NEW YORK — Jason Heyward just laughed.
The right fielder, who had the worst hitting season of his career in 2016 as soon as he signed a $184 million contract with the Cubs, never felt like Chicago hated him, did he?
“You mean me?” he said.
Then he laughed some more.
Heyward may have had the relatively soft landing of a wire-to-wire championship that first year —punctuated by the legendary Game 7 players-only meeting he called during the World Series. But the five-time Gold Glove winner and former All-Star is now into his third season of public criticism, booing and Twitter displeasure in Chicago.
“Yeah, I’ve gotten whatever Yu’s getting — whatever anybody gets,” Heyward said, referring to struggling Cubs starter Yu Darvish. “I feel like that happens when you’re expected to do a lot and you don’t do it. Obviously, it’s about how you handle it, just like how you handle going 0-for-4, 0-for-5, not pitching well or whatever.”
Heyward spoke before the Cubs opened a four-game series against the Mets on Thursday night in New York. A day earlier, catcher Chris Gimenez told the Sun-Times he thinks his friend Darvish believes Chicago fans hate him after his struggles and two stints on the disabled list since signing a $126 million contract in February.
“He’s absolutely battling something right now that I can relate to, that [Jon] Lester can relate to,” Heyward said, referring to teammate Jon Lester, who struggled early in the first season of his $155 million Cubs contract. “At the same time, as baseball players, we all can relate. We’ve just got to help him get through.”
Darvish, a four-time All-Star, is on the 10-day DL this time with triceps inflammation. He’s had everything from his focus to his fortitude criticized by a fan base waiting for him to get on the kind of roll his exceptional repertoire — and big contract — promise.
Both Heyward and Lester discussed how human nature sometimes overtakes a lifetime of success and routine when a player signs a mega-deal with a new team.
“I can’t get inside his head and figure out what’s going on and how he’s feeling,” said Lester, mentioning the cultural and language issues that might be making things even tougher for Darvish. “It’s hard. Some people handle it differently. Hopefully he feels comfortable here. Hopefully that’s not an issue.
“I think every time you sign with a new team with a contract like his or mine, or even a smaller deal, you put pressure on yourself to do more than you’re capable of sometimes.”
That desire to do extra for the new organization and teammates can make the game “speed up on you,” Heyward said.
“With this organization, with the team history, where we play at Wrigley, and obviously add the contract into it, it can speed things up really quickly,” he said. “And you forget to slow down and just be in the moment.”
Then there’s the fishbowl of being a Cub, which Heyward calls “the nature of the beast.”
“Whatever we do, something small or big, it’s news,” he said. “And it’s not really news.”
So, what does Darvish do to push through whatever angst he might be experiencing and rediscover his comfort zone — if not his All-Star form?
Heyward and Lester say teammates will continue to support and embrace him. But, Heyward added, he’s also going to have to find his own way to tune out the outside noise while continuing to deal with media from two countries — and with two ugly World Series starts still hanging as a backdrop to this year’s struggles.
“What he’s trying to do is not easy,” Heyward said. “But as far as if he feels like Chicago hates him or whatever, he’s allowed to feel that way. If he’s had enough things come his way, he’s allowed to feel that way.
“I’ve had enough things come my way. I just try to handle it one day at a time.”