A ‘Perfect Marriage’ Between Team and Player

The harmonic convergence between the resurrected Jason Heyward and the rampaging Los Angeles Dodgers crystallized beautifully one evening in Baltimore last month.

It was in the top of the second inning at Camden Yards when Heyward smashed a three-run home run off the right-hander Tyler Wells, opening the gates to a five-run inning.

An inning later, Jake Marisnick pinch-hit for Heyward.

Injury? No. Ejection? Nope.

The Orioles had changed pitchers, inserting the left-hander Cole Irvin. And the Dodgers, being the Dodgers, adjusted accordingly.

“I told him the situation, that my bet was that they were going to use a lefty the rest of the way,” said Manager Dave Roberts. “I told him, ‘You did your job to help us win this game.’ And he was like, ‘Doc, I’m in.’”

Roberts added: “For me, that’s everything, to have a player of his stature have complete buy-in.”

For Heyward, 34, the personal victories in his 14th season in the bigs have come in the small moments. He no longer plays every day, and he’s not the middle-of-the-order beast he had always seemed destined to become. But he can still help a team, which is more than the Chicago Cubs seemed to think when they decided to cut ties with him last August.

“It’s been a fun year of baseball,” Heyward said of his time with the Dodgers during a road trip to San Diego last weekend.

Heyward did not know if his career would continue after he was released by the Chicago Cubs, but he has 11 home runs in a part-time role with Los Angeles.Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Discounting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Heyward’s on-base plus slugging percentage (.797) is his highest over a full season since 2015. He has produced the best isolated power (.216), home run percentage (4.2 percent) and walk rate (11.5 percent) of his career. And earlier this month, against Oakland’s Kirby Snead, Heyward socked his first home run against a lefty since May 2021.

Best of all, Heyward is clearly enjoying the ride.

It was a little over a year ago when Jed Hoyer, Chicago’s president of baseball operations, informed Heyward that the Cubs would release him after the season. With one year still remaining on the eight-year, $184 million deal he signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season, it was an ignominious ending to a chapter of his career that had its disappointments, but which also included his leadership playing a key role in the team winning its first World Series in 108 years.

Things began to fall apart quickly. The Cubs started to break in younger players while unsuccessfully defending their world title in 2017, they platooned a bit more and, Heyward said, they “started to try to be shape-shifters.” Some players accustomed to playing every day were asked to take on different roles, which led, in Heyward’s opinion, to an “identity crisis.”

“I understand transition — nothing is constant, nothing lasts forever,” Heyward said. “But that was the tough part of that group, especially with some of the younger guys.”

By 2019, it was clear that those Cubs were in need of a major overhaul. When Heyward’s O.P.S. dropped to career lows in consecutive seasons — .627 in 2021 and .556 in 2022 — it was evident that his time there was done.

Because of a right knee injury, he played his last game for the team on June 24, 2022, having batted .204 with a .278 on-base percentage over 48 games. When Hoyer spoke with him in early August, Heyward wondered if his career was finished.

“You don’t know if someone’s going to offer you the chance to play,” Heyward said. “So I was realistic about that.”

Heyward and Freddie Freeman played against each other as teenagers, were drafted together in 2007 and were in Braves camp by 2010.Credit…Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Freeman stayed with the Braves through 2021. Heyward went to St. Louis in 2015 and Chicago in 2016. Now they’re back together in Los Angeles.Credit…Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Dodgers called in early December and invited him to spring training on a minor-league deal. They made no promises, but they laid out their vision in clear, concise terms.

“This is what a role would look like for you,” General Manager Brandon Gomes said. “This is what our hitting guys are thinking. It would be you coming to L.A. and Arizona this winter and spending a lot of time attacking some swing changes, and we feel if you can do that, then there’s real upside left in how you can perform.”

The Dodgers loved what they knew of Heyward’s work ethic and his reputation in the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman, friends with Heyward since they played against each other in youth baseball tournaments when they were 16, heartily endorsed him.

“It felt like the perfect marriage between our culture, what he could bring on the field, off the field in the clubhouse, and his ability to just get to work with our group and kind of do a trust fall for what they saw for him,” Gomes said. “And now we’re seeing him perform at an incredibly high level.”

