When Game 7 of the 2016 World Series went to a rain delay in Cleveland, after the Chicago Cubs, trying to end their 108-year championship drought, had let the lead slip away on Rajai Davis’ tying homer, they needed to pick up the pieces and figure out how to mentally get back into things for extra innings.
It was outfielder Jason Heyward who delivered the big speech.
“I told them I love them,” Heyward said. “I told them I love them and I’m really proud of the way they overcame everything together — the way we overcame. I told them everybody has to look in the mirror, and everybody that looks in the mirror in that room, and that was all of us, every player, everybody contributed to this season and where we are to this point. I said I don’t know what’s going to happen, how we’re going to do it, but let’s go out and try to get a W, and remember you guys are good.”
The Cubs scored two runs in the 10th inning to win the World Series.
Tuesday night, Heyward decided not to play amid a growing strike for racial justice by athletes that started in basketball, and then spread to several baseball teams, with the Brewers-Reds, Mariners-Padres, and Dodgers-Giants games called off. After a discussion with Cubs manager David Ross, who played for Chicago in that historic Game 7, Heyward was announced as a “healthy scratch,” but he reportedly encouraged the rest of the team to play without him. Heyward is the only Black position player on the Cubs, who have two Black relief pitchers, Jeremy Jeffress and Duane Underwood Jr.
This was a moment for the rest of the Cubs players, especially for the holdovers from 2016, like Tuesday’s starter Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, to again look in the mirror, and to understand that even if Heyward was saying they should play on, they needed to stand with him. They needed to have his back. They needed to step up and say, no, you’re our teammate and our friend, and in this moment, we are going to stand right alongside you in something that’s bigger than baseball because to be silent now is to be complicit in this system.
The Cubs failed that test. Unfortunately, that’s not really surprising. Lester, after all, was right behind Donald Trump in the Oval Office when the Cubs visited the White House in 2017, a return visit, as they’d already celebrated their title with Barack Obama. Why did the Cubs go back to see Trump? Because the owning Ricketts family is all-in with the Republican Party, and especially Trump.
Well, the Ricketts own the team, so what can they do, right? Let the WNBA answer that question, because players in that league have rallied hard against the re-election of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler to the Senate, specifically in response to her opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Shit doesn’t change,” Rizzo said. “And it’s just the fact of the matter. Politicians really don’t give a fuck about us. All they care about is their own agenda. This is just the way it is and it’s upsetting. I’m sorry to use that language and go off. It’s upsetting.”
Those words, expletives and all, ring incredibly hollow from a man who chose to do nothing. It doesn’t matter that Heyward was reportedly “adamant” that the Cubs play on without him. That was him trying to be a good teammate within the system, and they owed it to him to be just as adamant in acknowledging that this is a moment bigger than baseball. That’s what happened with the Dodgers, as Mookie Betts reached out to Heyward before deciding he would join the strike, and Clayton Kershaw, the scheduled starter for the Dodgers, said, “Once Mookie said he wasn’t going to play, that started a conversation. ... We made a collective decision not to play tonight.”
That’s not what happened with Rizzo and the rest of the Cubs, nor in Phoenix, where Matt Kemp sat out for Colorado, and although the Rockies announced their support, the other players didn’t even so much as discuss joining the protest.
The Cubs are a lot more secure in their jobs than WNBA players, but not a single one of them had the courage to stand with Heyward, the man who had inspired them to a championship, as he protested in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just 50 miles north of Chicago.
By playing on Tuesday night, by failing to rise to the occasion as teammates and human beings, the Cubs players failed.
And they’ll have to think about that every day forward, whenever they look in the mirror.