Cubs’ Jason Heyward sees ‘so much opportunity’ for West Side baseball academy

DENVER — Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward pored over videos of the progress made on the building that will house the baseball academy bearing his name. But he still is trying to wrap his head around the scale of it.

”I’ve heard 40-foot-high [ceilings], but I can’t imagine what that looks like in person,” he said.

Heyward plans to visit the site soon.

The Jason Heyward Baseball Academy is part of a sports, education and wellness facility in the North Austin neighborhood that broke ground last summer. The academy is scheduled for a soft opening this coming winter, with events and possibly a tournament, and a full launch of after-school programming next spring, Heyward told the Sun-Times.

”It’s going to be awesome,” he said. ”And then there’s going to be a weight room, there’s going to be basketball courts, there’s going to be classrooms, there’s going to be e-gaming. So just broadening horizons here. I want it to be a place of knowledge.”

Heyward is in the process of finalizing the hire of the academy’s head of baseball operations, but he has not yet set a date for the announcement.

”It is someone from Chicago; he’s from the South Side,” Heyward said. ”I think that’s really cool. Super-excited to work with him, allow him to do his thing and put his stamp on the way he thinks it should be run.”

Heyward’s academy is one piece of the 10-acre campus, working in tandem with By the Hand for Kids, Intentional Sports, Grace and Peace Revive Center and the Chicago Fire Foundation to put on sports and community programming.

The academy also is poised to help expand baseball’s reach in Chicago.

Travel-ball teams, for example, are concentrated on the North Side, often serving majority-white communities. There are a handful of top programs on the South Side, including the White Sox’ ACE program, the West Englewood Tigers and Cubs scout Keronn Walker’s B.I.G. Baseball Academy.

Heyward’s academy brings top-tier baseball facilities to North Austin, which is on the West Side. Heyward pictures it becoming a destination.

”There’s so much opportunity to create a place to host tournaments, to host a league, to have a travel-ball team have that as their home base facility-wise,” Heyward said.”But just give all the kids in the community a place to get excited about going to play. I remember what that was like for me playing in East Cobb, being from McDonough, Henry County, just out of Atlanta.”

The drive took about 45 minutes to an hour. Heyward would spend weekends there during the school year and weeks at a time in the summer.

”So to give them those kinds of vibes, just to have them be excited that, ‘Hey, we’re going to the West Side today,’ ” Heyward said, ”to me, that is going to be awesome.”

The academy isn’t just for kids poised for long playing careers, either.

”I want all the kids to get the right fundamentals and, if they love the game, to keep playing,” he said. ”But, if not, we would like to expose them to front-office jobs, media jobs, coaching jobs, all that kind of stuff, as well.”

Along with a decline in the number of African American players in Major League Baseball in the last few decades, racial diversity among executives has been slow to increase. Only three people of color lead MLB baseball-operations departments among 30 teams. MLB celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut Friday.

MLB is having those conversations, with Sox executive vice president Ken Williams bringing his concerns to the floor during the offseason. MLB is pushing its own initiatives, such as its Diversity Pipeline Program and Play Ball.

Heyward is working with the youth in his own city.

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