Three years after the Braves drafted Jason Heyward 14th overall, the mystery grows. How could such a talent fall past the first 13 teams picking in the 2007 draft?
Fine by the Braves. Mystery was part of the plan.
Roy Clark, the former Braves scouting director who drafted Heyward, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann and a host of Georgia talent, foiled the competition for years, greasing the skids for local players to fall to the Braves.
There are stories of phantom bad medical reports on pitcher Adam Wainwright and a fax circulated saying Francoeur wanted a $4 million signing bonus. In Heyward’s case, Clark was supposedly in cahoots with his high school coach to throw bad batting practice so other scouts couldn’t get a good look.
“Roy Clark and those guys, they’re smooth,” said Heyward’s father, Eugene Heyward. “There are some things I’m not privy to. It was just a standing joke, ‘All right, Roy, are you going to tell me the truth now?’ He just grins and smiles.”
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Clark, who left the Braves last fall to become an assistant general manager for the Nationals, still grins and smiles.
“One day in the next 10, 15 years, I will talk about it,” said Clark, who denies any cahoots with the coach. “You hear the rumors about we did this and we did that. No we didn’t. We had a good plan. Jason wanted to be a Brave. We wanted him to be a Brave. The only thing that we did was we tried not to tip our hand.”
Teams scout the scouts. That’s what Clark was worried about early in Heyward’s senior season at Henry County when he suggested Braves area scout Al Goetz go incognito.
Goetz dressed in dark clothes, drove up a side street and slipped into the woods behind the field to watch games. Through a break in the windscreen from 400 feet away, he and the Braves could see what 13 other teams either couldn’t, or didn’t wait long enough to see.
Heyward rarely got pitches to hit, which frustrated other teams and worked right into the Braves' favor.
“It was just blind luck,” Goetz said. “Or creative scouting.”
Those woods weren’t the Braves’ first hideout. Clark got friendly with a family who lived behind Parkview High, Goetz said. He watched Francoeur play in a state championship from their yard.
Under Clark, the Braves had always dominated backyards -- their own. Even so, Heyward was different; the Braves started tracking him at age 11.
Goetz, then a part-time scout for the Braves, was coaching his son’s team at the East Cobb Baseball complex in Marietta when he first got a glimpse of Heyward.
“I thought he was a coach,” Goetz said of Heyward, already pushing six feet. “I called [Braves scout] Rob English and I said ‘I know it’s crazy, but there’s an 11-year-old that we need to keep an eye on.’”
As Heyward matured and other teams caught on, the Braves went deeper. While other team’s lower level scouts saw him in summer league games, Clark was there himself. He lived near East Cobb.
“I probably saw him 75-80 [at-bats] with the wood [bat],” Clark said. “Never saw him get intentionally walked once.”
That was the opposite of high school games, where Heyward walked 43 times in less than 100 plate appearances his senior year.
“I never saw him swing the bat until the third or fourth game I went to,” Clark said of Heyward’s senior season. “They just didn’t pitch to him. Even though area scouts might like him a lot, the cross checkers and the scouting directors come in and they would get frustrated.”
So why didn’t others scout him more thoroughly in summer ball? Clark said in late June and July, a lot of teams send amateur scouts to cover pro games for the July 31 trading deadline. Or they used to, anyway.
“Our motto was we’re going to start getting ready for next year’s draft the day after this year’s,” Clark said.
To compound matters for scouts, Heyward and his high school teammates didn’t hit on the field before games. They could watch him in indoor cages, but Goetz said: “You couldn’t see the carry on his ball and how hard it came off his bat. Then he’d go into a game and they’d walk him three times and he’d ground out or fly out, and you had a scouting director there who said ‘I don’t even know what to write up. He only swung the bat once.’”
Teams could work Heyward out after the games and did. Goetz remembers seeing the Marlins, Rockies, Nationals, and a few others throw to him. But that didn’t outweigh what they wanted to see in game situations.
