Jason Heyward Embracing New Faces, Challenges as Season Opens

Though the clearest example of his influence will forever be the legendary speech during the most timely rain delay in the history of everything, Jason Heyward has quietly become a Cubs leader over several seasons since. He’s made Chicago his permanent home and has become a philanthropic fixture in the community while expressing himself more openly with words as well as deeds.

“His voice has gotten louder and louder, to me, every year, the more I’ve known him,” David Ross, a teammate of Heyward’s in both Atlanta and Chicago, said in March. “I think that’ll continue throughout his career because he’s got great thoughts. And he’s got great leadership qualities.”

Even if fans can’t hear what’s being said in the locker room, it’s become clear through Heyward’s demeanor that he is more relaxed when it comes to simply being who he is. As I wrote last year, his growing tattoo collection is an outward symbol of very literally being more comfortable in his own skin.

It’s easy to see how Heyward might have felt stifled by the expectations foisted upon him by coming up with his hometown Braves being billed as the next Hank Aaron. Hitting a homer against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs in his first MLB at-bat as a 20-year-old did nothing to quell those lofty comps, nor did posting a career-high 134 wRC+ during that rookie season.

Now Heyward has come full circle as a member of the team forever linked to his legacy, remaking himself as a hitter with a 131 wRC+ during the abbreviated seasons that stands 10 points higher than in any year since 2010. While that still isn’t enough to earn the respect of Cubs fans whose expectations were nearly as high as their Braves counterparts after Heyward signed a big deal prior to 2016, it’s clear his teammates hold him in a position of esteem.

“He is the guy that we want representing the team,” Kyle Hendricks said. “He’s the perfect pro, man.”

The Cubs may well need that level of perfection as they seek to navigate a season that sees them on the brink of an organizational overhaul. To make the most out of what remains a respectable collection of talent, they’re going to need to come together as a group even as several players are also forced to look out for themselves.

“I think it’s exciting,” Heyward said prior to Thursday’s opener. “Rossy talked about it yesterday in our opening meeting — a lot of people have things to prove as individuals. But that’s a fun thing when you talk about a group pulling together toward trying to win a championship. It’s very easy to root for your guys.”

Even with several factors seemingly stacked against them, Heyward believes he and his teammates can “block out that noise” and push through as underdogs. Some of that comes from the changes that have already taken place on the roster in spite of the core group remaining largely intact.

“There’s a lot of similar things,” Heyward explained. “There’s some things that are new. But I’ll tell you what we do like, we do like that new. The guys that have been here, we welcome that with open arms. We’re looking forward to having some fun this year.”

If Thursday was any indication, fun may come at a higher premium than a seat at Wrigley Field when it’s operating at only 25% capacity. Then again, the egg the Cubs laid on Opening Day can probably be set aside as an outlier and fans are going to be allowed in increasing numbers as the season goes on. We have to hope those things are both true, anyway.

Now let’s also hope the image of Heyward toting the Chicago flag out to right is representative of more than just a fleeting moment of joy in what has been a very trying period.

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