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Jason Heyward's Cubs legacy is about more than stats and dollars

Ryan Herrera Avatar
September 30, 2022

Trying to sum up the legacy that Jason Heyward will leave behind after seven seasons with the Cubs seems complicated.

But perhaps the person best equipped to do just that is the guy who lived that stretch of time, who spent seven years in Chicago after signing with the team before the 2016 season, who saw the highs and lows of the golden era of Cubs baseball first hand.

Heyward met with the media Thursday morning at Wrigley Field for the first time since president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announced in early August that the club wouldn’t be bringing him back for the final year of his eight-year, $184 million contract. And of course, the first question he was asked was how he would put into words his seven seasons in Chicago.

“A lot of history being broken. A lot of winning,” Heyward said. “But I think having a new understanding for what winning is, and I take away from that, winning is a debt that is not pretty. You have to give up a lot of things on and off the field, whatever it is, whatever your craft is, and there are a lot of things you have to give up as an individual and as a group.

“We were able to pull off a lot of special things together, and we did a lot of winning. I think now what we’re seeing, coming to the end of that, is some of the debts you have to give back, the things you give up. The business is the business side of this game.

“But what a ride — for this city, for this fan base. The love that I received, the love that we received — the guys that were part of those groups — is never taken for granted. I think I speak for everybody: we’re so happy we could be a part of that group that brought them to the other side of that.”

From a purely offensive perspective, Heyward’s Cubs legacy is pretty straight forward.

He didn’t live up to that big contract. In those seven seasons combined, he recorded a wRC+ of 88, far below the 118 mark he set through his first six big league seasons (five with Atlanta, one with St. Louis). The Cubs signed him as a 26-year-old who had the potential to be even better as he truly entered his prime, but his production didn’t exactly correlate with what he was being paid.

Heyward understands the frustrations of Cubs fans over his performance at the plate, but he believes there’s so much more that he brought to the table than what box scores could ever show.

“I feel like I’m a very fortunate person to be in a select group of players that earned bad contracts, because there’s a lot of bad contracts out there, if that’s how we’re looking at it,” Heyward said. “But to be able to show the value of myself as a person in probably, like, one of the toughest times I’ve had on the field and off the field in 2016. To still show I’m here for the team, to still play defense the way I play defense, run the bases and just to step in and step up in multiple times when I was needed to be who I am, to be Jason Heyward, like, we still got a ring. It took every bit of that from me. It took that group. There’s no other group that was going to get that done.

“So, that’s fine. I understand. People can say ‘bad contract,’ this and that, but I know I also had my hand in a lot of winning baseball here on the north side of Chicago.”

Both things can be true. No, he didn’t live up to the contract as far as his numbers are concerned. But yes, he did provide value in different areas. Trying to find the right way to balance that is what makes determining his legacy complicated.

But in the grand scheme of things, Heyward’s impact goes far beyond the stats and the dollars. Take that 2016 season, for example, the year the Cubs ended their 108-year World Series title drought.

Heyward had his worst statistical season to that point in his career, posting just a .631 OPS, a 72 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR. Still, the Cubs lineup finished the season with the highest wRC+ (106) in the National League and the highest fWAR (36.0) in Major League Baseball. They won the whole thing despite his struggles in the box, because really, they didn’t need him to be an offensive force.

Sure, him having a good offensive season would’ve added to what was an impressive lineup anyway. But much of that championship run was built on defense, and he played as big a part in that as anyone on the roster. He finished the season with 15 Defensive Runs Saved and 14 Outs Above Average (per FanGraphs) overall in the outfield, which ranked seventh and fifth, respectively, among all major league outfielders. He won the NL Gold Glove Award in right field that year thanks to 12 DRS and 13 OAA at that position alone.

And his contributions expanded beyond anything he did on the field, too.

When people discuss that World Series run, one of the stories that will forever be talked about is Heyward’s speech during the 17-minute rain delay before Game 7 went into extras. The Cubs had blown a 5-1 lead against the Indians after clawing their way back from a 3-1 series deficit, and even though the game was still tied at the end of the ninth inning, it felt like another soul-crushing loss was inevitable.

Manager David Ross, who was finishing up his final big league season that year, remembers the mood around the team. He remembers seeing Aroldis Chapman — who’d allowed the game-tying homer to Rajai Davis in the bottom of the eighth — in tears. He remembers nobody really knowing what to say.

Heyward saw it at the time as well, so he pulled the players into the weight room at Progressive Field and gave them a pep talk for the ages.

“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta say something. I gotta remind these dudes of how I fucking see them, because they’re amazing. They’re gladiators,'” Heyward recounted Thursday. “Through every up, every down in that season, it didn’t matter. We always had an answer.”

The rest of the story is history. Heyward rallied the troops, and they went on to win the game, 8-7 in the 10th, to break the curse. People on the outside may think the weight of the speech has been overblown the more it’s become part of World Series lore. Ask anyone who was a part of that team, though, and they’ll tell you that Heyward stepped up when the Cubs needed it most.

“We don’t win that championship without him,” Ross said.

And why did his words matter so much? Because that speech, as famous as it has become, is just one example of what Heyward has done for the people around him his entire career.

There’s a reason teammates and coaches alike talk so highly of him, even though the on-field production hasn’t always been there. He’s a veteran for young players to seek advice from. He’s a player willing to do whatever his coaches ask of him. The way he carries himself makes him a role model for anyone who might look up to him.

He’s also a leader in the community, with plenty of contributions — like the Jason Heyward Baseball Academy being built in Chicago’s North Austin neighborhood — earning him the Cubs’ last three nominations for MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award.

“I think that’s something I’ve always done to the best of my ability — to give back, to be where people need you, to lend a hand and be helpful when I can,” Heyward said. “Just reading what’s going on at the moment. That’s a part of me as a baseball player, but that’s a part of me as a human being, and it’s just nice to be one of the many people that were helping a lot of different causes here in my time. You talk about legacy. It’s nice to be able to implement multiple things that will be here when I’m not around anymore.”

Heyward doesn’t see the end of his Cubs career as the end of what’s currently a 13-year baseball career. He believes he can still contribute as a player, and he hopes to find a spot with another club next season.

But long after he’s hung up his cleats, people will stop thinking about the ups and downs of his time in Chicago. They’ll move past the bad parts, like his offensive numbers and the size of his contract. They might even forget the good parts, like the two Gold Gloves he earned with the Cubs.

What people won’t forget, though, is Heyward’s character. They won’t forget how he treated anyone who got the opportunity to interact with him.

Jason Heyward, the baseball player, is part of who is, but the rest of what makes up Jason Heyward, the person, is so much more important. The behind-the-scenes impact he’s had on the Cubs and on the city of Chicago is what matters most, and that’s the legacy that should define him.

“He’s a well-rounded human being with all that he contributes,” Ross said. “It comes from an unselfish place. It’s not about him. Anybody that’s been able to meet him, you’re getting a smile, you’re getting an engagement. Whether it’s in the community or a rookie here, he’s invested in people. I think that’s what it says about him.

“I don’t know how often those people come around.”

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