He was supposed to be done.
The Chicago Cubs paid him $22 million to go away.
Thanks for the memories, especially the rain-delay speech, and we’ll keep thinking of you every time we celebrate that 2016 World Series championship.
He could certainly have retired.
Well, outfielder Jason Heyward had other ideas.
He wanted to keep playing baseball, but except for himself, no one believed in him outside of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“They were the first team to call, the second team to call, and the third team to call,’’ Heyward tells USA TODAY Sports. “No one was willing to give a major-league contract, but they were at least willing to give me a minor-league deal, and give me a chance.’’
Here we are, and Heyward not only survived spring training to earn a spot on the team, but he has played an integral role in the Dodgers’ 20-14 start.
Who could have imagined that he’d be have an OPS of .872, the highest of his career? He’s hitting .246 with a .347 on-base percentage and .525 slugging percentage to go along with his four homers in 61 at-bats while platooning in center field with Trayce Thompson. He had only 15 homers in 685 plate appearances since 2019 with the Cubs.
“He’s on the Mount Rushmore of favorite players I’ve ever been around,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts tells USA TODAY Sports. “He has a new lease on life, a new freshness. He’s been a big part of this. I’m honored to be sharing the same uniform with him.’’
Heyward, who still had two years remaining on his eight-year, $184 million contract, was informed last August that the Cubs would release him at the end of the season. They could have done it immediately, but Heyward had a bad knee, and knew he couldn’t help anyone. He stayed in Chicago, underwent rehab treatments on his knee, and vowed to give it at least one more try.
Certainly, it would have made more sense to do it for the Cubs, but the Cubs were going through a rebuild, and simply weren’t going to hold a spot for Heyward when they had young kids to build around.
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“I don’t want to say it was a tough way to end it,’’ Heyward told USA TODAY Sports. “The only tough thing for me was not trying to win every day. Jed [Hoyer] was handed the keys of having the tough task of dismantling and starting over.
“We had open conversations. There was mutual respect. I think if I told them I was done playing baseball, then I think they would have let me go and be with my family. That was it. It’s part of the game.’’
The 2022 season ended, Heyward was officially released in November, and then he kept working out, waiting for the phone to ring.
“I was open to listening to whoever was willing to show interest,’’ Heyward said, “but at the same time, I didn’t know what teams that were trying to play winning baseball would be interested. I knew it was going to be a minor-league invite. But whether it was the Dodgers, Yankees, or whoever, teams that are always in a win-now mindset, I was very open to having to win a spot on the team.’’
Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, Heyward’s best friend and former teammate, immediately made calls to the Dodgers’ front office. He convinced them that Heyward deserved an opportunity. The Dodgers called, told them he’d have an opportunity to win a job, and Heyward spent two months of the winter working out in California and Arizona with Freeman and Dodger hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc and Aaron Bates, overhauling his swing.
Here he is now, having the time of his life, back with a team believing that anything short of a World Series is a failure.
“It’s such a good environment here, coming to work, having fun, and having people dedicated to helping you be the best version of yourself,’’ Heyward said. “Their reputation here has really exceeded itself. There’s a lot of good examples to watch, left-handed hitters to watch, examples as far they prepare, the way guys go about their business, pillars like Freddie and Mookie [Betts] and Will Smith. It makes it easier for us.
“It’s just nice to be playing games trying to win. That’s the most important thing. I don’t care who I’m going out there to battle with, if we’re trying to win every day, there’s the satisfaction. That’s the beautiful part about this organization.
“I couldn’t be happier.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dodgers' Jason Heyward grateful to have a second chance