Jason Heyward’s Unquestionable Leadership

When it comes to legendary moments in Cubs history, Jason Heyward’s World Series Game 7 speech will go down as the single greatest rain delay performance of all time. This is hardly a controversial position–although I should probably apologize for inspiring the string of profanity just heard by anyone within listening range of Gary Pressy.

The only other memorable rain delay moment that springs readily to mind involves Greg Maddux and Jody Davis using the tarp as a Slip ‘n Slide during the first night game in 1988. And that didn’t really send the Cubs to new heights unless you measured greatness using Don Zimmer’s blood pressure.

Heyward’s oratory will go down for all time as one of the most important turning points of the Cubs’ run to the World Series title. And that would certainly be enough to cement his legacy as an essential part of the team that broke the 108 year championship drought. But beyond all of that, the speech served another compelling purpose in terms of Heyward’s reputation within the game.

Specifically, this moment was Jason Heyward’s final answer to all the shade Adam Wainwright threw at him during the previous offseason.

Last winter, Zack Moser undertook a thorough analysis of the problematic themes underpinning Wainwright questioning Heyward’s leadership abilities. And in light of recent events, those comments look even more ludicrously wrong…

“It really comes down to a personality trait to me. The person that we want to give that kind of money to, that big money to, he needs to be a person that wants to be the guy that carries the torch. He needs to be a guy that wants to be the person, that after we leave, he carries on the tradition. And that’s just a personality thing and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But we’re looking for a guy that wants to be the man.”

Zack already did a good job unpacking that overflowing bucket of wrong. But looking at that quote again, it’s worth re-emphasizing that Wainwright’s contention that “we’re looking for a guy that wants to be the man” is just bizarre. It’s probably not a good sign when your attempt to diagnose the human condition makes me think “Hey Nature Boy, you forgot to say ‘WOO.’”

What really stands out about Wainwright’s statement is its sense of condescension and entitled superiority. Even if you presented it without any context at all, 90 percent of baseball fans would take one look at its tone and assume it was being said by a St. Louis Cardinal. All that’s missing is a discussion of the length of Heyward’s pants.

More to the point, knowing what we know about Game 7, is it possible that Adam Wainwright played an entire season with Jason Heyward without actually meeting him? You can always tell a baseball player has stepped in it when the least incorrect thing in his hot take is the grammar.

Heyward stepped up at a time when things looked as dark as they ever had for the 2016 Cubs. With a three run eighth inning lead blown and their 104 MPH closer reduced to weeping as if he were auditioning for a sequel to Patch Adams, the player who Wainwright claimed didn’t have the “personality trait” to “want to be the man” shattered the stunned silence of the locker room with the simple command: “Guys, weight room! Won’t take long!”

According to Tom Verducci, Heyward’s message to his teammates was direct and to the point:

“We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”

What Heyward managed to do in this moment was to take Joe Maddon’s philosophy of “Do simple better” and apply it to the most perilous situation the Cubs had faced all year. By removing all the catastrophic noise surrounding Cleveland’s game tying rally, Heyward stripped it of its power to destroy his teammates’ morale and refocused them on what was going on in reality: the score was tied and all they had to do was be the next team to plate a run.

So at a time where the Cubs were most in need for someone to step up and be “the man,” Jason Heyward turned out to be exactly who they were hoping for. Rather than hinder his ability to lead, his intelligent and analytical personality helped him communicate to his teammates that Rajai Davis’s home run was not the end of the World Series and inspired them to concentrate on the task at hand once the rain delay ended.

And how did his teammates respond? As Anthony Rizzo told Verducci, “All game long I was burning nervous energy. I was a wreck. I thought about all the people in Chicago and how much this meant to them. But after we had that meeting, I knew we were going to win. It was only a matter of how and when.”

I’d like to analyze this further but after posting that quote, I need to go run a triathlon.

Theo Epstein soon walked past and eavesdropped on the meeting. And after doing so, he admitted that he listened to Heyward’s words and “Right then I thought, ‘we’re winning this f—ing game.’” More than anything else, that demonstrates the true magnitude of Heyward’s leadership: he can even pull optimism out of a man from Boston.

The most remarkable thing about this moment is that Heyward was able to demonstrate such profound leadership after an incredibly dismal season. As anyone who has read a Dirk Hayhurst book has learned, baseball clubhouses take their cue from performance and the players who do the best on the field tend to become the team alpha males almost by default.

But Jason Heyward was able to earn so much trust from his teammates throughout the year that when things were at their lowest point in the biggest game of the season, they trusted him to pull them back from the abyss and inspire them to rise to the occasion.

As Jon Lester told Rian Watt, “One thing that’s for sure, right now, is that his teammates always have his back, and that dude right there…I’d go to the end of the world for him, man. He’s busted his butt, and done everything that you could ever ask for from a teammate, on days he’s playing and days he isn’t. He’s one of the good guys in the game.”

It’s clear from that statement that Heyward built up an enormous amount of respect and admiration amongst his teammates by the way he persevered throughout his seemingly unending struggles. And at the time they needed him most, he was able to call on that respect and come through for them when they had to hear the voice of a genuine leader.

In the end, one thing Wainwright said was correct. It turns out that Heyward really didn’t want anything to do with carrying on the tradition in St. Louis. Because he was too busy inspiring a new one in Chicago.

Lead photon courtesy of Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports

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