I canâ€™t imagine becoming suddenly, publicly bad at something. Not that I canâ€™t imagine being suddenly bad at something; I just canâ€™t imagine that newfound badness mattering much to anyone. Our failures have consequences, but rarely do we have to answer for them in the village square. Sustained failure is the stuff that gets us fired, or dings our credit rating. It becomes a fact of our biographies that we arenâ€™t proud of and may elect to fib over at Thanksgiving, but after the uncomfortable shifting in our chairs is over, people forget. You care that you lost your job, but your paperboy doesnâ€™t.
This wasnâ€™t a good year for Jason Heyward. It wasnâ€™t a good year on its own terms, with Heyward hitting a paltry .230/.306/.325, and it wasnâ€™t a good year relative to the expectations he carried after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract last December. He was benched in favor of Albert Almora, Chris Coghlan, and Jorge Soler at various points this postseason. His bat was so bad, it wasnâ€™t worth keeping in the lineup when paired with his defense.
When you consider Heyward relative to all the baseball players in the world, he is still one of the very best, but you could call his 2016 a failure if you wanted to put a bit of venom behind it. Which is why it had to feel good to be good last night. Because last night, Jason Heyward was good.
In the first inning, he was fast until other peopleâ€™s feet got in the way.
In the third inning, he was Spider-Man.
We could quibble about how necessary it was to scale the wall in the first place, when standing on the field might have done just as well. But why quibble, when we could just look at how cool and baseball-y he seems doing this. Think about making that adjustment. Think about seeing Trevor Bauer hit a foul ball and pondering, â€œWhat if I just went up and got it?â€ Think about being that cool and baseball-y. Heywardâ€™s defense has been his saving grace this year, and with his team facing elimination, it was good enough on this play to make Bauer clap and smile.
His catch at the wall made him Spider-Man, but maybe more welcome was his hit in the eighth, when he was just a baseball player. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat he sent a fastball into center field, like he was supposed to have been doing all year, and when finally on base, Heyward stole second and third. The steals were for naught. The Cubs would not score. But able to contribute a hit, Heyward did all he could to contribute more, to show that on this night, he was good.
Jason Heyward is not â€œfixed.â€ His performance last night was good, not great. If he doesnâ€™t get that hit in the eighth, itâ€™s just another 2016 Jason Heyward game: some good defense weighed down by the concern that the Cubs made a long, costly mistake. In the Cubsâ€™ big fourth inning, he made the first out, unable to check his swing on a 81 mph curveball in the dirt. His other at-bats were forgettable strikeouts looking in the second and sixth.
The television broadcast was peppered with artifacts of his 2016 campaign. Before his strikeout in the fourth, John Smoltz said, â€œYou bring in the mistake factor on the fastball up–thatâ€™s one thing that Heyward can handle,” implying that everything else might be safely categorized as things he could not.
Failure can make us mean, and public failure only more so. It makes us feel embarrassed. It makes us defensive. We slide down the dugout bench slightly and distance ourselves from our teammates, because we want the shame of our failure to go away, or barring that, to just not talk about it anymore. It is hard to be gracious when things are going horribly wrong and youâ€™re suddenly sort of bad at something in public.
It is a skill to not be nasty or taciturn. No one wants to fail. This is not what Heyward came to Chicago to do. He came to Chicago to be good, and win a World Series. Last night got him closer to both. And that was precisely what the Cubs needed. Like Jon Lester and Kris Bryant and Aroldis Chapman, Heyward did what was required, with a steal of third base thrown in for good measure. He didnâ€™t do it alone, and he might not do it at all Tuesday, but after a year of failing publicly, he was able to stop shifting in his seat.
He may not have looked like the superstar Cubs fans hoped he would be, but he looked like a ballplayer, the sort of guy who does what he can to bring his team back from the brink of elimination. This wasnâ€™t a good year for Jason Heyward, but last night was a good night. Given the failures that came before, that must have felt good.