ST. LOUIS — “Welcome to Baseball Heaven,” the public-address announcer told the crowd before Tuesday night’s game at Busch Stadium.
Jason Heyward didn’t want to stay here — not for more guaranteed money or full no-trade protection or whatever opt-out clauses the St. Louis Cardinals could build into the megadeal. But Heyward said switching sides in a heated rivalry and signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs wasn’t connected to how he was once treated in St. Louis.
That question became relevant after the New York Daily News posted a thin story on its website, picking up a few tweets and claiming Cardinals fans had yelled racial slurs at Heyward during his return to Busch Stadium.
That created a storm on social media. ESPN reviewed its audio feed from Monday’s national broadcast and didn’t find any damning evidence. No incriminating videos have so far surfaced from WGN and Fox Sports Midwest, which showed the game within those local markets.
That also doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. Heyward got booed throughout a 5-0 victory and still showed the poise, focus and skills that convinced the Cubs to give him the biggest contract in franchise history.
“No,” Heyward said, he didn’t hear any racist taunts. “But honestly I wasn’t really listening. Have (I) heard it before? Yes, but it’s not something that you pay a lot of attention to. Just play the game.”
Dexter Fowler — who plays center field next to the Gold Glove defender in right — didn’t hear any specific racial slurs yelled in Heyward’s direction on Monday night.
“If it happened, it happened,” Heyward said. “If it didn’t, it didn’t. I’m not surprised one way or the other. But it doesn’t really matter. Some people are going to say what they’re going to say. There are people saying other things. There are people cussing, swearing around women and children and drinking and all that stuff. To point out one thing to me is whatever.”
The Cardinals have 11 World Series titles and The Best Fans in Baseball. That carefully projected image created a sense of schadenfreude beyond the Gateway Arch once the FBI’s investigation into the Ground Control data breach went public last year, implicating the Cardinals in a cyberattack against the Houston Astros.
But Wrigley Field doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation either. Cubs fans feeling smug should remember that the Department of Justice is investigating the Chicago Police Department. A task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel just released a report blasting the systemic racism built into the city’s police work.
“It’s nothing unique to a baseball stadium,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who idealized St. Louis as “The Mecca of Baseball” while growing up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region. “It’s nothing unique to a particular city.
“It’s every city. We’ve come a long way, but then again, we haven’t. So none of it surprises if in fact it was true. That’s something we have to continually attempt to fight against.
“But there’s small-minded people everywhere, man. There are stupid people everywhere. It’s not unique to one spot and one ballpark.”
Heyward said his off-the-field experience in St. Louis didn’t tilt his decision to move to Chicago as a free agent.
“I didn’t have any issues,” Heyward said. “When I started slow last year, there was some boos a little bit, but I’ve done that before. It’s kind of part of the game. Fans are going to let you know when they’re not happy with how you’re performing.”
This comes after last week’s Jackie Robinson Day celebration, when players across Major League Baseball wore No. 42 jerseys to remember the breaking of the color barrier in 1947.
“You always think we’re past that,” Fowler said, “but obviously we’re not.”
This comes at a time when the industry worries about losing African-American talent to football and basketball, becoming an expensive country-club sport at the youth levels and failing to connect with the next generation of sports fans.
“It’s something I dealt with my whole life,” Heyward said. “This is still the world we live in. It’s part of it. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s not moved on. Everybody’s not a certain way. Everybody’s different.
“That’s what makes it a special place as well, because you have the freedom of speech to say what you want to say. And that’s that. Nobody physically harmed me — or my family or (any) of my teammates. So for me, all is well.”