Former Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward was one of a handful of people left on North Austin Center’s expansive indoor turf field an hour after the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, taking pictures with a group of patient fans and giving one last interview about his baseball academy, which is an integral part of the center’s sports programming.
In the opposite corner, two kids threw a baseball in the batting cage — one of two that lower from the towering ceiling into right field — trying to knock a second ball off a tee.
“If [this facility] is not here, they’re not there,” Heyward said.
That idea — giving kids and community members a place to learn, play and thrive — drove at the heart of the community center’s mission. Heyward initially got involved through his connection to By The Hand Club For Kids, which partnered with the Grace and Peace Revive Center and Intentional Sports to serve as the three nonprofit organizations anchoring the 10-acre sports, education and wellness campus on Chicago’s West Side.
When Donnita Travis, founder and executive director of By The Hand Club For Kids, and Andy McDermott, founder and chief development officer of Intentional Sports, pitched the idea of the Jason Heyward Baseball Academy, Heyward was entering his sixth season with the Cubs and putting family roots down in Chicago. He announced to the audience at the groundbreaking months later that he’d recently received his Illinois license in the mail, “just so you all know I’m not playing; I’m here.”
Now, he’ll be competing for a roster spot with the Dodgers in spring training after signing a minor-league deal in December. But in the eyes of the people with whom he has worked to make the North Austin Center a reality, the city Heyward reps on his uniform doesn’t mean much.
“Whether he’s playing in L.A. or whether he is training in Arizona, makes no difference,” Travis said after presenting Heyward with By The Hand Club For Kids’ second annual Power of One award Thursday. “This is home. . . . And frankly, he will always have a home here with us.”
Heyward couldn’t have planned for his work to take him away from Chicago so soon. He signed an eight-year deal with the Cubs entering the 2016 season. Last year, though, he went on the injured list with inflammation in his right knee in late June and didn’t play another game. In August, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announced the club’s intention to release Heyward from the final year of his contract.
While Heyward explored free agency, shortstop Dansby Swanson reached out about his own decision. Both are Georgia natives, and they’ve known each other since Swanson was in high school, Hayward said.
They worked out in the same gym in Kennesaw — also where Heyward first met Dexter Fowler. Even after Swanson went off to college at Vanderbilt, he’d come home for the holidays and work out alongside professionals such as Heyward, Chris Nelson and Josh Smoker.
Swanson was one of the top four shortstops in an illustrious free-agent class this winter.
“As far as the whole process — having to move family, worried about where you’re going to live, all those things — I said, Bro, put yourself first,” Heyward said. “Whatever you love about your process, go do that. And just enjoy it. Everything else will sort itself out.
“Of course, you’re going to be fortunate enough to have more money that’s coming your way. But it’s very easy in that process to get lost in having other people to take care of, people treating you differently. So I just gave my thoughts on what peace of mind looks like to me eight years later after going through that process.”
Swanson signed for seven years and $177 million guaranteed, the largest contract the Cubs have given a free agent since Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million deal.
Heyward went to the Dodgers, who showed early and consistent interest.
“They know what it’s like to win a ring and now have hunger for more,” Heyward said. “And to see some of the pieces of their franchise — starting with Joc [Pederson], Kik? [Hernandez] and now Cody [Bellinger] and Justin Turner — you see those guys move on, but how do you revamp that? So them wanting to add someone like myself, that stood out a lot.”
The team has been just as engaged since his signing, working with Heyward to bounce back from time missed last season and an offensive decline the last couple of years. But standing in the North Austin Center, Heyward let his mind go to future offseasons and a different kind of impact.
“I hope to get as many major-league guys, minor-league guys, college guys to come in here and work out in the offseason and over time,” he said. “Then you start gaining influence, then you see other kids that are playing in high school want to come in here and say, ‘OK, well, this is what Baseball Academy can bring, this kind of influence, this kind of structure.’ “
Heyward has been “hands-on” throughout the process of erecting the North Austin Center and launching the baseball academy, according to McDermott. The Jason Heyward Baseball Academy already has regular baseball programming planned, but Heyward sees that as just the beginning. As it gains momentum, why not, for example, have a competitive travel team based out of the North Austin Center?
“I spent my time here as a Cub, as an athlete in the city, and being able to be rooted on by a lot of people,” said Heyward, encircled by reporters after the ribbon-cutting. “But that’s always going to come to an end, the playing side of the game, for this city or another. But either way, this will always be here.”