MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant won’t be blowing kisses at pitchers. It’s hard to picture him growing a Mohawk or smearing his face with eye black like an NFL linebacker.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Bryant played with Bryce Harper, years before the Washington Nationals star made the Sports Illustrated cover as “Baseball’s Chosen One” at age 16. It won’t be this year. And it will be more about substance than style. But the Cubs think Bryant can have the same kind of impact on their franchise.
“He took a different path,” Bryant said. “I took my own path. And hopefully we end up in the same place.”
In front of 13,440 fans, Bryant lifted a ball to right field that just kept carrying on Friday afternoon at Cubs Park. Cleveland Indians outfielder Ryan Raburn chased it, smacked into the wall and dropped to the ground as it disappeared onto the berm in the second inning. Raburn would leave the game with a left knee contusion, and Bryant’s two-run shot off Carlos Carrasco would be the highlight in a 7-2 loss.
“Blessed with power” is how Bryant had put it in an aw-shucks interview after homering in his first Cactus League at-bat last week. But it’s been a carefully calculated plan to get to this point at age 22 – No. 2 overall pick last year, Arizona Fall League MVP and now Baseball America’s No. 8 overall prospect.
The Boston Red Sox had selected Bryant’s father, Mike, in the ninth round of the 1980 draft out of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, allowing the chance to work with Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Bryant’s mother, Susie, had family in Acton, Mass., that moved to Las Vegas for business opportunities.
Bryant’s father – who now works as a sales manager for a chemical manufacturing company – had owned a furniture store there until the son got to be about five years old and the family built a batting cage in the backyard.
“He sold the business to focus on coaching me,” Bryant said. “There’s no way he could have gone to my games. If he didn’t sell the store, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, just because he put so much time into throwing to me in the cage and coming to all my games.”
During his first trip to Wrigley Field last August, Harper predicted Cubs fans will like the way Bryant plays the game. Harper also described Bryant as a quiet guy who won’t say too much.
Good scouting report?
“Yeah, that’s a great scouting report, actually,” Bryant said. “That’s how I try to go about things, not really getting too high or too low on myself. Just trying to go out there even keel and with a smile on my face.
“Baseball’s a funny game. You come to the ballpark and all your worries in the world are gone. If I could do something on the field to help someone in their life, then I’ve accomplished more than I could ask for.”
Wrigley Field is a place that chews people up and spits them out. It won’t be easy for Bryant to maintain that sense of innocence inside the fishbowl. Baseball can be an escape, but it’s still a job. Cubs fans and the Chicago media will be watching to see how he grows into it.
“I think Derek Jeter said it perfectly with his retirement line when he said baseball started to feel more like a job,” Bryant said. “I know every guy in this room plays the game because they love it, because they have fun doing it. It beats sitting in an office all day.
“What (Jeter) said was perfect. You can’t have this game feel like a job, because then you’re going crazy. This game is built around failure and you’re always struggling out there. The best fail 70 percent of the time, in terms of the offensive side. So you just got to go out there with a new attitude every day. You never know what can happen.”
These answers give you a sense of why Cubs officials love Bryant’s makeup, why they felt so comfortable drafting him out of the University of San Diego – where he was invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship – and giving him a $6.7 million signing bonus.
The Cubs believe Bryant has enough athleticism, flexibility and determination to continue playing third base, while also recognizing there’s so much natural power to eventually move to a corner-outfield spot if his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame outgrows the position.
The Cubs had Bryant on their radar in 2010, when the Bonanza High School student with the 4.78 GPA signaled he would want first-round money to even consider skipping college. He fell all the way to the 18th round, but didn’t sign with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I think what scared a lot of teams away that first go-round in the draft was the fact that I was such a good student,” Bryant said. “I was brought up in a family where education was very important.
“I understand when you’re looking at a guy that high, you want to make sure they’re gonna sign. Because a lot of these teams build their talent through the farm system. I understood it back then and it gave me a good grasp on how the business side of baseball works. Things worked out for the better.”
Harper – who’s also represented by agent Scott Boras – earned his GED in two years at Las Vegas High School and went to the Nationals at No. 1 overall in 2010. Harper is already a two-time All-Star for a World Series contender.
Bryant’s slower and steady path is about to accelerate after winning the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy, and putting up nine homers and a 1.078 OPS in 36 games at three different minor-league affiliates last year.
Bryant’s living in Arizona with Cubs prospects Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach during spring training and playing board games at night. Bryant’s expected to begin this season at Double-A Tennessee, with playing at Wrigley Field a realistic goal for 2015.
Out of Las Vegas, the Cubs see a smiling face of the franchise, a mature student of the game and maybe the safest bet in the entire organization.