Baseball America editor Jim Callis, who had predicted Heyward would fall to the Braves in his 2007 mock draft, said Indians and Rockies officials told him they didn’t see Heyward swing the bat enough.
“If you’re picking a guy that high, you don’t want to wonder about him,” Callis said. “You want to see him tear it up.”
Still, it baffled Callis, whose staff had projected Heyward the ninth-best prospect in the draft. He thought Heyward could go as high as fourth to the Pirates.
“Their scouting director at the time, Ed Creech, was from Georgia,” Callis said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t seem like they were on him.”
Clark had told Callis privately how interested the Braves were in Heyward. Callis didn’t think he would fall that late but said Clark seemed confident.
“Roy will tell the story where, he laughs about it now, he’d be at the games in the spring and he’d go up to scouting directors and go ‘Man, too bad he doesn’t take the bat off his shoulder more,’” Callis said. “They really worked it.”
It used to frustrate Eugene Heyward that his son’s height and weight weren’t updated for showcases and other events long after he’d passed 6-1, 198.
He thinks the Braves were sandbagging, with an assist from Heyward’s East Cobb coach Guerry Baldwin, whom Clark calls a “big friend of the Braves.”
“Guys would ask me and I’d say ‘Hey, he’s 6-foot-4,’” Eugene said. “I think a lot of it is due diligence. People didn’t show up and look.”
The Marlins were the big exception. They had the 12th pick in the draft and an area scout who was sold on Heyward. Brian Bridges said he was watching old highlights on ESPN one night when something caught his eye.
“I saw Willie McCovey swing the bat,” Bridges said of the Hall of Famer. “I sat up in the chair, and I said ‘That looks just like Jason.’”
He wasn’t threatened by the Braves because they picked later. And he felt especially good after another Marlins scout, David Post, came to a playoff game.
Bridges said Heyward homered to the opposite field in his first at-bat, made a great running catch in center, and in his second at-bat, doubled, stole third and stole home.
“David Post looks at me and goes, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Bridges said. “He goes, ‘I’m good, man. Let’s go eat.’”
Heyward held a private workout for the Marlins, as he had the Braves. Out of 60 pitches, Bridges said Heyward hit 30 out.
But just before the draft, Bridges learned the Marlins were going another route, blaming Heyward’s “signability.” The Marlins took a high school third baseman Matt Dominguez out of California instead. They ultimately paid him $1.8 million, more than Heyward’s $1.7 million bonus with the Braves.
“We took who we thought was the best player at the time, and that’s what you do in the business,” said Jim Fleming, Marlins assistant GM and vice president of player development and scouting. “We evaluated Matt Dominguez as the guy we wanted. Still do. We’re very pleased with him. We’ll go forward. Looking back is not something we do a whole lot.”
Bridges thinks the Marlins put a higher premium on third base, a position typically harder to find that corner outfielders.
“They were going for a power corner slick-fielding potential Gold Glove third baseman,” Bridges said. “I saw [Heyward] as an impact player on a championship club, I don’t care where. You could have probably put anybody beside him, and I’d have still taken him.”
While Clark and Goetz were high-fiving in an elated Braves’ draft room after the Marlins passed on Heyward, Bridges was shaken.
“It was the sickest I’ve ever been as a scout,” he said.
For Clark, it was an opportunity. Having seen how close Bridges had grown to the Heywards, he hired Bridges to sign Heyward. Bridges replaced Goetz, who’d left to become an agent.
Bridges threw batting practice to Heyward three times a week until he signed that August.
The woods had been cleared out for expansion at Henry County. Heyward was hitting front loaders and bulldozers with his homers. At first, construction workers complained to the principal. When they found out it was Heyward, they asked for autographs.
Even to the untrained eye, Heyward’s talents were plain to see. By now, the professionals have moved on to the next Heyward -- Jason’s 14-year-old brother Jacob.
“He’s already on the [Nationals'] radar,” Clark said. “I can promise you that.”