CHICAGO — In three years and nearly four weeks in Chicago, Cubs Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward has experienced just about all the ups and downs a baseball player can endure. From the high of giving a historic Game 7 World Series speech to the low of struggling mightily on offense, Heyward has felt it all.
So far in 2019, he has never looked better at the plate. His home run and walk percentages this season are the highest of his career, and his strikeout percentage is his lowest. He is slashing .333/.450/.587 and producing in a way that some at the top of the Cubs order are not.
In a lengthy chat with ESPN.com, Heyward opened up about, well, everything.
How do you stay even-keeled through the highs and lows?
It’s something that’s happened over time. It’s not easy to do. At a young age, I was able to realize who I am to my teammates and the kind of effect I can have on the people around me. That helps.
At 14 years old, I went to having a pretty good grasp on the game to going to play against guys that are 18, 19 and then getting drafted. You go from batting third in the lineup to batting eighth or ninth and then sitting out some games. So it’s different than what you’re used to. So I’ve been through it all before. It prepares you.
In 2009, I was Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America. At the start of that season, I went to big league camp, hit over .300 and played in, like, every game. People said it was impressive for an 18-, 19-year-old, but I started out slow at high-A. So it’s not happening as you think it should happen.
If we win, I don’t care. I know I can help my team win regardless of the night I’m having. Even if I’m bad on offense, bad on defense, I can come in here and help someone else out. It’s about winning.
The public sees a stoic face. What does a frustrated Jason Heyward look like?
Anything you can name. There’s hitting stuff. There’s breaking stuff. There are times you take stuff home, but I feel like the past two and a half years, I found new ways to deal with it. Also, different surroundings matter. In Atlanta for five years, I figured out how to deal with stuff. In St. Louis, I remember a game where I made two errors in a Lance Lynn start. Then in his next game, I made another error because I was trying so hard for him, but we ended up winning the game. I hit a home run to tie the game, and then we won in extras, but afterward, I went right up to him and said, “Hey, brother, I’m sorry.” He said, “Relax. We won the game. You’re doing a lot better than we’ve ever had out there.” So it was me not knowing how my new surroundings are going to react to me — that’s a big thing.
I just care about my teammates. So you ask how does it manifest with me? The one thing is I don’t like to let my teammates down.
What was it like with that contract [eight years, $184 million] when you had your struggles, compared to the successes? Do the struggles always feel worse than the successes feel good?
The contract is separate. People are going to focus on that, as they should, because if there’s one thing people can relate to, it’s money. But it’s hard for them to relate to anything else we do or professional sports in general. Baseball is a highly paid sport, but it’s difficult.
“I just care about my teammates. … The one thing is I don’t like to let my teammates down.” Jason Heyward
I chose to be here. I wanted to be here, but there are certain things that you don’t realize how they are until you get here. So it’s another adjustment. It’s another lineup. It’s another manager. It’s another front office and game plan for the organization. Those are things you have to adjust to. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s just different.
Struggling felt like I was letting people down. I was letting the city down, which is the case. You can’t say it’s not the case, but contributing in some way is just being me. Go out, play the game and do what I can do on a nightly basis. Bottom line: It’s great to just contribute. The fan base we have, no matter how things are going, they’re looking for something positive. They’re looking for the positive stuff, and they’re ready to cheer. In other places, when things are going bad, they’re going bad. At Wrigley, we were 2-7 going into that opener, and our fans were right there like it’s a playoff game.
Could every hitter learn what you’ve learned from struggling: that there are other ways to contribute?
It helps you stay sane, knowing that everyone goes through it. It’s part of the game, but there are other ways to help a team win, and it’s going to come up big. I feel like sometimes I have to remind Rizz [Anthony Rizzo] that. He’ll make a great defensive play or a great baserunning play, and I remind him about it.
Because he’ll still beat himself up at the plate?
100 percent. Because that makes him him. What he puts into the game, it’s amazing. I feel like it’s part of the reason this team has been so successful. So many guys helping the team besides on offense at the plate.
You talked recently about physical adjustments at the plate, but what about mentally? Have you organized your strike zone at a high level so far this season?
Honestly, that’s me. The stuff I’m doing now is not new to me. I’ve done it before, as far as the feel and approach right now. The biggest thing is just getting ready to hit so I’m not searching for the baseball. You have to be ready to hit, give yourself time and be in attack position to be able to track. Then I can say I’m not swinging at this pitch or that pitch because you can see it that much earlier. Just trying to keep a similar feel for as long as possible.
