The harmonic convergence between the resurrected Jason Heyward and the rampaging Los Angeles Dodgers crystallized beautifully one evening in Baltimore last month.
It was in the highest of the second inning at Camden Yards when Heyward smashed a three-run home run off the right-hander Tyler Wells, opening the gates to a five-run inning.
An inning later, Jake Marisnick pinch-hit for Heyward.
Injury? No. Ejection? Nope.
The Orioles had modified pitchers, inserting the left-hander Cole Irvin. And the Dodgers, being the Dodgers, adjusted accordingly.
“I told him the situation, that my bet was that they were going to make use of a lefty the remainder of the way in which,” said Manager Dave Roberts. “I told him, ‘You probably did your job to assist us win this game.’ And he was like, ‘Doc, I’m in.’”
Roberts added: “For me, that’s the whole lot, to have a player of his stature have complete buy-in.”
For Heyward, 34, the non-public victories in his 14th season within the bigs have are available in the small moments. He now not plays every single day, and he’s not the middle-of-the-order beast he had at all times seemed destined to turn out to be. But he can still help a team, which is greater than the Chicago Cubs appeared to think after they decided to chop ties with him last August.
“It’s been a fun 12 months of baseball,” Heyward said of his time with the Dodgers during a road trip to San Diego last weekend.
Discounting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Heyward’s on-base plus slugging percentage (.797) is his highest over a full season since 2015. He has produced the perfect isolated power (.216), home run percentage (4.2 percent) and walk rate (11.5 percent) of his profession. And earlier this month, against Oakland’s Kirby Snead, Heyward socked his first home run against a lefty since May 2021.
Better of all, Heyward is clearly having fun with the ride.
It was just a little over a 12 months ago when Jed Hoyer, Chicago’s president of baseball operations, informed Heyward that the Cubs would release him after the season. With one 12 months still remaining on the eight-year, $184 million deal he signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season, it was an ignominious ending to a chapter of his profession that had its disappointments, but which also included his leadership playing a key role within the team winning its first World Series in 108 years.
Things began to crumble quickly. The Cubs began to interrupt in younger players while unsuccessfully defending their world title in 2017, they platooned a bit more and, Heyward said, they “began to attempt to be shape-shifters.” Some players accustomed to playing every single day were asked to tackle different roles, which led, in Heyward’s opinion, to an “identity crisis.”
“I understand transition — nothing is constant, nothing lasts perpetually,” Heyward said. “But that was the tough a part of that group, especially with a few of the younger guys.”
By 2019, it was clear that those Cubs were in need of a significant overhaul. When Heyward’s O.P.S. dropped to profession lows in consecutive seasons — .627 in 2021 and .556 in 2022 — it was evident that his time there was done.
Due to a right knee injury, he played his last game for the team on June 24, 2022, having batted .204 with a .278 on-base percentage over 48 games. When Hoyer spoke with him in early August, Heyward wondered if his profession was finished.
“You don’t know if someone’s going to give you the prospect to play,” Heyward said. “So I used to be realistic about that.”
The Dodgers called in early December and invited him to spring training on a minor-league deal. They made no guarantees, but they laid out their vision in clear, concise terms.
“That is what a job would seem like for you,” General Manager Brandon Gomes said. “That is what our hitting guys are considering. It might be you coming to L.A. and Arizona this winter and spending lots of time attacking some swing changes, and we feel for those who can do this, then there’s real upside left in how you possibly can perform.”
The Dodgers loved what they knew of Heyward’s work ethic and his fame within the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman, friends with Heyward since they played against one another in youth baseball tournaments after they were 16, heartily endorsed him.
“It felt like the right marriage between our culture, what he could bring on the sector, off the sector within the clubhouse, and his ability to only get to work with our group and form of do a trust fall for what they saw for him,” Gomes said. “And now we’re seeing him perform at an incredibly high level.”
