On November 2nd, I texted to wish my father a happy anniversary. It had been six years since the night in Wrigleyville when we celebrated the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years. It was the greatest non-lifecycle moment in my life (notice how I worded that to not piss off my wife?)
For as long as I can remember, we have promised that whichever players helped us to win that elusive Championship would forever be celebrated as heroes in the city of Chicago. It was the greatest sports mountain left to climb, and we were certain that the men who did it would remain household names for decades to come. And when it happened, we lived up to our end of the bargain. Ben Zobrist is a Cubs family member after his game-winning hit. Mike Montgomery will always be the pitcher who got the last out. Kris Bryant throwing to Anthony Rizzo to end the game is an image that will last a lifetime.
When you build a bond with players like that, fans want them to stick around forever. But keeping star players is an expensive endeavor, and the past few years have been gut-wrenching for North Siders. In a period of 18 months, we saw Javier Baez go to Detroit, Anthony Rizzo traded to the Yankees, Kris Bryant traded to the Giants (and then signed with the Rockies). As of two days ago, there were only two members of the 2016 Cubs left in the organization: outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher Kyle Hendricks.
That was two days ago, though, because this week, the Cubs released Heyward, seven years into a eight year contract. Heyward’s time with the Cubs is a mixed bag. His inspiration speech is considered the turning point of the fateful Game 7 of the World Series that turned a rain-delay into a momentum reset. His work in the community made him a worthy role model off the field in addition to on it. But Heyward’s .245 batting average and 8.9 Wins Above Replacement failed to live up to the hype that a 8-year, $184 million contract he was given to be the face of the team.
Except, in some ways, Heyward IS the face of this Cubs era. This is a team that was supposed to be a dynasty, a team that would define a generation. And in some ways, this is by far the most prosperous period of winning in franchise history. But Cubs fans so badly wanted to see one of their central core players signed to a long-term contract, and Jason Heyward is the cautionary tale for when that happens.
Of the three big Cubs free agents this past season (Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez), all three underperformed the salaries offered by Chicago in extension talks prior to their trades. Often times, those contracts serve the reward past behavior, rather than sustain future performance, and teams often regret committing to such long and lucrative deals. Cubs fans wanted a player that they could invest their love and admiration in, and we forgot that we had him in the form of Jason Heyward. The question we had to face was whether or not we could love him enough to forgive his declining performance. For some fans, the answer was an enthusiastic yes; J-Hey will always be welcomed back to the Friendly Confines whenever he wants. But he also shows us that sometimes, saying goodbye to the players we love before they become the players that are hard to watch can mean future success.
The Cubs minor league system was revitalized by the trades that sent our stars away, setting up the next era of exciting Chicago baseball. The last years of Jason Heyward’s contract were frustrating and lackluster. And, while it is hard to remember the context in the day-to-day grind of a baseball series, the Cubs still have a century of losing to go before we come close to the suffering our ancestors endured. So as Jason Heyward rides off into the sunset, we have the chance to remember how badly we wanted a hero to keep us together through the next era of this team. For worse and for better (but mostly better), Jason Heyward was that guy.