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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Cubs: 'Have fun, work smart'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

Before front-line big-leaguers Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber helped the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series Championship, they were front-line amateur players on the Perfect Game tournament and showcase circuit.

Before they became World Series champions with the Cubs, Heyward, Bryant, Rizzo, Russell and Baez performed at the Perfect Game National Showcase the summer before their senior year in high school; Heyward, Bryant, Russell, Baez and Fowler went on to play in the prestigious PG All-American Classic. In the world of showcase baseball, the PG National and PG All-American Classic provide two of the grandest stages for high school-aged prospects.

It took immeasurable amounts of determination, discipline and dedication – not to mention a heavy dose of inherent talent and skill – for those players to walk out on those stages. It required the development and maintenance of a strong work ethic at a young age that each one of them was able to hold on to as they established themselves as MLB All-Star – and in the case of Bryant, NL Rookie of the Year and NL Most Valuable Player – level talents.

Before Joe Maddon completed a four-year minor league career (1976-79) and began what has grown into a successful 13-year MLB managerial career – including 11 straight (2006-16) with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cubs – he was a tireless advocate of the amateur baseball scene.

He knew, of course, that even the greatest Hall-of-Famer or current shining star got his start playing in backyards and street-corner sandlots, and/or in various kids’ leagues sprinkled across the country.

 “You need to develop a routine; a routine that’s successful for you,” Maddon told PG when asked what he tells young players who are working on making themselves better ballplayers. The conversation took place at the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz. in mid-March.

“The routine doesn’t have to be (spending) an inordinate amount of time in a batting cage or a situation where … you’re watching video tape of yourself,” he said.

Maddon feels it’s important for young ballplayers to work “smartly” in the limited amount of time they might have when they’re not playing in games. He sees too many young position players spending too much time working on their hitting – and, of course, that’s important – without spending quality time working on their defensive or throwing or running skills.

“There are so many things, I think, that can become negatives as opposed to positives when you do something too often,” he said. “So, find your routine, stay with your routine, be flexible and be willing to change or adapt, but don’t get to the point where it become no fun and you just grind yourself into the ground.”

The now 27-year-old Heyward played in 11 PG WWBA tournaments with Guerry Baldwin and East Cobb (Ga.) Baseball during his years at Henry County (Ga.) High School (2004-07) and found his travel ball experiences to be not only beneficial in the way it helped him develop his game, but also enlightening in the way it helped him develop relationships with his peers.

“The best way I can describe it is that it was just really genuine,” he told PG during a conversation separate from the one with Maddon. “You just loved the game of baseball, obviously, and you just wanted to see where it was going to take you next – what team are you going to play against next, what stadium you might get to play in, what state you might get to travel to, what kind of road trip you’re going to have.

“That was the beginning of it (starting to) settle in, where you want it to be your job and it could be a reality if you work this hard and have that much fun doing it.”

Heyward also took part in five PG showcases during his high school years, starting with the 2004 PG Underclass National Showcase when he was 14 years old. He was back at the PG Underclass National in 2005 before graduating to the 2006 PG National Showcase, held that year in Fayetteville, Ark.

“Getting started at 14 years old at different Perfect Game events, that was the eye-opener, I feel like, at the beginning of high school,” he said. “You’re a young player and you want to play baseball just like everyone else (who is) there does. You’re just having fun, but you really get to see the other guys with the tools and the talent that they have.”

The PG National experience was especially eye-opening for the 16-year-old out of McDonough, Ga. Heyward was awed by what he saw around him during the event’s three-day run, whether it was future first-round draft pick Michael Main delivering a 99-mph fastball or someone hitting a monster home run, or making a great play in the field or on the base-paths.

Every day, it seemed, he was having his head turned by what another top prospect was doing out on the field. With the benefit of hindsight, nothing Heyward saw during his stay in Fayetteville should have surprised him in the least.

