Earlier today, Jason Heyward did something that I've done before. It's probably something you've done before. He took a new job.
I hesitate to say that Heyward "left his job", since he was not under contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, but even if I were to go that far: I've left jobs for new jobs before. And the reasons that Jason Heyward opted to sign with the Chicago Cubs rather than the Cardinals, or the Washington Nationals for that matter, are not entirely clear. Perhaps it was the opportunity to opt out of his contract in three years to re-test the free agent waters; perhaps it was the chance to be a star player leading the Cubs to its first World Series title in over a century, making him an even more marketable star in the town that turned Michael Jordan into one of the world's biggest brand names. Perhaps he just really likes putting entire salads on hot dogs.
I straight left old jobs for the money. And I have no problem if that's why Heyward signed with the Cubs.
The concept of "player loyalty" is a somewhat nebulous one. But perhaps the best way to understand the motivations for any given free agent is to examine his specific situation.
Jason Heyward was born in New Jersey, but from a very early age was raised in Metropolitan Atlanta. He attended Henry County High School in McDonough, GA, about 40 minutes away from Turner Field. Heyward, whose parents are Dartmouth graduates, had signed a National Letter of Intent to play college baseball at UCLA, but was convinced to instead sign with his hometown Atlanta Braves. He shot through the system, arriving in the Majors in 2010 amidst tremendous hype (his first MLB manager, Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, compared Heyward to Hank Aaron).
Heyward was immediately a terrific player. He may not have been Hank Aaron, but he was certainly a valuable part of the Braves. Per Baseball Reference, he was worth 14.7 wins above replacement in his first three seasons, 2010-2012. During those three seasons, he was paid a combined $1,461,500. In 2013, his Braves teammate Dan Uggla was worth -1.1 wins above replacement and he was paid $13 million.
This is the nature of the business of baseball: players earn very little relative to the marginal revenue they produce during their first three seasons in MLB, and they earn more, though an artificially low amount since players still lack any real negotiating power, in their next three seasons.
While Heyward started making seven-figure salaries in 2013 and 2014, he was not a free agent. He was under the team's control and had no real say, short of an empty threat to retire from baseball, in how much he earned. He did sign an extension in early 2014, but at far below the amount he could have garnered on the open market--the choice was take an upfront $13.3 million for two years or be at the mercy of the salary arbitration system. Additionally, Heyward had no say in November 2014, when his hometown Atlanta Braves, the club for whom he had foregone a full-ride scholarship to UCLA, traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals.
According to Fangraphs, during his first six seasons, Jason Heyward was "worth" $198.1 million. Admittedly, I've never felt entirely comfortable with trusting these dollars-per-WAR approximations as gospel. But his total salary for those six years was just over $17 million. I do feel comfortable in saying he was worth more than that. But the system, as collectively bargained by the Major League Baseball Players Association, allows this to happen. Whether it's right or wrong, it is what it is--in exchange for free agency after Year Six, teams get a discount before that point. After Year Six is when players are able to earn the money that the massive increases in MLB revenue suggest they should have been earning all along.
And this is what Jason Heyward is doing. For the first time since he chose to sign with his hometown Braves in 2007, Heyward had a real option regarding where he would play baseball and he chose to bet on himself and on the continued growth of Major League Baseball. In the worst case scenario, Jason Heyward will make $184 million dollars over the next eight years, and that's only if baseball revenues flatline and he is unable to re-negotiate in three years. Good for him. I don't blame him for a second.
I'll spare you the links. I'm sure you know the story by now: Cardinals fans post awful things on social media, Twitter-Account-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named goes on a retweet spree, national baseball media picks up on the phenomenon. And, well, it happened today. You can find the highlights with minimal effort if you so choose to do so.