What has it been like having three hitting coaches in three years? It has to be difficult on some level, right?
In all fairness to all sides on that, this is a hard team to coach for because there are so many great players. The hardest part of three coaches in three years is for the young guys. They’re still figuring themselves out, the game is still figuring them out, so a new voice isn’t easy to do. But we have so many stand-up guys here, it’s great seeing them trying to develop relationships.
Chili [Davis] had a different vibe or perspective because he was a player. He had a player mindset, and that’s a tough approach to bring to young guys because they haven’t been one yet.
Can you put into words the work you’ve put in to be successful at this game, especially in Chicago?
That’s just me. That’s how I got here in the first place. I’m always looking for ways to simplify and be better. This past offseason, I was in Chicago more, working out at Wrigley more often. Then I went to Atlanta because I can take care of my body there, get certain treatments or whatnot, acupuncture and things.
As far as the workload goes, I’ve had to dial back some. There were offseasons when I worked out almost every day. Now I have to do it differently. Baseball has consumed my life. By choice, it has consumed my life. … There’s been a lot of sleep lost over baseball. I feel like I’ve given a lot of my life to baseball. Chicago helps me separate it even more, living here and enjoying life.
You don’t talk a lot about your Game 7 speech, but what do you think that’s going to be like years from now, knowing you’ll forever be linked to the moment the Cubs won the World Series?
There is definitely pride in it. It comes from knowing how special that group is. I don’t shy away from that, but at the same time, there is still work to be done until I’m done playing. I’ll look back at that stuff when it’s all over. It was a special time in my life for a lot of reasons. There’s more to it than people know, but I’ll always be proud of it.
Tell me about some relationships. What’s it like with Theo Epstein? He signed you.
Theo is underrated all the way around. We talked more this past offseason because he was curious, he was hungry to have those conversations. And I wanted to talk. That was three years for me being here. I wanted to share, not necessarily how to do things better but just what I’m seeing. I think it’s helpful for them and for me.
What about Joe Maddon?
He and I could sit here and talk baseball all day. I told him, he’s a baseball genius. I was talking to him on the phone before spring training, and he told me I could come to him with any questions, and I told him I don’t need to because you already know. You have it mapped out in your head. I think the same way. I’m just here to rally the troops and tell them to be ready based on what Joe wants. I’ve seen Chipper do that, Yadier Molina, David Ross. They have to be that voice.
It is not an easy job to have in this city, to manage this team. Winning a World Series for the first time in 108 years, going to the postseason four times, all these things, and he doesn’t have a contract. That’s the nature of our business. I have a lot of respect for him.
This is new for me. In Atlanta, you’re not talking to the GM. You’re not sitting down talking to the president of the team. It was kind of surreal at first. … They stay positive for us. It’s refreshing.
Who’s your guy on the team you turn to for whatever these days?
Honestly, I can go to anyone at this point. Now, as far as who I think the game with on the field and relax and enjoy off the field, I would say Javy [Baez]. Zo [Ben Zobrist] as well, for sure, because we have the same mindset. When it comes to on the field, in the game, you think of 60 feet, 6 inches, and the outfield is this or that, but we’re thinking of more stuff as the game is going on. It’s fun playing with people like that. Rizzo, too. We’re always trying to get ahead and thinking outside the box while we’re trying to have fun and compete. There’s more to it than what people see, and we enjoy that stuff.
MLB is investigating racist messages sent to your teammate Carl Edwards Jr. You’ve been around the game a long time. I imagine this doesn’t surprise you?
That’s happened my whole life. Everywhere I’ve played, that’s happened. It’s not a surprise. It’s a way of life. As I get older, I appreciate my dad even more for preparing me for sports and this lifestyle. He told me, “As you go to the next level, I’m not going to always be with you. Things are going to happen. I don’t want to hear if someone calls you the N-word or swears at you, talking about your mom or any of that stuff. Just understand it’s going to happen the higher you go.” It’s way easier said than done, especially at 15 years old.
It’s funny because this year I’ve had a nice individual start to the season, but there’s still negative stuff. I know you can’t make everyone happy. The racial stuff is always going to be there. I just ignore it.
If there is anything positive about it, today it’s opening people’s eyes to what’s been going on forever.
Are you in a better place today than a year or two ago?
I am because I always try to be better. That’s how I live. I want to take advantage of the moments because they aren’t going to last forever. Hopefully these last five years I’ll make the most of it on and off the field. I love the city of Chicago. My family and I are enjoying the city more and more. On top of that, it goes without saying: Be a great baseball player and win.