I Don’t Care Whether Jason Heyward Wants to Be a Leader or Not

I’ve already devoted quite a few words to Jason Heyward, but a couple things I’d read recently had me itching to write even more. At the heart of the latest buzz is the idea that Heyward doesn’t want to be a leader, that he didn’t see himself fit to be the standard bearer for all things Cardinal. As much as I’d like to screed against the self-importance apparent in such thoughts, I’m going to try to keep my disdain for BFIB-ness at arm’s length here.

As with each offseason before, we see giant sums of money to being doled out to men who play a game for a living and we grapple with ways to justify the transactions. It’s one thing to crunch numbers in an attempt to evaluate a deal, but things get a bit murky when emotions get involved. Perhaps no city has more emotion woven through its baseball team than St. Louis, so it’s no surprise that we got some interesting reactions to Heyward’s choice to turn down $200 million to play in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.

Many fans just couldn’t believe it, couldn’t fathom how a baseball player — even one who’d only been in their city for a single season — would willingly go elsewhere ply his trade. As such, it became necessary for them to develop a bit of provincial logic to help them cope with the loss. Before I ready the lighter, let’s first examine the straw man they’ve built.

In his story for The Sports Fan Journal titled “Jason Heyward Had No Desire To Be ‘The Man’ In St. Louis,” Matt Whitener shared some interesting thoughts on what he believed motivated the former Cardinal to fly the coop (all emphasis mine; I say that now because sticking to the highlighted section will cut your reading time and prevent you from getting mad online too).

In his declaration that the Cubs did not have to offer as much as the Cardinals did to successfully land his services, he implied something deeper to his decision. The arrow points toward a belief that the Cubs are simply an easier — not better — place for him play.

He appears to be a player who is more comfortable being a part of the solution than the reason for it. Major League Baseball (and the big-business contracts that come with it) is not a game played with your friends in a sandbox. It is a game where men take responsibility on their shoulders for eight months a year and live up to their paychecks.

Heyward as made a career thus far of being a jack of most trades and a master of one. In St. Louis, he would’ve been asked to develop into the heart-of-the-order bat that his skill set and contract demand he become. Meanwhile, he will be able to comfortably set the table in Chicago, comfortable with the fact that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and others will be counted on to clear it off — all the while being able to still do all of the “little things” that make his potential (which may be his greatest tool still) so enticing.

What suited Heyward best was getting the top-notch contract but only a fraction of the responsibility he would have been aligned with in St. Louis. And in all honesty, who can blame him for liking that? Being paid like a leading man but ultimately being tasked with the role a secondary supporting actor behind the likes of Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester — almost all of whom he has a higher take-home than — sounds pretty damn enticing.

In his declaration that the Cubs did not have to offer as much as the Cardinals did to successfully land his services, he implied something deeper to his decision. The arrow points toward a belief that the Cubs are simply an easier — not better — place for him play.

Some men are built to lead, and others are built to follow. Jason Heyward proved what side of the scale he sits on.

Admittedly, I’m having a very hard time sticking to my pledge to not attack the Cardinal Way. Cleansing breaths, Evan. Okay, better. Moving on. Well, sort of. Bernie Miklasz, former lead sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch current radio host, recently published an account of Adam Wainwright’s appearance on his show. Needless to say, Waino’s thoughts echoed those quoted above:

A great teammate. One of the best teammates actually. A great friend and a great person. But when you look at that money that was offered to him, there’s really not much more our management can do than offer him that contract. He knows that we’re going to be in a position to win every year. and what it comes down to is this: he didn’t want to play there after myself, and Yadier (Molina) and Matt (Holliday) were gone, on such a long contract. 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 that guy who wants to be the man.

We’re not mad about that at all. We love Jason. And it really comes down to a personality trait. If he’s the guy wants to carry the torch, if he’s the guy that wants to be ‘The One’ — the cornerstone guy that you build a team around, then he takes that contract (from the Cardinals). But he wants to be a part of a system that he knows is going to be there for years and years. and there is nothing wrong with that. Listen, we know Jason so well. He is such a great teammate, and such a great guy. We love Jason. And he’s going to do great for Chicago. It just wasn’t the right situation for Jason and frankly it wasn’t the right situation for us. we’re going to find that guy and it may be somebody already there.

Ugh. Should I give you a moment to stop retching? Okay, just come back when you’re feeling less violently ill.

So here’s the thing: when did wanting to be a part of a winner become a bad thing? When was it taboo to want to have good, young players around you? Heyward is being criticized for wanting to join a team on which he’ll actually be an elder statesman right now, not in two or three or four years. The two block-quoted pieces above are basically admitting that the Cubs are built better right now. I mean, yeah, I guess the guy just wanted to lease a new car that he could drive for a long time rather than buy this used one and then be outside the warranty soon.

It’s not that Heyward didn’t want to be “the man,” it’s that he didn’t want to have to be. How’s that working out for Robinson Cano? How did A-Rod do with the Rangers? The notion that a man needs to “take responsibility on [his] shoulders for eight months a year and live up to [his] paycheck” is flat-out laughable, particularly when you consider that the guaranteed money said man opted for was less than what he could have gotten elsewhere.

Maybe Heyward didn’t want to be locked down for 10 years, after which he wouldn’t be able to command as much money on the open market. Maybe — and I know this is a huge stretch here — he didn’t really care for St. Louis (though it’s hard to believe why not, what with all the well-wishers on Twitter). Or maybe he really did just want to be a role-player, another cog in the system.

That’s really all Heyward has to be too, as Patrick Mooney wrote:

The Cubs believe he personifies their brand of baseball and even though Heyward is getting paid like a middle-of-the order hitter, in reality, he doesn’t have to become anything more than what he already is as a player.

Heyward may never develop 30-homer power or drive in 100 runs or become the most feared bat on the North Side of Chicago. But he does just about everything on the diamond really well and takes particular pride in his work in the outfield.

In closing, I’d like to go ahead and set flame to the erroneous notion that the man making the most money has to carry the most responsibility. Given baseball’s salary structure, that’s just not the way things work and it’s borderline asinine to think that way. Separating players out by salary and then expecting commensurate results makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, nor does tying a player’s leadership to size of the check ownership is handing him on payday.

To that end, Heyward’s (lack of?) desire to be a leader is completely irrelevant. He chose a situation that was best for him on the whole, and that happened to be Chicago. After all, if it’s true that “In St. Louis, he would’ve been asked to develop into the heart-of-the-order bat that his skill set and contract demand he become,” both Heyward and the Cardinals would have been stupid to consummate that deal.

So I don’t care whether or not Jason Heyward wants to be a leader or “The Man.” What I care about is that, rather than lean on antiquated notions of tradition or manliness (both of which are apparently St. Louis staples), he had enough self-awareness to weigh the various options before him and to choose the one that he felt was best, both for him and the team.

Easier? Simpler? A fraction of the responsibility? Sure, maybe. And as for what side of the scale Heyward sits on, the only thing that matters is that it’s the one with the most wins.

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