Cubs

Cubs expect Jason Heyward to hit the reset button and produce in 2017

Cubs expect Jason Heyward to hit the reset button and produce in 2017

Jason Heyward is the type of guy who paid for season-long hotel-suite upgrades for farewell-tour catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, thanking them for all their help when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves.

Heyward is someone with enough stature inside the clubhouse to get benched throughout the playoffs — and still organize a players-only meeting during Game 7 of the World Series.

Maybe what was said in that Progressive Field weight room will forever justify Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million megadeal. The Cubs paid for his intangibles when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history — and he was on the field for the final out when they beat the Cleveland Indians and finally ended the 108-year drought.

But that decision in free agency revolved around the rest of Heyward’s career, a young core growing up together and how the Cubs would be positioned against the St. Louis Cardinals in the future.

In the same way that the 2016 team regrouped during that 17-minute rain delay, the Cubs expect Heyward to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his career, a nosedive that left him as one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

“Most guys who struggle hide,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He never asked out of the lineup. He’s helping the team defensively and on the bases and doing all the little things well. He never shied away from that.

“But, obviously, he wanted to be doing better offensively. I just think it’s hard in-season to make significant changes. We sort of needed the reset button of the offseason to be able to do that.”

Heyward is making Arizona a home base this winter, to be near the team’s Mesa complex and process a season that saw him post career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631), hit .213 after the All-Star break and go 5-for-48 during the playoffs.

“He’s got a great attitude about everything,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s just hard to make the kind of adjustments for some players in-season, because things are going so fast and you’re trying to compete.

“But the offseason is a great opportunity to take a deep breath, slow things down, look at video, work with your coaches, really think about the swing. Think about the bat path and make some adjustments and develop some muscle memory, work on your feel and then take it into games.

“We believe in Jason Heyward and his ability to tackle things head-on and make the necessary adjustments. And I think you’re going to see a much different offensive player next year.”

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The Cubs never could have said something like this during Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference last December at Spiaggia, the fancy Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue. But if a big-name free agent is going to be a bust offensively in Year 1, at least he's still only 27.

It’s not like Heyward hit the wall and can feel his body breaking down physically and sense his career sinking into a decline phase. In nearly 600 plate appearances, he drew 53 walks and struck out 93 times, or remarkably similar numbers to what he did in 2015, when he hit .293 for a 100-win St. Louis team and showed up in the National League MVP voting.

“The basic ingredients remain there,” Epstein said. “He hasn’t lost any of that. He sees the ball extremely well. He recognizes pitches extremely well and extremely early. He’s got really good hand-eye coordination.

“It really boiled down to certain things going on with his swing that made it difficult for him, even when he recognized the pitch and even when he made a good decision on whether to swing. And (then) when he made contact, he made it hard for himself to barrel up the ball and put backspin on the ball and hit it hard with carry.

“But that’s all just swing mechanics. That’s something you can adjust. It’s hard to develop better recognition or better hand-eye coordination. He has those things.”

You have to watch Heyward play every day to appreciate some of the subtleties to his game, how his alert, aggressive nature on the bases rubbed off on teammates and spectacular defense in right field made life easier for pitchers. All those highlight-reel throws and catches added a fourth Gold Glove to his collection.

But with Dexter Fowler now in Cardinal red and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay taking over in center field, the Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense and trying to fill a void at the top of their lineup.

Heyward might never live up to those unfair Hank Aaron comparisons he once got as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect — or hammer 27 homers again like he did for the Braves in 2012 — but the Cubs are banking on an offensive breakthrough.

“He’s been a six-win player four times in his career — I would classify that as impact,” Epstein said. “He doesn’t need to do anything more than what he’s already done in his career to be a great player, because of everything that he contributes defensively and on the bases.

“Cub fans haven’t seen the type of hitter that Jason Heyward is — and can be — yet. But I think they will.”

Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor Jarrod Parker met Wednesday, after a disagreement earlier in the week sparked public conversation about the relationship between the local government and the black community.

“We embraced, and we shook hands,” Parker, the pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Omaha, said in a live video on Facebook. “We met and vowed to work together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.”

It was Parker’s second video this week about Ricketts, who is also part of the Cubs family ownership, but who stepped down from the Board of Directors when he took office. On Monday, after a meeting with local government officials and black community members, Parker posted an impassioned video in which he said Ricketts called black leaders “you people.”

In a statement, Ricketts said, “I chose my words poorly, and apologized when it became apparent that I had caused offense.”

Audio reportedly of a portion of Monday's meeting surfaced and circulated online Wednesday. NBC Sports Chicago obtained a copy of that audio.

After a break in the audio, Ricketts can be heard saying, “Where the hell were all you guys when I was trying to—”

Another man cuts him off saying, “Excuse me, what did you just say?”

Several other voices chime in, drowning each other out.

Parker addressed the audio, and the criticism he's received since it surfaced, in his Facebook video.

Posted by St Mark Baptist Church on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“There’s sound that is kind of washing out what was being said after ‘you guys.’  Let me say this, as a pastor, as a man, … I was sitting right next to him. I stand by what I said, and the governor apologized for it. I thanked him as a man for doing that.”

