At the time, back when this compilation of some of his best moments at Bonanza High in Las Vegas was made, he was serious. “Totally,” he said last week. But baseball, you may have heard, is working out for Bryant – on the field, at least. It is the off-the-field stuff that is causing all the problems, a sideshow that could drive one to dentistry. Not personal issues, because Bryant is the kind of kid who buys his old high school team uniforms, who when he was a senior and earned the right to be his class’s salutatorian instead gave the spot to another student to whom he thought it would mean more.
No, Bryant’s problem is business. His major at the University of San Diego was just that. “I’m definitely learning a lot of things putting my degree to work,” he said.
All this makes Bryant, with very little debate, the most intriguing character in a spring full of storylines, and he serves as the stimulus for what’s so rare for his franchise, a real sense of anticipation and possibility.
Bryant belongs to the Chicago Cubs. Sunday night, that team, without a World Series title since 1908, opens its season under the lights of Wrigley Field and the eyes of a national television audience against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.
And at that moment, Kris Bryant might as well be a dentist. He won’t be in uniform, won’t be on television, won’t be able to influence the outcome of the first of 162 games. Rather, he’ll be preparing for the start of his season with the Iowa Cubs of the Pacific Coast League five days hence.
“It really is a weird situation I’m in,” Bryant said. “Growing up, I was watching TV, and I’m like, ‘Those are the best 25 players out there.’ And if my organization sees me as a top 25 guy, then I’d love to be playing in Wrigley Field.”
The situation is complicated, the circumstances maddening for all sides. In his 14 official Cactus League games this spring, Bryant hit nine homers, more than anyone across baseball, and dialed up a .425 average, a 1.175 slugging percentage and an ungodly 1.652 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He wasn’t just one of the best 25 players in the Cubs’ organization. He was the best player in the game.
Yet Monday, less than a week before the opener, the Cubs did what they indicated they would do all along – sent Bryant to the minors. One factor: The baseball season spans 183 days. But a player receives credit for a full year of service time by being on a major league roster for 172 of those days. Six years of service time leads to free agency.
So the question becomes this: Is it better for the Cubs and their fans to have Bryant at Wrigley Field Sunday night and then potentially lose him to free agency following the 2020 season? Or is it better to send him to Iowa for a couple weeks – or maybe even just 11 days, during which the Cubs play only nine games – and make sure he’s still a Cub in 2021?
“Everybody has to go through it if your team wants you to stay another year,” said Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, a similar phenom who played against Bryant growing up in Las Vegas. “I respect it. If I was the owner, I’d do the same thing. But do you like it? No. Do I think he should be in the big leagues Day One? Absolutely.”
The Cubs, who have been harshly criticized by Scott Boras, Bryant’s agent, are adamant this is a development issue. Team president Theo Epstein points out that in more than a dozen years running teams in Boston and Chicago, he has never brought up a rookie at the beginning of the season. “It is always the presumptive move for us with young players who haven’t played in the big leagues yet,” he told reporters the day Bryant was sent down.
Bryant, 23, has no control over any of it. Yet nearly every day this spring, he had to deal with the questions about how he was being handled.
“What I always do is put myself in the guy’s shoes,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “What was my brain like at that age? What was I capable of handling at that age? He’s got me beat so much. … It’s not easy. There’s so many things coming at you from so many directions. I think he’s done a wonderful job.”
This surprises those who knew Bryant in his pre-prospect days not one bit. Bryant was a straight-A student who dated the same girl all four years at Bonanza. When Derek Stafford was the head baseball coach there, he began coaching third base during Bryant’s senior year just so he could get a better look at Bryant’s swing, at his homers. He hit 47 over his four years, which seems like a modest total until you consider the left-field fence is 10-feet high, the right-field fence stands 11 feet, the center-field fence is 408 feet away from the plate, the gaps out to 370.
“Any other high school field,” Stafford said, “he would have hit 105.”
Bryant could have been a first-round selection in the 2010 draft, but as he said, “Education was always important to my family.” So as he and his parents met with scouts prior to the draft, they made clear Kris’s intentions. When San Diego Coach Rich Hill came for a visit when Kris was a senior – two years after he had committed to USD – he knew there were 30 scouts at every one of Kris’s games. He knew what the pull could be. Yet Susie Bryant sat across the table from him and said of her son, “Kris is going to college. End of story.”
“If the money wasn’t life-changing money, then I believed in my skills and I believed in Coach Hill at USD and I believed that I’d go there and get better,” said Bryant, who dropped to the 18th round that year. “It really was a tough decision, because you can’t really see the future. But … I had a really good career at USD. Honestly, they were the best three years of my life.”
In those three years at San Diego, he moved from shortstop to third base, hit .353 with a 1.188 OPS and 54 homers in 638 at-bats. He developed into the second choice in the 2013 draft behind only Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, who went to Houston. But he also bought into Hill’s somewhat unorthodox program – doing yoga and breathing exercises, meeting with a sports psychologist, “trying to get our minds right as well as our bodies,” Hill said. Bryant believes that has helped him deal with his current situation.
“It was all about staying in the present moment, not thinking about the future,” Bryant said.
The present moment, then, isn’t at Wrigley Field against the Cardinals. It will be in Memphis Thursday against the Redbirds. Never mind that in two minor-league seasons, which concluded with 70 games at Class AAA last summer, he has 52 homers in 620 at-bats with a 1.094 OPS. Once he arrives in the minors, he’ll be focused on the minors.
“We have a term here in our culture: ‘Where my feet are, I’m here,’” Hill said, and he texts Bryant reminders all the time. “I’m going to immerse myself in this moment and kick open the door to wherever I am. Whatever uniform I put on, I’m going to be great.”
The expectation is he’ll be great for the Iowa Cubs, and before long – be it because of business or development – he’ll be great for the Chicago version. Keep in mind the electricity that will be at Wrigley Sunday night: Jon Lester vs. Adam Wainwright; Maddon new to the home dugout; Jason Heyward new to the Cardinals’ outfield; the Cubs filled with hope because Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler are all 25 or younger, and there’s more help on the way.
To be a part of that?
“I’d love to,” Bryant said. That’s as far as he’ll go.
“He’s not going to say anything stupid, not because it’s bad for who he is business-wise, but that’s just who he is,” said Satfford, his high school coach. “It’s true, man. He’s 10 times the person that he is a player. Kris probably would’ve made a million bucks being a dentist. He would’ve found a way to do that by 25. He doesn’t need baseball.”
At some point, though, the Cubs will need him. It won’t be Sunday night. But check back 11 days later.
Staff writer James Wagner contributed to this report from Viera, Fla.