CHICAGO -- There might not be a bigger leadership moment than an inspiring speech delivered in the heat of a World Series Game 7, but Jason Heyward has followed his legendary words of the past postseason with an important task this season: filling the void left by the retirement of David Ross and the loss of Dexter Fowler to free agency.
It is often asked who has been the team’s spokesman when things haven’t gone well for the champs. It’s Heyward.
When the Chicago Cubs’ struggles hit a boiling point with six consecutive losses on the West Coast last week, Heyward was one of the players at the center of a team meeting about turning things around.
“He’s always been consistent with that,” Cubs outfielder Jon Jay said over the weekend. “It’s a testament to when he came up with the Braves and Bobby Cox, as well as Chipper Jones. He learned how to be a stand-up guy. He’s accountable. He shows that every day.”
Jay lockers next to Heyward at Wrigley Field after playing with him in St. Louis, and he remains in "awe" of Heyward’s steady attitude. Waves of reporters approach him before and after games, whether he’s struggling or playing well. He answers all of their questions.
Then he’s there for his teammates. When the subject turns to Heyward, young Cubs can't wait to talk about one of their favorites.
“He’s unbelievable,” Ian Happ said. “Really, really helpful with advice. Always willing to help the younger guys and be a positive influence. ... His attitude never varies. He’s always encouraging. I can’t say enough about him.”
Happ especially has relied on Heyward in the outfield, where the rookie is learning to play center field in the major leagues. What Heyward has made look easy isn’t always so for Happ, but the three-time Gold Glove winner is doing everything he can to help a rookie adjust to a new spot.
“He’s locked in at all times: batters, wind changes, everything,” Happ said. “He’s always talking to me out there. He’s got my back.”
Heyward might not call people out or act as boisterous as Ross did, but he has an “aura” about him, as Happ put it. Players gravitate to him.
Manager Joe Maddon spoke recently of guys having to “ascend” to leadership roles left open by the absences of Ross and Fowler. With several young players struggling, it has been on Heyward to carry the load.
“He’s hitting better now,” Maddon said. “That probably gives him a little more inner confidence to go out there and say something or be that leader kind of a guy.”
He might be a little more vocal now, but from the front office down to the players, they say Heyward was the same guy last season, when he struggled after signing the richest contract in franchise history.
“He never changed,” Kyle Schwarber said. “He was hard on himself, but you could never tell.”
If anyone learned how to conduct himself by watching Heyward, it’s Schwarber.
After he was handed the leadoff job coming off a legendary World Series performance, scrutiny found Schwarber this season the same way it did Heyward during his first year in Chicago. Even though his leadoff role didn’t work out, Schwarber wasn’t going to lose his mind about the pressure -- not after watching what Heyward went through.
“He is a leader,” Schwarber said. “I saw him last year even though I wasn’t playing. He was the same person.”
That first year with the team, at least at the plate, could have broken Heyward. Then came the playoffs, in which he was benched at various times, before his World Series speech became part of Cubs’ lore. Jay was home watching it all unfold.
“I was super happy,” he said. “That was the coolest moment for me. When I saw the reaction from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, that really hit me big. When they told that rain delay story, that’s bigger than any performance.”
The Cubs think so as well. No matter his production at the plate this season, they had last year’s rain delay speech to thank him for. But after an offseason of work on his swing, he has become one of the Cubs’ most consistent and reliable hitters. His numbers in the batter’s box aren’t eye-popping, but his manager appreciates knowing what a Heyward at-bat will look like this year -- and it’s a lot better than last season.
“I watch,” Maddon said. “Watch him on the field. All the little things he does. He’s always there to support everybody. Always. And he’s hitting.
“We’re seeing the best of him right now.”