On Tuesday Morning, Ricketts said on a local radio station, 96.7 The Boss, that he planned to speak with Parker.

“I’m absolutely open,” Ricketts said. “I think what we want to do is let everybody’s emotions kind of cool down here a little bit, but I will follow up with the pastor and apologize to him directly and certainly I apologized to all the folks in the room yesterday as well, while we were still there.”

Parker said he’s uninterested in the argument over the meeting audio.

“I hope that this is a message that as much as we disagree and as much as we can hurt each other and be intensive,” Parker said, “we have to come back to the table. Black people, white people, young people, old people, Christian people, non-Christian, people of all faiths, all colors … we’ve got to come back together now.”

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

When Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts or any other baseball owner claims publicly they’d be better off financially by not playing a 2020 season at all rather than accept some of the players’ terms, don’t fall for it.

That’s because whatever the short-term hit — and for teams such as the Cubs it might well be substantial — the long-term damage to the sport from skipping a season over financial negotiations during a global pandemic could be “catastrophic,” according to at least one sports economist.

In fact, baseball might face more dire consequences in recouping fan interest and financial losses than its major-league sports counterparts for several reasons.

Baseball, like many industries, faces a potentially weak economy in general for the next couple of years because the impact of the COVID-19 crisis as it tries to rebound after a year of losses, regardless, noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said.

And sports could be further impacted by coronavirus fallout related to how many fans are allowed to gather in stadiums even by next year, and how many will be willing to do so.

But even beyond that, baseball could face a unique challenge compared to the other sports, Zimbalist said, if a season isn’t played because decades-long animus between owners and players cause these negotiations to break down.

“Especially during a time when most of America is suffering and baseball players have an average salary of almost $5 million, and owners of course are sitting on assets that are generally worth $1 billion and more, people don’t want to hear about squabbles between those two groups,” said Zimbalist, the longtime economics professor at Smith College who has published more than a dozen books on the economics of baseball and other sports.

Look no further than what happened after the 1994-95 strike and lockout, he said, when the full-season attendance equivalent in the 1995 return season represented more than a 20 percent decline from 1993.

“I would expect a similar impact now but the impact compounded for two reasons,” he said. “The economic situation [at large] is not as auspicious, and, two, all of this is happening during a pandemic when really everybody is suffering. It’s harder to understand or accept the owners and the players battling this out during a period of generalized depression and anxiety.”

Common sense? Sure. Most of us recognize the risk owners and players take anytime the millionaire-vs.-billionaire fight is waged publicly, especially at a time of such health, economic and social gravity, including the protests and unrest since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

But if baseball expects to rebound from a season missed because of money matters following a decade of record revenues and enormous gains in franchise values, then it might want to consider long and hard what the means for doing that will be.

Ricketts told ESPN on Tuesday that “the scale of losses across the league is biblical.”

Nobody disputes teams are dealing with almost zero revenue during the pandemic shutdown or the likelihood of a season of any length resulting in steep losses, especially without fans allowed in stadiums. The Cubs have been hit especially hard by the timing of the shutdown because it coincides with costs associated with the launch of their new TV network.

Ricketts told ESPN the teams and league don’t have “a pile” of cash from recent seasons of record industry revenues, because, he said, teams put that money back into their teams, including payrolls.

“No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past,” Ricketts said. "Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

That would seem to make an offer by the union to defer a percentage of salaries a viable solution in negotiations. But Zimbalist said that while some teams might have a cash-flow problem, he doesn’t believe the league or teams generally face that issue — rendering deferrals with interest of “minimal value.”

Whatever it takes to close the gap in negotiations, that ticking baseball is hearing could start sounding a lot more like a detonation device than a clock before long.

If they cancel the season and try to dig out later, there’s no Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive-games streak just waiting to resume and provide a made-for-TV, record-setting moment.

Not only are there no Sammy Sosas and Mark McGwires on the visible horizon, but even that boost of interest to the game in 1998 turned a few years later into one if its biggest scandals.

And this, perhaps most of all: The average baseball fan is a white guy in his 50s — the game’s core consumer is aging out fast with the generations behind him too often showing indifference to an increasingly slow-paced game with decreasing action and more strikeouts than hits.

“A greater sensitivity of fan response in part because of shifting culture across the generations? I think that’s true,” said Zimbalist, who includes in that the increasing choices and popularity of video games.

“Baseball’s status as a national pastime is certainly being challenged,” he said. “Those elements will certainly complicate baseball’s effort to rejuvenate their fan base if they don’t come back.

“The other side of the coin,” he added, “is if they do come back and play baseball this summer, when people are basically starving for sports, there’s potentially an opportunity to extend its allure to more and more people and generate a level of passion and avidity that baseball hasn’t seen in a while.

"There’s a wonderful opportunity awaiting them if they can get their act together, and there’s an almost catastrophic result if they can’t. … I think both sides are fully aware of that.”

RELATED: Major League Baseball swinging and missing on big opportunity

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