Jason Heyward seems poised for breakout season with Cubs

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Right fielder Jason Heyward only hit 13 home runs last season with the Cardinals, but the Cubs are hoping his power will be unleashed at Wrigley Field. | Darron Cummings/AP

MESA, Ariz. — It’s spring training, and, man, is it beautiful.

The last song played over the P.A. at Sloan Park before Cubs left-hander Jon Lester jogs to the mound is “Take It Easy.’’


Like the weather. Like the blue desert sky. Like the grass in the Emerald City.

But men are at work, and one of them is Jason Heyward, the tall, athletic right fielder who could be a huge difference-maker for the Cubs in their march toward . . . well, let’s let him clarify.

“The World Series,’’ Heyward said. “Yeah, win the World Series.  That’s it. There’s no other goal to worry about. Nothing.’’


“Yes,’’ he said. ‘‘And anything else — it’s not just making the playoffs, just getting there, no. It’s winning the World Series.’’

Hmmm. Maybe that would seem a far leap for a team that has gone four generations, two World Wars, from Model T’s to model drones, without winning a crown. But everybody, not just Heyward, has the Cubs winning the World Series, partly because he’s on the team.

From the cover of Sports Illustrated (yes, it was only a regional cover, but it counts) on down to ESPN, newspapers, oddsmakers and friendly bartenders — everybody likes the Cubs’ chances this year.

Heyward, the Cubs’ huge free-agent signing from last December, isn’t guaranteeing the title, but he’s not afraid to make it the target, make it the only target.

At a long-legged 6-5 and a lean 240 pounds, Heyward has the kind of body that would fit the elite level in just about any sport but horse racing and human cannonballing.

In the field, he glides like a deer, covering more ground with his long strides than seems reasonable. His arm is strong, and he’s a good baserunner. At bat, he’s a left-hander with power, which hopefully can be unleashed at Wrigley.

Though he had only 13, 11 and 14 home runs his last three seasons with the Cardinals and Braves, Heyward cranked 27 homers in 2012, when he played in 158 games. He’s only 26, and if the Friendly Confines and the Cubs’ heavy-hitting lineup suit him, then a career year could be ahead.

Until Dexter Fowler re-signed with the Cubs in late February, it was stated by Cubs brass that Heyward would spend most of his time in center field. He can do that, but right field is where he has long played, so he and center fielder Fowler make a nice pair.

“I’ve known him since he was in eighth grade,’’ said Fowler, who, like Heyward, is from the Atlanta area.

Like Heyward, Fowler is 6-5 but skinnier.

“We had the same coach for a while, and he’d say, ‘Hey, your twin is coming in today,’ ’’ Fowler said. ‘‘Thing is, the guy was going to ninth grade, and I was graduating high school.’’

Fowler had heard the lore about Heyward early. The natural talk.

“He’s smart, he’s talented,’’ Fowler said. “He’s an athlete who can play anywhere.’’

Bleacher fans in right field, get ready to salute your new hero. No longer an enemy, he’s your guy. And he says his new ballpark really isn’t new at all.

“I’ve played right field there enough,’’ he said. “And that’s that.’’

The dude is a serious guy, but he doesn’t mind the Joe Maddon Traveling Fun Wagon, the goofy sideshow his manager directs to keep players loose and prove he’s wackier than they ever might be.

A few days ago, it was a mime. Before the game Friday, it was a pair of baby black bears rolling around the practice-field grass, as cuddly and clueless as two dug-up moles. The players held them and petted them.

When one peed on first baseman Anthony Rizzo, it might have been part of Maddon’s plan because Rizzo scorched a wicked two-run double in the sixth inning against the Brewers, possibly to help dry his pants as he ran.

“It says we’re here to have fun,’’ Heyward said of his skipper’s petting zoo. “It’s a business, but it’s a game.’’

I mention that at, say, Apple, they don’t have pajama parties when a guy gets promoted or throw pies around like office memos.

“I don’t know what they do there,’’ Heyward said somberly. “But Apple is strictly business.  This is a game you start off playing as a little game. This is just the big version of it. I started when I was 5.’’

Against Milwaukee, Heyward made catches at the wall look effortless. He threw a 200-foot rope to catcher David Ross, freezing a runner at third. He spanked the ball at the plate, though he didn’t get a hit.

It’s all good. Age 5 is paying off.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

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