From his rain delay speech to the Curse of the Billy Goat, Jason Heyward shares stories of 2016 Cubs
Jason Heyward won’t be on the Cubs roster next season but when his name is brought up in the future, one of the first things most fans will think about is his speech during the rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
That’s what David Ross thinks about when he reflects on his time with Heyward — as teammates (in Atlanta and Chicago) and then as Heyward’s manager the last three years.
After the Cubs made it all the way to the NLCS in 2015, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer reinforced the roster that winter by signing Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and Heyward.
The moves worked (obviously).
The Cubs had MLB’s best record in the regular season at 103 wins and rallied in the playoffs to beat the Giants in the NLDS and Dodgers in the NLCS. They faced their biggest test in the World Series, falling behind 3-1 before rattling off 3 straight wins to end the 108-year championship drought.
And it doesn’t happen without Heyward’s speech.
The Cubs led for most of Game 7 until the improbable happened — light-hitting Cleveland outfielder Rajai Davis took dominant closer Aroldis Chapman deep for a game-tying 2-run homer in the bottom of the 8th inning.
Neither team scored in the 9th and as the game was set to move into extras, the rain started coming down hard in Cleveland, forcing a 17-minute rain delay.
So Heyward gathered the players together inside the cramped weight room at Progressive Field.
“I felt like that was probably the first time I have seen everyone just not really having much to say, everyone kind of being dumbfounded a little bit, being down,” Heyward said Thursday as he reflected on the moment during his farewell press conference. “And rightfully so. Because all of the weight of the curse, because it’s Game 7, because we’re not at Wrigley, because they have a lot of momentum.
“A lot of things did not go our way at one time. And it would have been very easy to just say, ‘all right, we gave it a hell of a run. Now let’s go see what happens.'”
But that’s not how Heyward wanted the 2016 Cubs to go out.
“To me, we had a moment,” he said. “I didn’t know how long it was gonna be, but I saw it was raining. I was like, man, I gotta say something. I gotta remind these dudes like of how I see them because they’re amazing. They’re gladiators.
“And through every up and down in that season, it didn’t matter. We always had an answer. It was to laugh at it, have fun with it … see who will come out on top. And then praise the people that came through in that game that night, praise the guy that came through in the game the next night. It was someone different every night, every series for us. So we just needed a reminder.”
Ross — whose final contest as a player was Game 7 — remembers what it was like in the visiting locker room during that time and painted the picture of Heyward’s speech from his perspective.
“In that moment, my memory goes back to just a lot going on to process,” Ross said. “He slowed it all down for us. I mean, Aroldis is upset and in tears. They’ve come back. Things are spinning really fast and we’ve got a moment to reset and J-Hey stopped everything and got back to: We are the best team in Major League Baseball.
“…To take it back to the core of who we were as a team was really important. I say this about J-Hey often — it’s not like he’s the most vocal person in the room. That’s not who he is. But when he speaks, it carries so much weight because it’s just direct, to the point, it’s said the right way, it’s said in a positive way and it’s not a voice that is always just talking to talk.
“He’s got a point to what he’s saying and it’s usually a really good one every time I’ve heard him speak. I think that’s what’s special about him and his leadership. When he tells you something, you listen because he’s not in your ear all the time.”
For Ross, that rain delay speech felt like a full circle moment.
When Heyward made his MLB debut in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves, Ross was a veteran catcher on that team with a locker right next to Heyward’s.
Ross remembers Heyward as a 20-year-old who came up and did things the right way. And here he was more than 6 years later making an impactful speech in his first year with the Cubs — and in arguably the most pressure-packed moment in the history of the franchise.
After the speech, the Cubs wrestled the momentum right back. Kyle Schwarber led off with a single to start a 2-run rally that culminated with RBI hits by Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero.
“I know [the speech] had an effect on [the end of the game],” Heyward said. “The group was together; the right people were in the room. That team was really, really, really talented. That team was really, really, really experienced and poised in what our mission was.
“And it doesn’t happen without all those guys together. So it most definitely had an effect on the outcome of that game. But just because we were all reminded of who we were and how we got to that point.”
When Davis hit the game-tying homer off Chapman, Progressive Field was in a rare state. The Cleveland fans were euphoric but the Cubs fans — who made up roughly half of the attendance — were silent, wondering if this was the biggest gut punch and “Cubbie occurrence” of them all.
Even the most skeptical Cubs fans had to be thinking there might be something to that Curse of the Billy Goat from 1945.
But for the players inside the Cubs locker room, Heyward helped remind them that their goal from Day 1 was to end any talk of a curse.
“I had some former teammates telling me when I signed, they’re like, ‘Jay, it’s the goat, bro. Like, you ain’t gonna beat the goat. It’s not gonna happen,'” Heyward said. “They were like, ‘I hope you win, I’m happy you got your contract but you ain’t gonna win with that team.'”
Heyward took it all in stride, but he and his Cubs teammates were determined to prove all the doubters wrong. To prove that they were just the right team to bring a championship back home to Wrigley Field.
It was their mission.
“We’re on the bus riding to the airport from Wrigley, heading on the road to a hotel saying, ‘hey, get out of the way, 2016 champs are coming through,'” Heyward said. “That was our mindset. And we controlled what we could. No curse ever came up.
“Jonny Lester paid homage to that by getting everybody a really big, nice set of wine bottles that had the telegram of the owner of the goat and his curse message that he sent to the owner of the Cubs at the time.
“We drank to that. That was pretty much our mindset.”