Possibly to some, it will have been easy for Heyward to take his five Gold Gloves, his World Series ring and the hundreds of thousands he had earned and just disappear. Especially after years of listening to outside critics eviscerate his Cubs contract as one among the sport’s worst.
“I believe whenever you have a look at contracts and players and the sport of baseball, taking a look at profession numbers, there are lots which are below mine,” Heyward said of where his contract ranks historically. “There are lots worse which have played out lots worse. Guys have been on the sector less. All that form of stuff. And that’s not by any means to point the finger away from me. I’m right there within the thick of it. I really like to play the sport, and I understand the failures.”
Besides, essentially the most difficult a part of his descent with the Cubs, he said, wasn’t even his own personal failures. It was the rebuild over his final seasons in Wrigley.
“The hardest thing for me was not attempting to win every single day,” he said.
When he took that Dodgers phone call, he knew they’d do the whole lot to win. So setting aside his ego and accepting a minor-league deal was easy, he said.
“The great thing about it’s, it’s a collaborative effort,” Gomes said. “It’s, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re considering.’ After which Jason saying, ‘Well, I’ve either tried that before, or I can’t quite pull it off. Do now we have one other strategy to go about it?’ An open conversation that each parties run into with an open mind.”
Heyward has excelled at the particular role the Dodgers have carved out for him. The fixes in his swing, the at-bats against right-handers, the defensive agility that is still. Within the clubhouse, he’s the whole lot the Dodgers hoped.
“I’ve leaned on him lots over the course of the 12 months,” said James Outman, a rookie outfielder. “Baseball mentor. Life mentor, really. He desires to win. And you possibly can tell he wants his teammates to do well. And it’s coming from a super-genuine place.”
From Outman to Mookie Betts to David Peralta and Clayton Kershaw, Heyward name-checks veterans and newcomers alike, praising the Dodgers for his or her ability to match talent with character.
“The thing that’s cool is to have a gaggle with lots of veterans with some young guys mixed in, lots of good examples,” Heyward said. “I feel like all of us feed off of one another. And, in fact, it’s fun to play with Freddie again, to have that come full circle.”
Chosen by Atlanta with the 14th (Heyward) and 78th (Freeman) picks within the 2007 draft, Heyward and Freeman got here through the Braves minor league system together and quickly established themselves as the long run of the franchise.
Heyward got to the majors first as a phenom within the spring of 2010, when his prodigious batting practice blasts were clearing the right-field fence on the team’s spring training complex and damaging cars within the parking zone. Freeman joined him as a full-time player within the majors a 12 months later. By 2013, each had been All-Stars and Atlanta, after a temporary rebuild following its previous glory years, was once more a contender.
But Atlanta, trying to cut costs, split up the longtime teammates. Heyward, who was nearing free agency, was traded to St. Louis after the 2014 season because the Braves reset for the long run.
Nearly a decade later, Heyward and Freeman are back on the sector as teammates, this time in a special hue of blue.
Freeman shudders at a few of the contract-related grief Heyward has endured over the past few seasons.
“All that negative stuff, you possibly can just throw away because when you understand Jason, it’s only going to be positive because he’s such a beautiful human,” Freeman said. “And he brought a World Series to Chicago, so I don’t know the way you can ever be saying anything bad or mean about Jason Heyward. What he does in town, the inner cities, what he’s still doing in Chicago, if mean things are coming out of your mouth about Jason, you have to re-evaluate your personal life.”
In a single corner of the Dodgers’ clubhouse, hanging between the lockers of Freeman and Heyward, is a photograph of the 2 of them posing together. It was taken during an April rain delay within the visitors’ dugout in Wrigley Field, and it encapsulates a lot: The gift of a lifelong friendship. Glory days in Wrigley Field. Heyward’s rebirth in Los Angeles.
Of their blinding smiles, you possibly can still see the bliss of a few 16-year-old boys who just love playing baseball — and appreciate the unexpected probability to once more do it together.
“It’s been an extended time since we’ve gotten to be teammates again,” Freeman said. “I get to see him every single day now. And I’m just having a blast.”