Twenty-eight prospects in attendance at the 2006 PG National Showcase have made their major-league debuts, a number that includes Heyward’s Cubs teammate Rizzo and other notables such as Madison Bumgarner, Rick Porcello, Matt Harvey, Freddie Freeman and D.J. LaMahieu.

Many of the players that were at the 2006 PG National Showcase joined Heyward at the 2006 PG All-American Classic, played that year at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the San Diego State University campus. Heyward firmly believes his experiences at the PG National – and ultimately, the PG A-A Classic – helped him realize he might one day be able to collect a handsome paycheck playing this game.

“It’s a great experience to have as a kid growing up playing your sport, doing something you say you love and you want to take a shot at doing for a living,” he said. “Just to go out there and see other players get that exposure and getting comfortable being on that (big) stage, so to speak. … That was the closest that we had to the big leagues at the time, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to make it (to the majors) so why not live it up.”

It’s easy to understand why today’s baseball fans might have the impression that the stars of today keep getting younger and younger every year, and there’s some truth to that.

Only one of the eight position-player starters on the 2016 American League All-Star Team was older than 26 years old – 40-year-old David Ortiz – while five of the eight starters on the NL squad were 29 or younger. That number on the NL side included the Cubs’ 22-year-old Russell, 24-year-old Bryant and 26-year-old Rizzo and the Nationals’ 23-year-old Bryce Harper (2009 PG A-A Classic).

Maddon feels like it’s a matter of perspective: “I don’t know that it’s necessarily different (from past generations), I just think that it’s more publicized right now,” he said. “But there is this really wonderful group of young players and it’s necessary to really attract the young fan into our game.”

During their separate conversations with PG, both Maddon and Heyward acknowledged the important role parents need to play in their child’s development as both ballplayers and responsible young adults, with an emphasis on the latter. Parenting can be the ultimate high-wire act at times, and maintaining a perfect balance often proves to be impossible. But, in Maddon’s view, there is a very discernable line that shouldn’t be crossed.

“I get upset when I see parents that don’t make it fun, that do become too oppressive or hard with the kid …,” the Cubs’ skipper said. “The kid needs to be accountable for his actions and how’s he playing – I get that – but at the end of the day make it fun and make sure you’re supportive and supportive in the right way. I don’t understand anger as a teaching tool. I don’t get it; I’ve never gotten it.”

Using his own upbringing to provide a solid frame of reference, Heyward also has some words of wisdom to share with all the parents out there that are hoping their sons can one day put everything together and play baseball professionally.

His parents, Eugene and Laura Heyward, both received Ivy League educations at Dartmouth and were able to provide the guidance necessary for Jason and his younger brother Jacob Heyward – now a San Francisco Giants farmhand by way of the University of Miami – to succeed.

“My dad would ask me every year if I wanted to keep playing baseball,” Jason recalled. “He asked me one time when I was 16 … and I looked at him across the car and I was like, ‘If you ask me one more time, we’re going to fight; I’m in, I want to do this, let’s just keep going.’ He said, all right, but he just wanted to check because he wanted to make sure that I loved the game still and that I was having fun.

“That’s the biggest thing with parents,” he continued. “Make sure your kids are having fun, make sure that’s where they want to be and be there to support them even when they want to be a kid. … Baseball is a game – now it’s my job and I love my job – and make sure they have fun along the way.”

Jason Heyward is one of 938 alumni of Perfect Game events that continued to show the determination, discipline and dedication necessary to keep climbing the ladder all the way to the major leagues. His participation in PG events is not the reason why the three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner has played in the big leagues for seven seasons, but those experiences gave him the confidence – that sense of self-worth – that he tries to convey to today’s amateur players.

“It’s a no-brainer to not ever feel like you can’t get better,” Heyward said. “Always feel like you can get better, always feel like you can learn, but at the same time you’re good for a reason and with each step you take remember what got you there.

“When you’re perfecting your craft … just remember what made you special – what you bring every day – and just try to be the best at that because that’s what’s going to take you the furthest in the game.”

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