Jason Heyward, the high-priced free agent in his first year with the Chicago Cubs, had an epically miserable year at the plate, ending as one of the worst-hitting starting players in all of baseball. His eight-year, $184 million contract is looking like a mistake at this point, though his defense and base running are still superb and save him from being labelled a total bust.
For a corner outfielder, his hitting was horrific all season. I have berated him verbally (through the TV, of course) and cursed him in my mind more than just about any player I can remember. The thought that he is earning tens of millions of dollars each year for hitting like a minor-leaguer is galling. He knows he’s been bad. His teammates know he’s been bad. He was benched several times.
And yet he holds his head high. He cheers on his teammates. He tries so hard. I often wondered during the season, “Don’t you realize how horrible you are? Why aren’t you hanging your head in shame? How can you stand to strike out and pop out time after time after time?”
But I learned something from Jason Heyward last night. He taught me how toxic and unforgiving my own spirit can be, and how genuine and upright his spirit is.
In the biggest baseball game in a long time, Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, we now know there was a players-only team meeting during a rain delay before the 10th inning of a tied game. The Cubs had just blown, in historically Cub-like fashion, a 3-run lead in the 8th inning. They had lost all the momentum and were on the verge of yet another memorable collapse. But they came out of the rain delay like a new team, as if nothing had happened, and promptly put two runs on the board and held Cleveland to just one run in the bottom of the 10th and won the World Series, their first since 1908.
What clubhouse leader called and led that meeting of a reeling, uncertain group of players? Jason Heyward. The worst hitter on the team. And they responded to him. He told them how good they were, and that they were still going to win the game. And they received him and heard his message.
The biblical parable of the Prodigal Son is remarkable in how it resonates with so many life situations, and I think it can apply to the case of Jason Heyward. If Jason Heyward is the prodigal son, taking his riches and squandering them away in hapless at-bats all season long, then the team and his manager, Joe Maddon, represent his father in the parable. They never gave up on him, and they received him with open arms. Heyward had the courage to hold his head up, and to trust in their unceasing care for him.
I, on the other hand, am the elder son from the parable. Scornful, wondering how the prodigal son has the gall to show up again, to act like he’s still part of the family, to act as if nothing is wrong. Instead of celebrating the family, I complain. Instead of rejoicing in Heyward’s indomitable spirit, I judge his waywardness.
Yes, Jason Heyward called the team meeting and exhorted his teammates to persevere. The meeting that many are now describing as absolutely critical in righting the listing Cubs ship and propelling them to the historic 10th inning, Game 7 victory. All of a sudden, having him on the Cubs looks pretty indispensable.
It turns out you can come home again, and Jason Heyward, together with the rest of his teammates and his father-like manager, have taught the older brothers in the Cubs fan nation that grace and mercy are infinitely better to live by than pity, scorn, and anger.
Photo courtesy of Julie Fennell with no alterations.