LOOK OUT WORLD: KRIS BRYANT IS VALUABLE, VERSATILE, AND HE’S JUST GETTING STARTED
Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball loves its records. Baseball is the fantasy league of Euclid and Newton; a game of numbers and statistics. Baseball is Ted Williams hitting .406; Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive 56-game hitting streak; the seven no-hitters thrown by Nolan Ryan.
And when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last fall in a much hyped and well-documented achievement 108 seasons in the making, baseball lost its mind.
At the center of the we-won-it-all dog pile that has become as much a part of baseball tradition as peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant celebrated the championship with his teammates. He would soon have another reason to celebrate: a milestone never before achieved in Major League Baseball.
MLB stats track back to 1870. In that time, no player has ever in consecutive seasons won the Golden Spikes Award — given to the best player in college baseball — Minor League Player of the Year and then Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the major leagues.
Until Kris Bryant.
It’s easy to look at Bryant’s gaudy numbers over that unprecedented stretch — and the .292 average, 38 home runs and 102 RBI he posted in that magical, mystical Cubs season are a good place to start — and conclude that Bryant’s bat won him the accolades. But in this particular case, the “V” in MVP stands for versatile as well as valuable.
Over the course of the 2016 season, Bryant played at all three outfield posts, every position on the infield except second base, and when the Cubs were visiting the crosstown White Sox of the American League, Bryant was the designated hitter. He’s only the second player ever to be named MVP after starting at least 30 games in the infield and 30 in the outfield. The other was Stan Musial in 1948.
Bryant not only has the “five tools” baseball gurus covet, he’s got a sixth baseball sense. His ability to run, field, throw, hit for average and hit for power is complemented by an intense competitive spirit.
Bryant’s father, Mike, recalls recognizing the talent in his youngest son. After practice of his older brother’s Little League team, five-year-old Kris got a chance to take a few swings at home plate. Dad was on the mound.
“The first ball I threw to Kris, overhand, he launched it into the air — it had to go 30 feet into the outfield,” the elder Bryant told Baseball America. “On a Little League field, for a 5-year-old kid. He had this huge bat, like a 31-inch bat, and he was tiny. The ball just — it jumped, it soared. He just had … something. At the age of 8, he started hitting them out over the Little League fence, 200- foot fences, and as a 9-year-old, he was hitting tons of them. Home runs, man.”
At USD, Bryant hit some home runs, man. Including one that every Torero baseball player is going to forever hear about.
For the record: the Toreros lost that March 2013 game against the University of St. Louis. But for the legend: longtime USD baseball announcer Jack Murray swears Bryant’s eighth inning homer was 600 feet. (For context, Major League Baseball officially recognizes its longest home run at 540 feet; hit by Jose Canseco in 1989.) Mike Bryant says the ball was sailing over the light standards at Fowler Field “and was going up.”
Baseball, for all its love of math, may not be above a tall tale or two.
“I’ve heard so many estimations of that; I think we’re up to 10 miles now,” USD baseball head coach Rich Hill says with a laugh. “All I know is it was way the heck out of the park.”
For all his God-given ability, though, Bryant adds a God-given something else.
“A lot of players with talent don’t have success because they don’t have heart,” Hill says. “Kris has got that fire in his belly. He wants to be the best at everything he does. Kris is the kind of player that comes along once in a coach’s lifetime. This guy would be a success at anything he decides he wants to do.”
While he very likely would have been in the major leagues much sooner had he skipped college and gone directly into professional baseball, Bryant says his collegiate experience was critical to his success.
“Coming to USD was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Bryant told Baseball America in 2013. “I knew coming here that the coaches would get me a whole lot better, and they have in every area of my game, every year.”
The World Series did not start well for the league MVP. At one point, the Cubs were one game away from elimination, down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. Bryant was 1-14 at the plate, with two — two! — costly throwing errors. The pressure of the World Series, baseball intelligencia began to whisper, was too much for the 24-year-old.
The Cubs needed three straight. Bryant tied Game Five with a home run, and the Cubs rallied to win. In the first inning of Game Six, Bryant found a curveball he liked — an 0-2 curveball he liked — and hit it 433 feet for the lead that became a Cub win.
The series-deciding Game Seven almost immediately entered the discussion of the greatest games ever played. The Cubs jumped out to a big lead, only to suffer through a Cleveland comeback that tied the score late in the game. Game Seven went to the 10th inning before the Cubs pushed across two runs. Cleveland, again, rallied to close the gap to a single run. But they wouldn’t get it.
In the shorthand of the scorecard, it was a 5-3 putout. Kris Bryant saw the chopper off the bat of Cleveland Indian Michael Martinez bounce toward him and smiled. He gathered the ball. The smile became a grin. Kris Bryant tossed the ball to first base, and the grin became glee.
Two days later, tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Chicago, from Wrigley Field to Grant Park, awaiting the Cubs’ victory parade. Bryant arrived at Wrigley early, like he always does, but not to take his place in the parade. Only hours after winning the world championship and a full off-season before spring training, Kris Bryant did his regular workout, lifting weights and taking swings in the batting cage.
The announcement that surprised no one came two weeks after the World Series. Bryant was at his parents’ home in Las Vegas when word came that 29 of 30 voters had declared him to be the most valuable player in his league. Again. Flanked by his dad and his fiancé, Bryant hardly looked like the guy who should have the I’m-the-MVP speech down. He looked like he may very well have been the only earthling surprised by the honor.
The same baseball voices that only weeks before were questioning the young star’s ability to perform on the biggest stage now began to softly whisper the three holiest words in the game: Hall of Fame. Of course, such consideration in the first two years of a career is at least premature and at most ridiculous. But the Vegas native is a good bet.
“It’s so humbling,” Bryant said. “I’ll continue to work harder than I ever have before, to hopefully sustain that and win more World Series.” — Tim McKernan