Commentary

Opening Day has a truly special feel to it

For a rookie like the Braves' Jason Heyward, enjoy the thrill and soak in the moment

Originally Published: April 5, 2010
By Doug Glanville | ESPN.com

Opening Day is not only the beginning of a season; it is a rebirth of sorts. We are ready to find hope in what could be hopeless, or show confidence that last year's last-place finish was a fluke, yet most important of all is that we are about to embark on the journey in the life of a player.

This day could be the start of a special beginning as Ben Sheets locks in on being the comeback player of the year. On Sunday night, the New York Yankees took the first step toward trying to recapture what it means to be a dynasty. We don't know what will happen, but we know there is no turning back.

[+] EnlargeJason Heyward
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelJason Heyward will bat seventh and start in right field for the Braves on Opening Day.

Jason Heyward is one of those stories.

When I was 20 years old, I had just finished my sophomore year of college, and that summer I put my name on the professional baseball map. Fresh off winning a Best Pro Prospect award from Cape Cod, my star power rating was rising and I was touted as a potential first-round draft pick.

In the Cape League, I had played against the best I had ever competed against. Gone was the comfort of aluminum bats. In walked top prospects from the Pac-10, and here I was hauling Ivy League lumber around, not sure how I would stack up against college legends like Mike Kelly from Arizona State or Mark Smith from USC.

My concerns as a 20-year-old were capitalizing on a strong Cape performance for the 1991 draft, figuring out how to get legal advice without actually having an agent, surviving a tough engineering class list and navigating a tough ex-girlfriend who didn't like the "ex."

On the field, I kept the momentum going and landed in the first round of the June draft. I was still 20 years old trying to figure out how to graduate while playing during the spring semester. Once I signed my first professional contract in late July, I then learned about negotiation at its finest: telling the world that you, as a draft selection, were a brilliant pick, and then when the door was closed telling the draft pick all the things he couldn't do. Whoa.

Signing was a relief, since along the way I was struggling to understand that the baseball world suddenly had an opinion about me. The idea that people who had never met me could wax eloquent about my throwing strength or the strength of my "heart" without even meeting me was shocking.

Who are all these people? Where did they come from? And this happened during the pre-Internet age.

Once the games began, I knew what to do, at least on the field. I still had to learn that as a first-round draft pick, I would be constantly under the microscope. Teammates watched, convinced I wasn't that good. People borrowed money from me like I was some sort of savings and loan, and I was naive enough to keep my teller's window open even after a near-100 percent default rate. But I was the bonus baby.

I even had to figure out this dress-code thing. Wearing T-shirts and my favorite lightweight bright blue pants wasn't cutting it, and Jimmy Piersall was not exactly excited to see me when I arrived at my first early work session on time, telling me "five minutes early is on time!"

The competition was fierce, and I fared well until I messed up my shoulder with what I retrospectively diagnose as thoracic outlet syndrome. So before my 21st birthday, I was drafted, got a big bonus, lived on Main Street in Geneva, N.Y., and got hurt.

There were a lot of players in that first league -- the New York-Penn League -- and the vast majority barely got to Double-A, let alone the big leagues.

So imagine what Heyward is looking at right now. Although I had a nine-year major league career with pretty decent numbers, by the time I was in high-A ball at 21, I was scrapping and clawing to hit .260. In the Carolina League, Alan Embree was throwing nearly 100 mph from the left side. Greg McCarthy was sporting an 0.00 ERA for the entire season (look it up!). Manny Ramirez was hitting balls to the opposite field that I didn't even understand, let alone catch. How good are these guys?

And this was only in Class A ball.

By the time I made my first major league camp, I was overmatched at the plate. Granted, I was not drafted as a home run hitter, but I was supposed to hit a little bit. Hitting against Chris Bosio, he diced me up like ham in his omelet, yet the Cubs generously kept me up in big league camp until nearly the end of spring training even as I hit under .200. I was 23 years old.

I wish Heyward the best of luck, because I know what he doesn't know as a 20-year-old. Being on the field may be the easiest part of what he is facing, and that is coming from someone who at 20 was just getting started, light-years away from a major league stadium and Roy Halladay. But Roy was not always Doc; even I can attest to facing him in spring training in his younger days and seeing a four-seam fastball with no movement that was up in the zone. Very hittable … but not anymore.

Yet Heyward has shown he can handle the Doc of today or he wouldn't be in this position. But off the field, he faces a tougher task. Fitting in, listening to others but trusting himself, adjusting to the big league game, interviewing, dating, crisscrossing the United States with a sore hamstring and jet lag.

Get ready for the electricity of Opening Day, fireworks, Blue Angels, walk-offs and maybe even a brawl. But keep in mind: Butterflies are filling in all these players' stomachs. And if you happen to be the rare person to be 20 years old and in a major league lineup, take a big breath and jump in at the deep end of the pool, because there is no shallow end.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. This is his first column for ESPN.com.

• MLB analyst for ESPN and ESPN.com
• Played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers
• Email: mail@dougglanville.com
• Website: http://www.dougglanville.com/