Cardinals fans, most of whom did not participate in this barrage of ugly vitriol directed quite personally at Jason Heyward, are often quick to become defensive and point out that not all Cardinals fans use social media to spread racist, homophobic, and other downright hateful messages. And while this is absolutely true, and I suspect that a fair number of the tweet compilations are designed solely as clickbait trolling (Deadspin named their piece, which is mostly just re-posting the leg work done by the previously referenced Twitter account, "Bad St. Louis Cardinals Fans Assail Rent-A-Player For Leaving For Real City"), this doesn't excuse the awful behavior that does happen. And this behavior seems to derive from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role athletes have in our lives.
What reason does Jason Heyward have to be loyal to St. Louis? He did not walk out on a contract. He was, unilaterally, traded from his hometown team to a city eight hours away with which he had no discernible connection. And he handled it perfectly. He said all the right things, he played superbly, and he did it all with a big smile on his face.
I grew up about twenty minutes away from Busch Stadium and my wildest dream was to win a World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was an impossible dream (unless you're David Freese, of course). It's not because I believe the Cardinals have an inherently superior organization. It's not even because I believe St. Louis fans are particularly special, at least no moreso than any other fan base. It's because I grew up here. It's because I rooted for the Cardinals as a child and continued to do so into adulthood. It was my dream, and it was the dream of many people reading this, but it isn't the dream of everybody. It wasn't the dream of Jason Heyward. And that's fine. Had he been born where I was born, it would have been.
The anger towards Heyward hearkens back to the anger when Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But in neither case did either player do anything disingenuous. Each played his heart out while with the Cardinals. Each was a bargain with the Cardinals (Pujols made around $104 million in St. Louis; Fangraphs does not give an estimate for his rookie season but from 2002-2011, it estimates he was worth $392.2 million). And each left amidst a barrage of fans insisting that he was disloyal.
I attended a game in 2015 at Busch Stadium in which Kyle Lohse came in as a pinch-runner for the Milwaukee Brewers. Lohse, as most of you I'm sure remember, left the Cardinals under somewhat similar circumstances to Heyward: he had one of his best seasons, the Cardinals gave him a qualifying offer which was declined, and he signed with a division rival. Kyle Lohse got a raucous ovation. It's a bit more apples-to-oranges, but I also attended a game against the Colorado Rockies in which Daniel Descalso did not play, and there was audible consternation among some at the stadium that the former Cardinals utility infielder would not make an appearance.
The key difference between Heyward and Lohse/Descalso is simple: the Cardinals, and their fans by and large, really wanted Jason Heyward back. The Lohse qualifying offer was essentially made as a move to obtain a first-round pick; the club and its fans were excited about Shelby Miller in the rotation, and in order for that to happen, somebody had to leave. Descalso was outright released. There were no illusions after 2013 that the Cardinals would bring back Carlos Beltran, to whom they also extended a qualifying offer while desiring to give Matt Adams more playing time, and I suspect that he will receive a warm reception if he ever plays in another game in St. Louis.
And that's where the concept of loyalty ends with fans. There is a persistent desire among fans that players be "loyal" to the team, but once the team no longer has a specific role for the player, the team needs not be loyal to the player. We expect players to be docile and subservient, to act not as actual people but as what their stats say they are. And that's fine in an abstract way, but we cannot reasonably expect the actual people who compile these stat sheets to not act as people. I know I've never reached a point where I wouldn't want to make more money if I had the chance. I'll be sure to let you know when I reach that point.
I understand being mad at the Cardinals for not offering more money, although the structure of the contract makes it not seem like quite as much of a no-brainer to match as it initially did. I understand being mad that the Cardinals received one (albeit very good) year of Jason Heyward for Shelby Miller while the Arizona Diamondbacks gave the Atlanta Braves Tucson. I understand being mad that the Cardinals already missed out on David Price, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and whichever other free agents on whom you had your eye but were willing to forego if it meant a foreseeable future which included one of the best young players in baseball in right field at Busch Stadium.
I don't understand being mad at Jason Heyward.