Maybe to some, it would have been easy for Heyward to take his five Gold Gloves, his World Series ring and the millions he had earned and just disappear. Especially after years of listening to outside critics eviscerate his Cubs contract as one of the game’s worst.

“I think when you look at contracts and players and the game of baseball, looking at career numbers, there are a lot that are below mine,” Heyward said of where his contract ranks historically. “There are a lot worse that have played out a lot worse. Guys have been on the field less. All that kind of stuff. And that’s not by any means to point the finger away from me. I’m right there in the thick of it. I love to play the game, and I understand the failures.”

Heyward’s first season in Chicago ended the Cubs’ long World Series drought. But his large contract became the subject of frequent ridicule.Credit…Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Besides, the most difficult part of his descent with the Cubs, he said, wasn’t even his own personal failures. It was the rebuild over his final seasons in Wrigley.

“The toughest thing for me was not trying to win every day,” he said.

When he took that Dodgers phone call, he knew they would do everything to win. So setting aside his ego and accepting a minor-league deal was easy, he said.

“The beauty of it is, it’s a collaborative effort,” Gomes said. “It’s, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re thinking.’ And then Jason saying, ‘Well, I’ve either tried that before, or I can’t quite pull it off. Do we have another way to go about it?’ An open conversation that both parties run into with an open mind.”

Heyward has excelled at the specific role the Dodgers have carved out for him. The fixes in his swing, the at-bats against right-handers, the defensive agility that remains. In the clubhouse, he is everything the Dodgers hoped.

“I’ve leaned on him a lot over the course of the year,” said James Outman, a rookie outfielder. “Baseball mentor. Life mentor, really. He wants to win. And you can tell he wants his teammates to do well. And it’s coming from a super-genuine place.”

From Outman to Mookie Betts to David Peralta and Clayton Kershaw, Heyward name-checks veterans and newcomers alike, praising the Dodgers for their ability to match talent with character.

“The thing that’s cool is to have a group with a lot of veterans with some young guys mixed in, a lot of good examples,” Heyward said. “I feel like we all feed off of each other. And, of course, it’s fun to play with Freddie again, to have that come full circle.”

Age and injuries have taken their toll on Heyward, but he is still capable of above-average defense in right field, and he picks up some innings in center field as well.Credit…Matt York/Associated Press

Selected by Atlanta with the 14th (Heyward) and 78th (Freeman) picks in the 2007 draft, Heyward and Freeman came through the Braves minor league system together and quickly established themselves as the future of the franchise.

Heyward got to the majors first as a phenom in the spring of 2010, when his prodigious batting practice blasts were clearing the right-field fence at the team’s spring training complex and damaging cars in the parking lot. Freeman joined him as a full-time player in the majors a year later. By 2013, both had been All-Stars and Atlanta, after a brief rebuild following its previous glory years, was once again a contender.

But Atlanta, looking to cut costs, split up the longtime teammates. Heyward, who was nearing free agency, was traded to St. Louis after the 2014 season as the Braves reset for the future.

Nearly a decade later, Heyward and Freeman are back on the field as teammates, this time in a different hue of blue.

Freeman shudders at some of the contract-related grief Heyward has endured over the past few seasons.

“All that negative stuff, you can just throw away because when you know Jason, it’s only going to be positive because he is such a wonderful human,” Freeman said. “And he brought a World Series to Chicago, so I don’t know how you could ever be saying anything bad or mean about Jason Heyward. What he does in the city, the inner cities, what he’s still doing in Chicago, if mean things are coming out of your mouth about Jason, you need to re-evaluate your own life.”

In one corner of the Dodgers’ clubhouse, hanging between the lockers of Freeman and Heyward, is a photo of the two of them posing together. It was taken during an April rain delay in the visitors’ dugout in Wrigley Field, and it encapsulates so much: The gift of a lifelong friendship. Glory days in Wrigley Field. Heyward’s rebirth in Los Angeles.

In their blinding smiles, you can still see the bliss of a couple of 16-year-old boys who just love playing baseball — and appreciate the unexpected chance to once again do it together.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten to be teammates again,” Freeman said. “I get to see him every day now. And I’m just having a blast.”

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