANTA --- It seemed like a good idea at the time.


Go to Turner Field and catch Act I of the rookie-of-the-year contest play out face to face on the field.

The highly anticipated matchup of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg vs. power prodigy Jason Heyward had the box office lines backed up in the mid-morning sun. This was not your ordinary mundane Monday with the Washington Nationals in town.

Alas, the show everyone came to see was scratched. Heyward -- the 20-year-old kid from Atlanta's backyard in Henry County -- succumbed to a thumb injury that has slowed his juggernaut start in Major League Baseball. Before Strasburg took the mound, Heyward was placed on the 15-day disabled list.

The mandated rest cost the 42,889 who showed up Monday night the dream batting matchup and might keep Heyward out of the starting outfield spot he earned by getting the second-most votes in the All-Star balloting.

But it didn't stop the debate that has been going on ever since Strasburg made his debut just 20 days earlier and struck out 14:Which one will be the National League's rookie of the year?

It seemed like a ridiculous argument at first. Here was Heyward, who had already been named the league's best rookie in both April and May, suddenly being thrust into a conversation with a guy who has made one start. Are you kidding me?

But over the course of June, Heyward slumped and the Strasburg campaign jumped. With ESPN drooling over the impossibly poised right-hander and measuring his every strikeout against the all-time record book, the weight of evidence seemed to skew away from the J-Hey Kid. It's basically considered a two-man race, even if Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez compares to Heyward's numbers and Mike Leake continues to pitch well in Cincinnati.

Since we were deprived of an early decision on the field, it was time to audible and salvage this mission. While there was no Heyward on the field, there was no shortage of Heyward jerseys in the stands. Only three months into his career and No. 22 jerseys and T-shirts already outnumber Chipper Jones replicas at Turner Field.

It's surely the same in Washington with Strasburg jerseys, but this isn't Washington. So I set out to ask a segment of the Heyward-clad fans what they think of the rookie-of-the-year debate.

"Strasburg," voted 17-year-old Kelsie Kennedy of Vidalia, Ga., despite her red Heyward jersey.

"Heyward," countered her 15-year-old boyfriend Drew Powers in his contrasting blue No. 22.

And so it went most of the evening as Strasburg kept the Braves scoreless until getting chased in the seventh inning of what turned out to be a 5-0 Braves victory. The consensus was generally balanced even in the Braves home park filled with Heyward's biggest fans.

Such has been the power of the unyielding Strasburg hype that dominated the month of June.

"The hype is the thing that swayed the thing," said Miguel Garcia, 27, of Atlanta. "And we've finally seen Heyward cool off. We'll have to see Strasburg cool off himself for people to get off his (bandwagon)."

Garcia makes the strongest case for Strasburg.

"He's just been more dominant," he said. "And he's a more polished player. Heyward literally has two years of baseball experience. He's going to be a great player, but he's still so young."

Michael Thompson, 35, of Atlanta is a huge Heyward fan but worries that people are expecting way too much after such a small sample size.

"People went crazy when he hit a home run in his debut," Thompson said of Heyward's first-pitch blast that went 414 feet and launched the mania. "They said he's going to be the next Hank Aaron. Well, Hank Aaron went 0-6 in his debut. It doesn't tell you anything."

Heyward backed up his remarkable start with 10 home runs and 38 RBI in April and May and Albert Pujols-like slugging stats. But after jamming his thumb in a head-first slide on May 14, Heyward's march to the Hall of Fame abated with one homer and 32 strikeouts in June before going on the DL.

But if he comes back and shows more of the form that defined his All-Star selection, fans believe Heyward is the more likely rookie-of-the-year candidate.

"Heyward all day because he's an every-day player," said Andrew Murdoch, 20, of Douglasville, Ga. "Any team in baseball would take a guy who plays every day over a guy who plays every five days. I might say Strasburg if the voting was up to the fans, but baseball people will know better."

Murdoch later tracked me down in the crowd to add another feather in Heyward's campaign cap.

"It also makes a difference that Heyward is on a team that is going to contend," he said. "The Nationals are not a contender."

That's one argument that's not debatable. But once Heyward gets back in the batter's box and eventually stares down Strasburg on the mound, this battle will continue to fascinate.