Arizona, the afternoon before COVID-19 suspended spring training, knocked the wind out of baseball and blasted the world off its axis.
It was a time when trade rumors about a young superstar with MVP and Rookie of the Year awards on his resume could be a thing.
“You know what?” Kris Bryant’s father, Mike, said on that March day during a long conversation with B/R about his son’s future with the Chicago Cubs. “At first there was a level of concern. But really quickly you learn to realize, it’s part of the game.
“I want him to be a Chicago Cub forever. But how many people get to spend their career with just one team? There’s a point of acceptance.”
Six-and-a-half months later, another October looms in a vastly different time. Dodging the virus throughout this 60-game race during an abbreviated season, the Cubs are aiming for one more World Series title before economic and baseball forces conspire to break up the nucleus of one of the most iconic Wrigleyville groups ever. And as they do, there comes another point of acceptance.
Bryant’s summer was reduced to rubble by a steady, maddening trickle of injuries. Once on the fast track to bronze statues and immortality, Bryant posted a .206/.293/.351 slash line this year that’s the statistical equivalent of a human face flushed with embarrassment. His lack of pop is more befitting of former Cubs utility man Paul Popovich than that of a three-time All-Star. And that the Cubs as a group, while somehow continuing to win, suffered through their worst offensive season in Wrigley Field in franchise history is lost on nobody.
Bryant started the season 2-for-22 and has been playing catch-up ever since. He’s had a sore back, sore elbow, and a wrist and finger injury that knocked him onto the injured list in August. He missed two games while awaiting clearance under the COVID-19 protocols after doing the responsible thing and self-reporting symptoms.
He was a late scratch from another game with what was described as “gastrointestinal issues.”
And then in Pittsburgh on the final Monday night of the regular season, as if he hadn’t ripped through enough ice and Ace bandages this year, he felt his right oblique grab during a swing. He spent the next few days back in the trainer’s room instead of on the field. Finally, during the season’s last weekend, he returned to the lineup and walloped a grand slam Saturday and another homer on Sunday, driving in six runs in the biggest hint yet that, just maybe, he’s beginning to shed his season-long slump.
The North Star through all of this has been the flip of a single calendar page. October remains a clean slate, a blank canvas, his best hope for reprieve. Memories of the autumn of 2016 still bring enough smiles for Bryant to push through the grimaces and pain of today.
“It would be very easy to get down in the dumps,” he conceded after a game in mid-September. “A lot of us aren’t where we want to be, but there are a lot of good people around us, a lot of good people supporting us.
“Anytime you’re winning, it makes it sting a little less.”
The chase for another World Series title overrides the uncertainty and anxiety that remain constant companions in a year unlike any other. The daily battle is to keep the bad stuff at arm’s length while still finding joyor, moments that “sting a little less.”
Like everyone else, Bryant has had much more than just his job burdening his thoughts.
After seeing their run of four straight playoff appearances end last year, the Cubs bounced back to win the NL Central Division in the truncated 2020 season.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
On the day baseball suspended operations in March, Bryant said: “The most important thing is to keep us safe. I have a lot of family members who are older too. I’d love to keep them safe. And a lot of fans around the game this shows there are things bigger than the game.”
At the time, his wife, Jessica, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. She gave birth to a baby boy, Kyler Lee, on April 7. Originally, the Cubs should have been in Pittsburgh on that day. Instead, Bryant was home in Las Vegas with family in the midst of the shutdown.
When baseball resumed in July, like so many others, Bryant had mixed feelings. But while the Dodgers’ David Price, the Brewers’ Lorenzo Cain and the Giants’ Buster Posey, among others, opted out of the season, Bryant couldn’t imagine watching his good buddy Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and others work to author another chapter of their story without him.
“Can you imagine me opting out?” he asked on a videoconference call as the Cubs reconvened in July. “I just couldn’t do that. I’m going to do everything I can to be safe, healthy, lead by example, encourage people to do the right thing.
“But there’s a baseball season, and I want to be out there. I know I have a lot to worry about, and I still worry about going home and bringing it to my wife and my newborn. That’s scary to me.”
Or, as first-year manager David Ross said this month while addressing the Cubs’ uneven play in general: “The mental aspect of this season is something that I don’t think we talk about enough with what these guys are having to go through. Everybody.”
Kris Bryant cares. He always has. About his game, about his teammates and about the people around him.
True story: In high school, Bryant and a classmate tied for the honor of class valedictorian. The Bonanza High principal, according to Mike Bryant, planned to break the tie by having them write an essay. And in that instance, with a scholarship to the University of San Diego and a bright future ahead of him, Kris, unlike this season, did opt out.
