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How the Cubs saved Jason Heyward from the wrath of Chicago fans

MESA, Ariz. — Jason Heyward is the luckiest man on earth.

Wait, what? The guy who hit .230 and had only seven home runs last season? The guy who fought himself all year, in a cage built for one? The guy who looked as miserable as a cat swimming laps? That guy? Lucky?

Yeah, that guy.

It could have been so much worse. Chicago sports fans generally do not react well to big-ticket free agents who come to town and struggle. And by “generally do not react well,’’ I mean “specifically will boo you until your eardrums explode.’’

Jason Heyward is introduced at the Cubs Convention last month. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Todd Hundley comes to mind. He signed with the Cubs before the 2001 season for big money and proceeded to hit .187 and .211, respectively, in his two years in Chicago. If there has been a more booed free-agent signee, I don’t know who it would be. Ben Wallace or Eddie Robinson for the Bulls? Adam Dunn for the White Sox? OK, maybe Dunn.

But Heyward and his $21.7 million salary escaped the city’s wrath. He had two things going for him, one huge, the other medium-sized.

The first, and actually the only thing that really matters, is that the Cubs won the World Series. They were great all season, and no matter how bad Heyward was at the plate, his problems were like a bit of gristle on a sirloin. It was still a sirloin.

The other, lesser element is that he played a terrific right field, winning his third consecutive Gold Glove. In a world awash in offensive statistics, fans still appreciated his defensive excellence.

So if there was grumbling among the faithful at Wrigley Field, that’s all it was. It wasn’t weapons-grade stuff.

“Honestly, man, it’s tough to beat our fans in sports across the world,’’ Heyward said. “It just makes it really fun. It makes you appreciate it. There’s a lot of genuine people and a lot of genuine emotions and feelings in it. It’s tough to beat that.’’

He topped it all off with a rain-delay speech to teammates during the 10th inning of Game 7, a stirring call to arms that has been credited with helping the Cubs settle down and win the World Series. He will forever be part of franchise lore because of it, which plays into the whole charmed-life theme. This is a guy who hit .083 in the National League Division Series, .063 in the NLCS and .150 in the World Series.

Manager Joe Maddon said the speech was an inspiration for one of his themes for the 2017 season, “Don’t Forget the Heartbeat.’’ Maddon’s tribute didn’t seem to do much for Heyward’s pulse last week.

“I don’t know what a heartbeat had to do with any . . . he got a slogan,’’ the right fielder said. “That’s what he does. He’s on it because he’s able to think outside the box.’’

Now, about that hitting. Heyward has been working on it almost since the season ended, hoping to get back to what he was most of the time in St. Louis and Atlanta before bottoming out offensively in Chicago.

He didn’t start all over again. He went back to 2012, when he hit .269 for the Braves and had career highs in home runs (27) and runs batted in (82). When he, hitting coach John Mallee and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske watched tape from that season, they saw a much more relaxed Heyward at the plate. He didn’t have to think about where his hands were at the plate or what his legs were doing. He just swung.

“I did a good job in getting myself in a good position to hit,’’ he said. “That’s the name of hitting, being in a good position to hit. Give yourself an opportunity. Give yourself room for error. That’s all we worked on, just being in a good position to hit, being tension-free, relaxed up there. . . . There’s no perfect swing. When the pitcher makes their pitch, they make their pitch. It’s just about giving yourself an opportunity to do some damage.’’

So, everything’s going to be fine? We’ll see the Heyward who was good for five of his seven seasons, not the Heyward who struggled last season and in his second year in the big leagues, when he hit .227? Well, not necessarily. But he said paying attention to detail and making adjustments can be an indicator of future success.

“That’s a never-ending process in baseball, especially in hitting,’’ he said. “A never-ending process. I’m not sitting here telling you, oh, I know for sure what’s going to happen or I don’t. Don’t know how it’s going to go, but I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it.’’

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Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com