After Kevin Durant bolted from the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer, he talked about the culture and chemistry surrounding the Golden State Warriors, sounding exactly like Jason Heyward’s explanation for making The Decision.
Heyward never made it personal while leaving the St. Louis Cardinals, even if Adam Wainwright and some of The Best Fans in Baseball took it that way. In the end, the Cardinals felt like no matter what they offered, they could never match the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a World Series at Wrigley Field.
Major League Baseball isn’t the NBA, where a handful of the best players in the world can create Super-Teams and entirely shift the league’s balance of power and course of history. But in terms of getting treated like rock stars, reaching a tipping point in the National League Central and creating an environment that values freedom and self-expression, Joe Maddon’s Cubs have a Golden State of mind, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr even meeting the manager before a game in San Diego in late August.
Of course, that’s how a 103-win Cubs team will be remembered if they run into a LeBron James, the way the record-setting Warriors won 73 games in the regular season before losing a Game 7 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. (Though Golden State’s title drought only goes all the way back to the 2015 NBA Finals.)
But before Wrigleyville turns into some combination of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras and Times Square on New Year’s Eve – Tuesday became the simulated-game calm before the storm – Heyward reflected on his first season with baseball’s traveling circus.
“Yeah,” Heyward said, he felt the weight of that eight-year, $184 million contract. “But to be honest, I can look myself in the mirror and say: There’s the pressure of being a first-rounder. There’s pressure from playing at home in front of your home crowd, all that stuff. There’s pressure from getting traded at 25 years old and going to play for a different team. It’s just a different pressure.
“At the end of the day – (whatever your contract may be) – there’s always going to be pressure from the fans. But that’s fun. That’s what we want. Nobody expects more out of yourself than you, so that’s a good pressure to have. If people aren’t expecting you to do well, then you don’t feel like you’re doing your job.”
In Heyward’s mind, the Cubs have lived up to all of his expectations – even as he’s dramatically underperformed offensively – and none of this should be interpreted as a shot at The Cardinal Way.
Heyward is a class act who contacted traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani sometime between his welcome-to-Chicago press conference at Spiaggia Restaurant in December and Cubs Convention in January, asking to pay for hotel-suite upgrades on the road for veteran catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske this season, thanking them for helping him when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves.
Heyward – the son of two Dartmouth-educated parents – wanted to think big picture with his career and take advantage of the rare opportunity to be a 26-year-old free agent.
“It’s been a blast,” Heyward said. “It’s been awesome to show up for work every day, to be around the people that I get to work (with) – teammates, coaching staff, the people that work at the stadium, the people that take care of us and make sure we have everything we need, the vendors and the people that run the concessions. Everybody takes pride in working at Wrigley Field.
“And then the fans, they feel like they’re a part of the family. It’s really fun, man. It’s a unique experience. It’s well-thought-out, well-planned.
“We don’t take it for granted.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Given their young core and deep lineup, the Cubs might be the only team that could have afforded Heyward’s career-low .631 OPS, which ranked third-worst among all qualified big-league hitters. But the bleacher bums got an up-close view of Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field, Maddon loves the instincts and aggressiveness while running the bases and teammates rave about his sense of calm and professionalism in the clubhouse.
“I get to be myself,” Heyward said, a big selling point for a player compared to Hank Aaron as a rookie and once expected to put up huge power numbers. “And then do what I need to do to get ready to play every day.
“There’s not a lot of hands-on (stuff) in the sense of you need to be one certain kind of way. The bottom line has been: Let’s make sure we’re doing the fundamental things right (and) approaching every day as if you’re trying to get the best out of yourself.
“After that, don’t try to do too much. Let the game come to you. Take what you get out of it – and 100 percent have fun with it – and just push each other to be the best we can.
“At the end of the year, you look up and then you see what you have from it. Don’t really put too much stock into one day or the past or get ahead of yourself.”
While the 86-win Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, Heyward will be playing in the postseason for the fifth time in seven years when the Cubs face the wild-card winner – either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants – on Friday night at Wrigley Field.
If Heyward didn’t necessarily see Kris Bryant becoming a runaway MVP winner this year – or Addison Russell developing into an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22 or Kyle Hendricks emerging as a Cy Young Award contender – then he understood the Cubs should be good for a long time.
“It’s a pretty good group of coachable guys,” Heyward said. “That, to me, is the most impressive thing. Because you can have all the talent in the world – and the numbers can be whatever they are at the end of the year – but it’s really impressive to see them always wanting to take their game to the next level and not get complacent.”
When Maddon looks out from the dugout, he finds it reassuring to see Heyward standing in right field, and his all-around skills should help the Cubs win low-scoring, one-run games in October. But one big hit and no one will remember that Heyward only had seven home runs during the regular season.
“Everything matched up – the fan base, the city, the opportunity for me grow into myself as a baseball player even more,” Heyward said. “Where (else) are you going to have the ability (to) play with a group (that you can) grow with?
“I’ve said that many times before, but I feel like that’s an important thing when you’re talking about playing with a team that’s serious about contending every year – and serious about trying to win a World Series every year. That’s the bottom line.”