KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jason Heyward reaches into the basket, pulls out a ball, places it on the tee and stares toward the empty mound.
He sweeps the bat once in front of his knees, pulls it back behind his left ear, pauses briefly, then – after slightly lifting his right foot and rocking back on his left – unleashes a mighty swing at the motionless ball, sending it flying into the netting.
Then he does it again. And again. And again.
It is here, in the isolation of the batting cages just beyond the center-field wall of Champion Stadium, that the Reconstruction of the J-Hey Kid takes place on a daily basis in spring training.
“Just get a feel for what you want. Just tell yourself, one-on-one. Get in your own zone, put yourself in game situations,” Heyward said. “When you get in a game, you don’t want to think that much. That’s where you get your thinking done, in the cage.”
Beyond the cage, he faces increasingly familiar questions:
Is he the too-good-to-be-true phenom who hit a homer in his very first at-bat and who Hank Aaron predicted could change the face of the game? Or is he the guy who looked so totally overmatched in his sophomore season that he had to share outfield time with a career backup and a career minor leaguer?
From all appearances, Heyward is staring out on a crucial season at the ripe ol’ age of 22.
Just don’t tell him that.
“I’m not even going to break it down that much for you,” he said when asked about any changes he has made this spring. “I’m not thinking about it as much as you are.”
Much like the Jekyll-and-Hyde player he was over the past two years, Heyward can be a bit of an enigma away from the field, too.
There are times he seems laid back and approachable, bantering easily at his locker about the first dog he’s ever had, a 6-month-old Lab named Jhey (pronounced “Jay”). There are times when he’s snarky and abrupt, such as Monday when he came in from a workout and unleashed a string of snippy answers to such hard-hitting questions as whether he had any memories of former Braves David Justice and Fred McGriff, who are in for the week as special instructors.
That doesn’t concern the Braves; they aren’t looking for Heyward to win any personality contests.
Atlanta needs him to get back on the track to stardom he was on in 2010.
At midseason, Heyward was voted to the All-Star team. Despite a thumb injury that kept him out of the game and limited his effectiveness over the second half of the season, he still managed to hit .277 with 18 homers, 72 RBI and an on-base percentage of nearly .400. He finished second in the NL rookie of the year balloting to San Francisco’s Buster Posey.
Then, Year 2.
Heyward hurt his shoulder in spring training. He started slowly, got into some bad habits, pressed to turn it around and only made things worse.
Coming down the stretch, as the Braves fought desperately to hang on to the wild-card spot, he was relegated to part-time duty, sharing right field with Matt Diaz and Jose Constanza.
Heyward was left with dismal numbers: a .227 average, 14 homers, 42 RBI and a .319 on-base percentage.
Now comes Year 3.
Everyone is eager to see which path Heyward takes: The one Aaron and others had projected, or the one taken by Jeff Francoeur, another can’t-miss hometown kid who went from the cover of Sports Illustrated as a rookie to being traded away at age 25 for Ryan Church.
“I don’t feel any extra pressure, man,” he said. “I’ve just got to be healthy, man.”
“It was like any other offseason where you put in the work, put in the dedication. ... Once you get here, it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go play ball.’”