Heyward adopts vocal leadership role

Cubs veteran has earned respect of teammates and manager

March 12th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- After the Cubs selected Ed Howard in the MLB Draft last summer, one of the first people he heard from was . This offseason, when Chicago hired Willie Harris as its new third-base coach, Heyward called him to welcome him to the organization.

There are plenty more of these stories, too. Joc Pederson received some texts from new teammates when he signed with the Cubs, but only one Chicago number buzzed his phone for conversation: Heyward's. He's also often the first to walk over with a handshake for new callups or trade acquisitions.

And the Cubs would want it no other way.

"He is the guy that we want representing the team," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. "He's the perfect pro, man."

As more years have passed since the Cubs' 2016 World Series triumph -- one that famously included a Game 7 speech by Heyward during the extra-inning rain delay -- the veteran outfielder has gradually embraced a more prominent leadership role. Other veterans have made exits, while Heyward has grown in both age and experience.

Now, as Heyward looks around the Cubs' locker room, he sees things differently than when he arrived ahead of '16. David Ross is at the helm now, versus the more experienced Joe Maddon. Heyward sees younger players on the rise. He sees a group of core stars who are either in walk years or inching closer.

Heyward also looks around and sees now that he is the veteran with guidance and experience to offer.

"It's my responsibility," Heyward said on Thursday morning. "It's my time."

Heyward is not old by any means at 31, but he has 11 years in the big leagues and has gone through just about everything.

He was a first-round pick in 2007 and highly touted top prospect, who had the added pressure of playing for his hometown Braves. He has experienced success and failure in the Majors. He's won five Gold Glove Awards and was an All-Star in his rookie season. He was in a blockbuster trade from Atlanta to St. Louis, where he then played with free agency looming.

Heyward then inked an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs, and dealt with the elevated expectations of living up to a contract. He did not do that statistically right away, but Heyward did his part in helping Chicago erase that 108-year World Series title drought.

Now, as the Cubs are entering a critical season for the franchise's future direction, Heyward is actively taking on vocal leadership.

"Listen, he's always had a big voice when he speaks," said Ross, who had a locker near Heyward's when the outfielder joined Atlanta as a rookie in 2010. "He's a guy that respects the veterans and he always has. He was brought up as a respect-your-elders-type player. Now, he is that guy. So, you just hear it.

"His voice has gotten louder and louder, to me, every year, the more I've known him. I think that'll continue throughout his career, because he's got great thoughts. And he's got great leadership qualities."

Hendricks pointed out that Heyward has grown increasingly comfortable in calling guys over for one-on-one conversations. Ross noted that the outfielder is vocal during drill work, making sure everybody stays on task. The rest of the outfielders note how valuable Heyward has been for discussing defensive strategy.

Heyward -- a veteran of eight postseasons -- said it is all motivated by winning. That includes any advice he offers for the season ahead for the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, who have been key figures with the Cubs, but are facing uncertain futures with free agency looming.

If this is the last run together for that group, Heyward wants them to make the most of each moment.

"I want to see these guys do amazing things on the field," Heyward said. "But, I also want them to get their families set. I want to see them rewarded for what they've worked for. This is a hard game. So, in that, I just want them to have comfort in going out there and playing, competing, having fun."

"I just want the best for them," he added later. "But, I also want them to realize, we won't get these moments back. If you are somewhere else next year, then you're going to want to enjoy the last time you play as a Chicago Cub. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

And if new players join the fold, they can expect to get a phone call.

"We're so lucky to have him around here," Hendricks said. "Ever since he came over, he's the best teammate we've ever had. Now, to grow into that leadership role and be a little more vocal, it's just cool to see."