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The inspiring story behind Braves right-fielder Jason Heyward's jersey
Unproven rookies don’t get to choose their uniform numbers.
So when Jason Heyward, a 20-year-old right fielder, reported to the Atlanta Braves’ Lake Buena Vista, Florida, spring training complex last February, he was issued No. 71. Anonymous. Forgettable. The type of number that keeps you humble.
Heyward hit the ball hard in the Braves’ early spring training game—hard enough for manager Bobby Cox and the team’s star veterans to take notice.
Almost daily, it seemed, the powerfully built 6-feet-4, 240-pounder hit a rocket somewhere—into the right-centerfield alley, over the center fielder’s head, far over the right field fence.
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Cox kept putting Heyward in the lineup. He had this unshakeable feeling: This kid is special, this kid is going to be a star.
Cox learned how special the day he told Heyward that not only had he made the team, but he was the Braves’ new starting right fielder.
First Heyward asked to change his uniform number to 22. Then he visited Tammie Ruston, his high school British Lit teacher at Henry County High School in McDonough, Georgia, near Atlanta, and gave her one of his new jerseys.
Ruston burst into tears.
Ruston’s only child, Andrew “Willie” Wilmot, had worn No. 22 when he and Heyward had led Henry County to the 2005 Division AAAA Georgia State High School championship.
Wilmot, a catcher, and Heyward were best friends. “We looked up to each other,” Heyward told MLB.com. “He was fun to be around. Everybody around school loved him.”
Wilmot was a year older than Heyward, and he enrolled that fall at Walter State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee, to play collegiate ball. A year later he died in an auto accident.
Heyward didn’t want to forget him. It wasn’t enough, he decided, to visit Ruston every off-season. He sought a way to honor his friend. Most of all, he wanted to keep Wilmot’s memory alive for Ruston, and for the Henry County High baseball team. What better way than to adopt his friend’s jersey? “There are people who will get together with you when it’s easy to walk the other way,” he told cbsatlanta.com.
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Ruston was overwhelmed. She attended the Braves’ season opener, courtesy of Heyward, and watched from the right field seats—the closest she could sit to No. 22. She swelled with pride when Hall of Fame player and Braves right field icon Hank Aaron threw out the ceremonial opening day pitch—to the team’s new right fielder, Heyward.
Ruston’s heart was in her throat when Heyward came to bat in the bottom of the first inning. The Braves had two men on against Carlos Zambrano, the Chicago Cubs’ four-time All-Star.
Zambrano threw two fastballs, both inside. Then a third, over the inner half of the plate. Heyward pivoted and ripped—his first big-league swing.
Veteran players will tell you there is a special sound when a great slugger connects. That’s the sound that Cox and the Braves players heard. The ball shot like a laser into the right field seats, near where Ruston was sitting.
Heyward’s teammates leaped from their dugout seats. So did the 53,081 fans. So did Ruston. So they have for each of the 10 home runs he has hit this spring (through June 7) on his rapid rise to stardom.
“Baseball season now brings a special loneliness for me,” Ruston told the Atlanta Journal Constitution not long after. “But I know that a piece of Andy lives on. That brings me so much more comfort than I can begin to express.”
No. 22 is now the biggest-selling jersey in the Braves’ ballpark.
Ron Berler is an associate editor at Guideposts.