Sorting out the legacy of veteran outfielder Jason Heyward with the Chicago Cubs is complicated.
Heyward’s seven seasons with the organization will end after this season when the Cubs let him go with a year left on his contract. His numbers — a .245 average, a .323 on-base percentage and an 85 OPS+ in 744 games — don’t reflect the talent and production necessary to sign the eight-year, $184 million mega-contract he signed before the 2016 season.
And yet, without Heyward and his famous rain delay speech during Game 7 of the World Series, the Cubs’ title drought might have continued. But his contract has at times shown fans the organization’s inability in recent years to recapture the magic of 2016, which culminated with the front office committing to rebuild last year.
Heyward spoke Thursday for the first time since president Jed Hoyer announced last month that the two sides would part ways before his contract expires. Hayward knows how his long-term deal can be viewed.
“I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be in a select group of players that have earned bad contracts, because there are a lot of bad contracts out there when we look at it that way,” Heyward said. “But to be able to show my worth as a person and that’s probably one of the hardest times I’ve had on and off the pitch in 2016. But to still show that I’m here for the team, to still play defense the way I play defense, run the bases and just step in and step up a few times when I needed to be who I am, be Jason Heyward, for example, we still got to the ring and it took every moment of it from me, he took that group.
“I feel like it’s very hard to beat some contracts, especially those like this.”
Heyward wasn’t surprised by the Cubs’ decision to let him go after the season. He understands where the organization is and the need to look closely at other players.
“I appreciate that they’re real, I appreciate the opportunity to have that,” Hayward said. “It’s hard when you don’t have those things, showing up for any job or living life where people are kind of blowing smoke and not really being with you.
“People don’t always understand how you handle failure. There are a lot of awards in my career, a lot of special things happen here with this team. There are also many failures. It’s not always easy to deal with, but there’s been a lot of good things that have come my way from a lot of people who have expressed that to me, and I feel like that comes from how I’ve handled everything.”
Thirteen years into his major league career, Heyward doesn’t see his departure from the Cubs as the end. He wants to play somewhere next season, but added that “plans don’t always go the way you hope.” It will depend on which teams are interested and the role they envision for Hayward. He may want to sign a minor league deal with an invite to major league camp because the World Baseball Classic in March could help create an expanded look with more at-bats available in spring training while players are in the tournament.
“I’d like to make a decision right now,” Heyward said, “but I know it’s not realistic.”
Hoyer expressed future interest in Hayward returning to the organization in a post-playing role. Hayward expressed interest from the owners in bridging the gap between the clubhouse and the front office, suggesting that everything gets lost in translation and that he can help keep everyone on the same page.
Heyward’s connection to Chicago goes beyond his stats and the Gold Glove award he won. His work in the community will leave a lasting impact even after his playing career is over. Hayward plans to keep a home in the city where his academy is being built in the North Austin neighborhood. This is where Hayward also partnered with By The Hand Kids Club to create an outdoor market in 2020. Heyward’s community efforts have earned him numerous accolades, including this season as a nominee for the Cubs’ Roberto Clemente Award.
Manager David Ross, a longtime teammate who met during Hayward’s rookie season with the Atlanta Braves, sees Hayward’s investment and work in the community as a direct reflection of who he is in the clubhouse as a mentor, leader and a quiet person who sets an example.
What made Heyward great in a Cubs uniform continued behind the scenes. It’s a legacy a score on the field can never tarnish.
“This guy got a lot of money and you don’t hear about it,” Ross said. “You can see that it has been invested in others. … It comes from a selfless place. It’s not about him. Anyone who was able to meet him gets a smile, joins in, whether they’re in the community or new here, he invests in people, and I think that speaks volumes for him – I don’t know how often these people come in.”