Former Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward and attended a ribbon cutting Thursday for the North Austin Center, a 10-acre campus for education, sports and wellness on Chicago’s West Side.
The Jason Heyward Baseball Academy has a major-league sized infield and will provide sports training and leadership development programs for players of all ages and skill levels.
The $35 million dollar facility, which was announced in 2021, is a first-of-its-kind professional-level facility featuring Chicago’s largest indoor turf field — Chicago Fire FC Field. In addition to the indoor field, the 150,000-square foot space houses classrooms, an auditorium and two full size basketball courts. The goal of the year-round facility is to close the opportunity gap that persists in youth sports.
Heyward, who was released by the Cubs after the 2022 season and inked a minor-league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, said he plans to come to the center to work out and hang out with the kids. He also recognizes the impact on the community could continue for generations.
“I spent my time here as an athlete in this city being able to be rooted on by a lot of people, that’s always going to come to an end. That’s the playing side of the game,” he said. “This will always be here. There will always be new kids, There will always be new families. And to me that’s something that’s always gonna be passed along.”
The site is the sixth after-school site for By The Hand Club For Kids, with Grace and Peace Church hosting community outreach programs as well. Intentional Sports will offer athletic programming as well as competitive training, leadership development and other services.
The at 1841 N. Laramie sits on a lot that was empty for 40 years after previously housing a paint facility. The land, which was developed in part through $3.5 million in grants from the state, was considered toxic and an eyesore for the historically under-resourced community.
In a news conference that included a ribbon-cutting, members of the Austin community and leaders spoke of the importance of the new community center to the neighborhood. Sam Acho, an ESPN commentator and nine-year NFL veteran, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Alderman Emma Mitts (37th ward), and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were in attendance.
According to Andy McDermott of Intentional Sports, Heyward was more than just a donor who wrote a check.
“He is hands-on. Austin, my number two and I, we probably talk to him once a week. And even with him switching jobs, he’s still involved. He’s a text away.”
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McDermott said Heyward be involved in hiring coaches for the program. He believes Heyward’s active participation will also be useful when it comes to the curriculum, as well as hosting tournaments or travel baseball clubs.
In recent years, some focus has been directed toward the decreased number of Black players in Major League Baseball. Heyward sees the academy as a way to not only introduce youth to baseball, but hopes it will have an impact on the number of Black players who could have a futures the league. He recalled his parents having to drive him to different places for tutoring, workouts, doctors, and physical therapy growing up, noting the academy will house much of what young players need under one roof.
“You’ve seen someone like myself with a 14-year career, there’s experience to share, there’s knowledge to be gained on my part but also to pass along, just to show people that it’s attainable. That’s a part of being a solution,” Heyward said.
Lightfoot said Heyward is “Chicago through and through.” And even though he’ll be playing in Los Angeles, Heyward still plans to still make Chicago home with his wife Vedrana and their 10-month-old son Messi.
The North Austin community center will become a part of Heyward’s legacy in Chicago.
“To be honest, it still feels like a dream that I’m still making this home. My wife being from here, my son being born here, this is our neighborhood,” Heyward said.
“I will have something to come to, where I can work out and we can see other kids working out. It’s huge for me to continue to make it better. I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough … Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, and hopefully now on in L.A. to have a big impact on all those communities and leave something better than I found it. And to me, that’s something that’s gonna last forever.”