Cubs players, staff explain what made Jason Heyward so special inside the clubhouse
In what could have been the lowest moment of Ian Happ’s career, Jason Heyward was there for his teammate.
Before the Cubs broke camp in 2019, they made a somewhat surprising move in optioning Ian Happ down to Triple-A, ensuring the young, switch-hitting outfielder would not crack the Opening Day roster.
As Happ was reeling from the sting of that decision, there was one teammate who stepped up.
Jason Heyward took Happ out to dinner that night to help ensure Happ still felt like part of the Cubs family.
“That’s who he is,” Happ said. “Jason Heyward is a giving, caring, generous individual that he always wanted the team to be together. He always wanted guys to remember how special this place is, how special the fanbase is, how important it is to be in the moment when you’re in the big leagues, because it’s such a short window and to really appreciate and enjoy that.
“For a guy that got called up so young and has been doing it for almost half his life now, to have so much appreciation for what every day means and how special every day here is, it was just such a great example as a young player.”
That moment sums up the way Heyward’s teammates have felt about him — and talked about him — since he arrived in Chicago before the 2016 season.
The Cubs honored Heyward at Wrigley Field Saturday, playing a tribute on the left field video board before the outfielder stepped onto the field to tip his hat to the crowd.
Heyward also had his own tribute planned, pulling the 2016 World Series ring out of his pocket, placing it on his right hand and showing the crowd and cameras.
“He’s a world champion here,” Nico Hoerner said. “Those guys did what we’re all trying to do. The fact that he was in the middle of that and a consistent part of everything else beyond it, I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
To pay homage to Heyward, Hoerner used some of the veteran outfielder’s walk-up songs for his at-bats Saturday, including “Follow God” by Kanye West and “Frozen” by Lil Baby.
“He’s gone above and beyond as far for me as a young player,” Hoerner said. “He’s been an extremely generous person with his time, with his resources, with anything that’s been able to help me in my career.”
It’s rare to see a player have the kind of impact Heyward has had on this clubhouse or in the community.
“Since I got here, J-Hey has been one of the role models that I have on this team — on and off the field,” Willson Contreras said. “We know that he’s a really, really good professional athlete. The way he went about his business here was perfect.
“He did a great job here — not only because he had the meeting in 2016 but all throughout the years, he was really pro. I learned a lot from him.”
Heyward will always be remembered by fans for his speech in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. But inside the clubhouse, he is revered not just for one moment but for who he has been on a daily basis over the last seven years.
“He’s the best teammate I’ve ever had, by far,” Kyle Hendricks said. “I think a lot of guys can say that about him. Just the person he is, what he’s contributed behind the scenes to all these young guys and fostering their confidence, teaching them how to be a big leaguer.”
When the Cubs signed Seiya Suzuki to a big contract before this season, Heyward agreed to move from right field — a position where he has earned 5 Gold Gloves — to center field at age 32.
Not only did Heyward switch positions, but he went out of his way to help Suzuki acclimate to life in Major League Baseball after his star career in Japan.
“He’s the guy that came to me on Day 1 and taught me everything from what happens in the clubhouse to what happens on the field,” Suzuki said through translator Toy Matsushita. “He was a huge figure.”
Suzuki also said Heyward helped him adjust to life in Chicago in addition to his leadership on the field — like getting acquainted with the nuances of playing in the Wrigley outfield.
“He was a big leader,” Suzuki said. “What he said during the meetings had a huge impact on me.”
So what is it about Heyward that sets him apart as a teammate and a leader?
To get an idea, check out Instagram, as nearly every player on the Cubs roster posted a tribute to Heyward before Saturday’s game, including Hoerner who called Heyward “one of the most impactful people in my life.“
“His unselfishness would be the first thing I would point to,” Ross said. “He’s always trying to lift up others. I don’t know that I could say that a lot of people I’ve been around do it the way he does.
“He treats people the right way, he works the right way, he sets the right example, he has the right conversations, he plays the right way — he plays winning baseball. It’s not about him. It’s about the group.”
When Ross and Heyward first played together, it was with the Atlanta Braves in 2010 when Heyward was a 20-year-old rookie and Ross was in the midst of his 9th MLB season. The two were reunited as teammates with the Cubs in 2016 and started a new chapter in their relationship in October 2019 when Ross was named manager.
“He’s made me better; he’s helped me as a player, as a manager,” Ross said. “When you’re around him, you see all the love that guys have, how much he affects you on and off the field. You know the saying: surround yourself with good people. Jason Heyward is always somebody you want to surround yourself with.
“He makes you better, makes you feel good about yourself, he’s gonna tell you the truth. He’s impacted me and my family, my kids, helped me understand when I’m on the right track in messaging and when I’m not — all those little things that mean so much to me.”
Patrick Wisdom has been teammates with Heyward for the last two seasons but he was first introduced to the veteran in St. Louis in 2015. Wisdom was coming up through the Cardinals farm system while Heyward was earning MVP votes for a St. Louis team that won 100 games.
Wisdom remembers Heyward’s presence back then and knew he was somebody to watch in Spring Training as an example on how to be a professional.
“The aura he brings in the clubhouse, you just sense him — in a good way,” Wisdom said. “He’s honest. He’s straight to the point. You ask him anything, he’s gonna tell you his thoughts. He’s not gonna sugarcoat it.
“He’s not gonna be mean about it but he’s gonna tell you when you need to step in line or if you need some motivation, he’s going to tell you, ‘keep going.’ To have that open dialogue with somebody who’s done it, who’s made a lot of money, won a World Series — all those accolades and for him to be that open and willing to help says a lot about him. That’s what separates him.”
Alec Mills will never forget Heyward’s impact and selfless gesture. When Mills was marching toward his no-hitter of the Brewers in September 2020, the Cubs had built a big lead and Ross was hoping to use it as an opportunity to get veteran everyday players like Heyward off their feet for the final few innings.
But Heyward refused, knowing his Gold Glove defense in right field could be the key to helping Mills earn his spot in the record books.
Mills didn’t even know that happened until after the game.
“It definitely took the words out of my mouth [and] I almost teared up,” Mills said. “It was definitely a special moment for me and just goes to show you what kind of guy Jason is, what kind of teammate he is and how special he is to this organization.”
Heyward has stated that he would like to continue his playing career in 2023, but he acknowledged he doesn’t know what his market will be like.
When he does decide to hang up his spikes, the Cubs would welcome him back with open arms as a member of the coaching staff or front office.
“I think he really can provide a resource for young players going forward,” Jed Hoyer said. “I’d welcome that.”