“He told me: ‘You know what, Dad? I’m not going to write the essay. I’ve been blessed. I’ve got everything I need. Dad, let her have it.’
“Selfless. That’s Kris.”
As a rookie, Bryant willingly bounced from third base to left field to right field to center field to first base for the good of the team. He did it again in ’16 during the Cubs’ World Series run. Not every player would do that, especially not a bonus baby with Bryant’s pedigree.
But fans have short memories, and what a player does, or doesn’t do, today often overshadows what he did, no matter how glorious. As each day’s Cubs news seemed to drag with it a new nagging injury for Bryant over the summer, the vitriol in Chicago reached toxic levels, mostly repeating the varying lines of “Bryant is soft.”
Never mind that, despite two trips to the injured list, he played through a shoulder injury in 2018 that did what most opposing pitchers couldn’t: hold him to just 13 homers, 52 RBI and a slash line of .272/.374/.460.
Then he returned to All-Star status in 2019, and even with a knee injury that hampered him in the season’s second half, he still clubbed 31 homers with 77 RBI and batted .282/.382/.521.
He played in 147 or more games in four of his first five seasons before 2020.
Kris Bryant battled through an injury-filled 2019 season and still hit 31 homers and drove in 77 runs.Paul Beaty/Associated Press
Yet with free agency looming after the ’21 season and with the disappointing Cubs failing to make the playoffs last year, trade rumors swirled like sugar into cotton candy this past winter. They came in all shapes, sizes and colors.
“I definitely saw the trade rumors because we were one of the teams he was rumored to be getting traded to,” said Texas’ Joey Gallo, who, at 26, is two years younger than Bryant and has been friends with him going back to their days growing up in Las Vegas. “So that was definitely exciting.
“I was hoping I’d wake up one day and Kris Bryant got traded to the Texas Rangers.”
Instead, he remained a Cub. Then, as he flew from his Las Vegas home to Chicago for the Cubs Convention in January, he was felled by the flu. It was so severe that he U-turned and returned homewhich caused a backlash on social media ugly enough that his wife leapt to his defense, asking the utterly logical question: If Kris was faking, why would he have flown all the way to Chicago in the first place?
It is not a news flash that the world often doesn’t make sense. We live in a society in which kindness too often is mistaken for weakness and too many Monday morning quarterbacks can be too quick to render judgment without first obtaining all of the facts.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s 6’5″,” Lester told B/R this spring. “He needs his levers. When you’re talking about shoulders and knees, those are big things. You’re not talking about little small aches and pains. And a guy who uses his legs.
“What people don’t understand is you don’t get guys who can drive in 100 and score 100 and walk 100 times. That’s a special player.”
And, an above-average defender who is one of the smartest, headiest baserunners in the game. “Running the bases, he’s good at it,” Cubs reliever Pedro Strop marveled.
“Somebody once told me that 90 percent of Kris Bryant is better than 100 percent of some players,” Lester said. “As a pitcher when I show up to pitch every five days and look at the lineup and I don’t see Kris Bryant, that’s a letdown for me.”
Last week, following Bryant’s oblique injury, Schwarber echoed that sentiment: “Obviously, numbers are numbers. And there have been setbacks with injuries and things like that. But whenever this guy’s in the lineup and whenever he’s out there on the field, you think something great is going to happen.”
Something great can still happen in October, both for Bryant and the Cubs.
Out of the rubble of this summer, if he can sync those levers, he remains a dangerous hitter capable of doing serious damage.
Out of the ruins of his 2020 statistical line, he remains a prime-time slugger who can carry the Cubs with one hot streak, which surely would go a long way toward erasing his roughest year yet and quieting much of the social media noise.
“As an organization, we haven’t handled winning the World Series [in 2016] as well as we would have liked,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said during a long conversation on an Arizona back field this spring. “There’s clearly something to prove this year with everybody. It’s an opportunity too.
Cubs president Theo Epstein hoped that hiring David Ross to manage the team would help the club recapture the winning spark he felt the organization had lost since winning the 2016 World Series.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
“We’re still together, and it’s an opportunity to define on our terms what our post-World Series arc will be like.”
Epstein noted how it’s easy to take Bryant for granted because he shows up every day and handles everything in stride. “First of all, you show up and win an MVP and a World Series and a Rookie of the Year, and the Golden Spikes Award before that [2013 as the best amateur player in the country], it sets up an impossible standard,” Epstein said. “You can’t replicate that every year.”
