Jason Heyward knows his impact on Cubs: ‘What I bring wins’
MESA, Ariz. — Early in camp, the Cubs had their starting defense on a practice field working on cutoffs and relays.
A Cubs coach was trying to hit a fungo to the wall in right field to simulate an extra-base hit but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get it past Jason Heyward. The 5-time Gold Glover just kept running the ball down before it hit the ground.
Eventually, the coach turned to the players standing near him, laughed and said, “why is he so good??”
About two weeks later, Heyward was playing in a Cactus League game at Sloan Park. He was advancing to third base on a hit and as he approached the bag, he looked up and saw Oakland first baseman Matt Olson bobble the relay throw momentarily.
That was all Heyward needed, as he turned on the jets and scooted home to give his team a gift run.
David Ross loved that moment so much, he brought it up in a team meeting the following morning.
“He does all the little things right,” Ross said. “He is a leader in the way he carries himself, the way he speaks to others, the way he sees the game. He’s been around a lot of winning in his time playing and got a lot of hardware. He’s a real asset for us in so many ways.
“I wanted to speak about [that baserunning play against the A’s because] we talk about baserunning a lot, but it’s those little things of just keeping your head up, paying attention and he picked up a big run that allowed us to be in the game late to win.
“J-Hey does a lot of those things that may not show up in the box scores at the end of the game, but he’s affecting the game in a positive way almost every time he’s out there.”
The baserunning and steady defense are just two examples of the “little things” Heyward brings on a daily basis to make an impact for his team.
The 31-year-old outfielder has come under some criticism since signing a $184 million deal with the Cubs before the 2016 season as fans and media pundits have opined that his offense has not lived up to the contract.
But Heyward’s influence on the Cubs goes far beyond his batting line and he knows it. For most of his career, he has been penciled into the lineup on a daily basis regardless of his offensive production.
“I’ve been allowed to struggle and go play because what I bring wins,” Heyward said. “2016 showed that — the ultimate goal was winning the World Series. When I was on the field, I made a difference.”
Last season, Heyward enjoyed his best offensive year in a Cubs uniform, posting a .392 on-base percentage and .848 OPS. He was one of the team’s most consistent hitters throughout the shortened season and he attributed part of that success to knowing he had an everyday role on the team.
“I think Rossy has his mind set on what it takes to let me go play baseball,” Heyward said. “If I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, I still help our team win a lot of ways. So knowing that he believes in that and playing the game that way and allowing me to just help everyone else settle into their roles, too.
“It was nice to know going into the box every day that I’m going to get a chance to go play, get a chance to fail, to struggle and come up out of that.”
Heyward also felt like he was in a good place throughout 2020 with his timing and approach in how he wanted to implement video.
Heyward made his big-league debut against the Cubs back in 2010, sending a Carlos Zambrano pitch into the right-field bleachers in Atlanta for a 3-run homer in his first career at-bat.
He’s been through a lot in the 11 years since, including trips to the playoffs in eight of those seasons. That perspective has allowed him to step up as a leader and respected voice within the Cubs clubhouse.
Everybody knows the epic “Rain Delay Speech” during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. But Heyward isn’t just the guy that shows up in big moments, he’s there on a daily basis.
When Joc Pederson signed with the team earlier this winter, Heyward called to welcome him to the team. Same with new third base coach Willie Harris.
Every time the group of Cubs outfielders goes through spring training drills — whether on the backfield or at Sloan Park — Heyward was providing feedback or tips and also trying to learn from his teammates, too.
“You see the effect that it has on everybody else around him,” Kyle Hendricks said. “He makes guys comfortable, pushes guys to get better, just knows the right thing. He knows how to be loud, but say what needs to be said at the right time. He’s really good 1-on-1, pulling guys to the side and talking to guys.
“He is the guy that we want representing the team. He’s the perfect pro. He knows how to go about his business, works so hard. He’s just a great guy and great person. He reaches out to people and makes them feel welcome. He wants it to feel like a family, a group.”
Heyward has been one of the players preaching the “family” mentality since he arrived, helping to build a consistent winning culture alongside Ross, Jon Lester and then-manager Joe Maddon.
Heyward feels a similar sense of responsibility off the field, too, where he has emerged as a powerful voice for social change in the community, particularly with The Players Alliance.
In his first Zoom press conference with media this spring, Heyward casually mentioned that he spent the winter in Chicago instead of heading back to his hometown in the Atlanta area.
Why? Because Chicago’s “home.”
“It makes it easy to do exactly what I say I’m doing — that’s living and loving Chicago and that’s home,” he said.
When Heyward was a rookie in 2010, Ross had a big role in helping the young outfielder acclimate to life in the big leagues. To pay him back, Heyward upgraded all of Ross’ hotel rooms to suites on road trips throughout Ross’ final season as a player in 2016.
In a way, Heyward is still paying that favor back. Over his year-and-a-half as the Cubs manager, Ross has often talked about how Heyward’s presence and leadership makes his job easier.
“He’s still the same guy that I played with in Atlanta — he’s a quality human being and treats everybody the same,” Ross said. “I think that’s probably the highest compliment I could give him.
“…If you’re around Jason Heyward at all and you’re gonna get to know him, you’re gonna become friends with the man.”