Jason Heyward Baseball Academy opens in Chicago

Former Cubs star cuts ribbon on 150,000-square-foot community center

February 3rd, 2023

CHICAGO -- In an auditorium housing hundreds of people, including Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, other local leaders and plenty of media, young Semaj Beecham walked to the podium on stage, pushed aside any nerves and shared a brief story with his audience on Thursday.

"I heard about baseball," Beecham said. "But I never had the opportunity to play baseball."

Now in high school in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, Beecham explained how By the Hand Club for Kids -- an organization he has been involved with since first grade -- helped him learn to play and provided a team. Now, he is hoping travel ball can open doors of opportunity for playing in college.

Sitting in the front row, Major Leaguer  listened to Beecham's story. Heyward remembered the first time he saw Ken Griffey Jr. play in person and thinking, "He looks like me. He's left-handed. He plays center field. I can do that." That is the kind of dream Heyward wants more kids like Beecham to experience.

Now with the Dodgers, Heyward was back in Chicago -- where his on-field legacy is secured for his role in the 2016 World Series with the Cubs -- for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on a 150,000-square-foot community center that will offer education, wellness and sports opportunities for local kids and their families.

Housed within the complex -- one that features Chicago's largest indoor turf field -- is the Jason Heyward Baseball Academy. There is a turf baseball diamond, plus a pair of batting cages that can be lowered from the ceiling. Beecham threw a ceremonial first pitch to Heyward to celebrate the moment.

Heyward is involved in building the curriculum, hiring the baseball instructors and plans on being there in person when his schedule allows for hands-on help.

"I spent my time here as a Cub, as an athlete in this city," Heyward said, "and being able to be rooted on by a lot of people. But that's always going to come to an end, right? The playing side of the game -- for this city or another. But either way, this will always be here.

"There will always be new kids. There will always be new families. And to me, that's something that's always going to be passed along. I'm just so happy and excited to see what that brings -- the opportunities, the fellowship. It's something for this neighborhood to be proud of."

The new building on Laramie Ave. sits on a 10-acre plot of land that once featured an 80,000-square-foot paint factory. The lot sat unused for 40 years before Pastor John Zayas (Grace and Peace Church) and Donnita Travis (executive director of By The Hand Club for Kids) worked together to acquire the property.

"It was a brown field. Toxic. Empty," Travis said. "Some people had a hard time imagining anything new springing up here."

Zayas and Travis found a partner in the non-profit Intentional Sports, plus the Chicago Fire Foundation and Heyward. There were multiple other donors (Cubs Charities included) to help create this facility that includes classroom spaces, multiple fields and courts for sports, a weight room and more to reach an estimated 25,000 people annually.

Heyward's involvement began in 2020, when he and a group of other Chicago athletes took part in "healing circles" with local children and police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Heyward then played a part in the creation of By the Hand Club's Austin Harvest market, but he did not stop there.

"Nobody knew, but then he went back to meet with some of the leadership," said former NFL player Sam Acho, who has also been involved with By The Hand Club for Kids. "He said, 'What if I could do more?' And then he had this idea of doing this baseball academy.

"Most athletes don't follow through. But he kept on meeting, he brought his wife, met with the leadership, met with some of the young kids. He's like, 'This is home. And I have to do something for people who don't have access.'"

Acho looked around the large indoor sports field and said: "His spark did that."

With wife Vedrana at his side, Heyward held his young son, Messi, as he helped cut the 330-foot-long ribbon on Thursday. The long-time Cubs outfielder will soon be competing for a spot on the Dodgers' Opening Day roster, but he made a point to be present for the ceremony.

"He is hands on," said Andy McDermott, the president of Intentional Sports, which will oversee the sports programming at the North Austin center. "Even with his switch in jobs and going to L.A. now, he's still involved. He's a text away or an e-mail away. We're just talking about how we bring the [academy] to life."

Heyward's commitment to Chicago -- a place he said "it feels like a dream" to still call his home -- has not gone unnoticed.

"Jason, let me just say this," Lightfoot said. "No matter which color you're wearing, we wrap our arms around you with the red, white and blue and the stars of the Chicago flag. You are a Chicagoan through and through, and you'll always have a home here with us."