Jason Heyward glowed when he talked about his one season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was better than what I would have expected,” the 26-year-old right fielder said Monday afternoon from the dugout of his new team, the Chicago Cubs. “Not that I went in with any expectations, but you know there’s a reputation for St. Louis being a baseball place and a family-oriented place.
“It was a good season. I got to come in and be myself every day. I got to come in and grow with those guys. We had a lot of things to overcome last year as a team. We were very tight. You ask anybody who was in that clubhouse, even some of the guys that are gone now from the team, and we really enjoyed that group.
“The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals ... had fun. We got serious when we needed to be serious. We buckled down when we needed to buckle down. Even after a tough loss or (after) losing a player, we all hung out and made sure we all understood we had to stay tight as a group. We were who we needed to be at any given moment.”
Heyward was 0-for-4 with a strikeout in Chicago’s 5-0 win on Monday and is batting .188 with seven RBIs. Heyward made two dazzling catches.
If everything was so good in St. Louis, why did Heyward leave?
The Cardinals offered Heyward eight years and $200 million to stay in St. Louis, but he chose the eight-year, $184-million contract offered by the Cubs on Dec. 15. The deal included a $20 million signing bonus, opt-outs after the 2018 and 2019 seasons and full no-trade protection from 2016-18.
“I had a decision to make,” said Heyward, who signed with the Cubs on Dec. 15. “There were a lot of familiar faces with this group that I’m with now in Chicago. (There are) some guys I played with who are coaching now. (There are) some guys I saw early on in high school before I even got to professional ball. (There are) some guys I played with my first three years in the big leagues.
“Timing is everything. It’s just weird how it happens. But when it came down to making a choice, I just felt like, ‘Why not go try this city, Chicago?’ You don’t know what’s going to happen as far as the World Series and playoffs. I do know I’ve always loved playing there. I love playing at Wrigley Field. So why not go try it for 81 games in the regular season? Go see what happens. I love day games. It’s something new.”
The Cardinals’ perspective
The Cardinals loved what Heyward provided: off-the-charts defense, a reliable bat, a strong clubhouse presence and a top-notch baserunner.
“Just a quality player,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Heyward. “He had a great year for us. Just a professional in how he went about his game – the way he competed and played, the way he prepared and worked. He was just what we hoped he would be.”
Matheny, who also saw the Cubs sign former Cardinals pitcher John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal, said he was in contact with Heyward before Heyward agreed to his contract with the Cubs.
But Matheny wondered what more he could have said to convince Heyward to stay in St. Louis.
“We kept in contact, but if I didn’t give him enough in eight and a half months of having to look at me every single day, what more am I going to tell him over the phone that he hasn’t already seen up close and personal?” Matheny said. “I stayed in contact with him and told him I wished the best for him.
“What am I going to say? With as much as we talk already, he knows what I’m all about. He knows what the expectations are here. He knows what the city is about. He had all the information he needed about the St. Louis Cardinals. ... Sometimes you make a decision because you feel it’s the right decision. I can’t fault somebody for that.”
Heyward called leaving St. Louis for Chicago “a life decision.”
“I honestly didn’t see myself leaving,” said Heyward, who batted .293 with 13 home runs and 60 RBIs last year, along with earning his third Gold Glove, as the Cardinals won the NL Central with 100 victories.
“The first half of the season,” Heyward said, “I had no idea what was going to happen. I was in love with where I was. But I knew I had to give myself a chance to get away from the playoffs, get away from the season we had and give myself a chance to think and feel it out.”
When he signed with the Cubs, Heyward expressed concern that the Cardinals’ nucleus, players like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright, was aging.
Heyward said Monday that his comments were blown out of proportion “100 percent.”
“It wasn’t about age,” Heyward said. “It was about the fact that some guys’ contracts were coming up and some guys would not be here in 10 years when I’m (still) here. ... I feel like I was a little bit late to the party in the sense of the St. Louis group. Some guys are going to be moving on.”
Chicago, at least during the offseason, appeared to have a younger team that offered a better long-term fit for Heyward. Players like Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber were closer to Heyward in age than Molina, Holliday and Wainwright.
Since then, however, the Cardinals have added young players like Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker to a mix that already including promising regulars like Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong, along with pitcher Carlos Martinez.
“Dealing with the process of where I was going to go free agent-wise, I just felt like Chicago was going to give me a great opportunity to be with these guys for the majority of my contract,” said Heyward, who also expressed a desire to remain in the NL Central.
“You want to get dirty. You want to play the game the right way,” he said. “You want to do little things. Big things are fun. Home runs are fun. Web gems are fun, things like that, individual stuff. But the team game is really emphasized in this division, I feel like. ... You have to show up and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Shooting for the stars
Heyward said he was not bothered by the prospect of being booed by Cardinals fans.
“People are going to do what they want to do,” Heyward said. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. If somebody boos me here, that means they were not happy to see me leave. I’m kind of glad people weren’t happy to see me leave. Otherwise, it’s Cubs-Cardinals. Have some fun. The fans should enjoy it. We’re going to enjoy it. It’s great baseball. It’s good for everybody.”
Heyward would love to be a part of a Cubs team that wins a World Series, something that hasn’t happened in 108 years. Chicago, which eliminated the Cardinals in the NL Division Series last season, has the pieces in place to make history.
“The World Series would be awesome,” Heyward said. “The teams I’ve been on, that’s been everybody’s goal. When you don’t (make it), it’s disappointing. You understand, playing for the Chicago Cubs, that there are a lot of people involved that want to have that monkey off their back. It’s going to be awesome for them if it happens. It’s going to be awesome for us if it happens. But as a player, it’s always something you dream of.”
Cubs 5, Cardinals 0
John Lackey pitched seven shutout innings and struck out 11 and Dexter Fowler snapped a scoreless tie with a sixth-inning homer Monday as the Cubs won the opener of a three-game series at Busch Stadium.
By the numbers
Mike Leake pitched seven innings for the Cardinals, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits, with one walk and six strikeouts. ... Shortstop Aledmys Diaz committed his fourth error of the season. Thirteen of St. Louis’ 14 errors have been by infielders. ... Brandon Moss was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. ... The Cardinals’ five hits were by Diaz, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong.
Jaime Garcia (1-0, 2.40 ERA) vs. Jason Hammel (1-0, 0.75 ERA), 7:15 p.m. Thursday