The trade rumors, the setbacks, the injuriesthey haven’t dented Bryant’s positive perspective on life. As he told his father when opting out of that high school essay, I’ve been blessed. And with a new son this summer, as difficult as the baseball part of his life has been, as Bryant sweetly said in February on the Cubs’ new Marquee Sports Network, “Honestly, I think this is really what I’ve been put on this earth to do, is be a dad.”
Cincinnati outfielder Nick Castellanos discovered that side of Bryant during the second half of last summer, when he briefly became Bryant’s teammate after the Cubs acquired Castellanos from Detroit at the July trade deadline.
“First of all, he’s an incredibly kind human being,” Castellanos told B/R this spring. “He’s family-oriented. The simple joys something that would make my son happy is the same thing that would make Kris happy.”
Castellanos’ son, Liam, is six.
It’s the baseball side of his life that has Bryant looking inward.
“He’s been the best in show since he was in high school, all the way through,” Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, the former Cubs skipper who was the only manager Bryant had known in the majors before Ross, said. “So when he’s not able to play up to his personal, expected levels, he disappoints himself.
“He never wants to let his teammates down. Never. Never. All that stuff is who K.B. is.”
One of the indicators of that in this truncated season was his diminished walk rate. Throughout his career, it’s been up near 12 percent of his plate appearances, a signal that he is selectively swinging at strikes and, theoretically, pitches he can drive. This season, playing catch-up from the beginning, he only walked 8.2 percent of the timea sign that he was overeager and impatiently trying to force things to happen when they weren’t there.
A typical season usually contains more than 600 plate appearances. This year, Bryant registered 147.
So he’s spent some time going back over 100-at-bat stretches in which he’s struggled during his career and envisioning how he lifted himself out of those skids. Problem is, “It’s so different for me this year because it was all at the beginning of this shortened season and there was a lot of anxiety going out and playing every day, where in a lot of those struggles in the past, I had a good chunk of the season behind me and it wasn’t as noticeable.”
He acknowledges that, “It is very frustrating, just continuing to look at the schedule and realize that, hey, man, we’re running out of time here.”
Yet despite being nowhere close to his normal self, Bryant’s OPS was still over .640.
“He’s probably the guy who puts the most pressure on himself, in general, on the team,” Ross said.
Bryant ended what many fans felt was a disappointing campaign with two home runs and six RBI in the Cubs’ final two regular-season games.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
The key for him and his teammates, Bryant said, is “surrendering to what this season is” and acknowledging that over just 60 games, there isn’t much more anybody can do than accept it and try to “have fun with it.”
But even the fun is more work when a guy is swinging as poorly as Bryant did for most of this season. And the normally upbeat and polite Bryant offered a window into his frustration when, after homering for the first time in more than a month Saturday he responded to a question about the season-long criticism from some quarters with a profanity.
“I don’t give a s–t,” Bryant told reporters after the game. “I really don’t. That’s a good answer. I’m over it. Sometimes I go out there and go 4-for-4 and it’s not good enough for some people, so I don’t give a s–t.”
Never are there any guarantees in front of us, and in 2020, never has that been more true. Winning this month, which begins with the expanded Wild Card Round against the Marlins on Wednesday, won’t suddenly bring normalcy back to their worldor oursbut the slice of joy and slivers of sunshine that winning brings will be a reward in itself. Winning will add to the legacy of these particular Cubs, who probably are in their final chapters together.
That they sense this was never more evident than when Rizzo said in August: “I’m not going to shy away from this. This could be [our] last year together. We all know that, especially with the state of the game and who knows what’s going to happen. This could be our last run with all our guys.”
In addition to Bryant, Baez and Schwarber are eligible for free agency after the 2021 season. As for Rizzo, the Cubs hold a club option for next season, after which he would be a free agent as well.
Even before the stream of injuries took aim at his summer, Bryant and Epstein came together for what both described as a good conversation in February, swapping perspectives on the trade rumors and the future.
“He’s really invested in this team,” Epstein said. “Engaging with his teammates and appreciating what he has and what we have out here.”
Through the shutdown, the quarantining and the relaunch, that hasn’t changed. These particular Cubs have one more good shot before the winter snows begin. And Bryant has a few more swings to reverse the course of his lost summer before the future whisks him away with the October leaves toward points that cannot yet be known.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.
The 2016 NL MVP has tried to balance being a new dad with playing baseball amid a pandemic and injuries, but it has left Cubs fans curious about his dedication and complicated his bond with Chicago.
Arizona, the afternoon before COVID-19 suspended spring training, knocked the wind out of baseball and blasted the world off its axis.