Two weeks after his son played in the All-Star Game as a Cubs rookie, Mike Bryant, stood in the stands at Wrigley Field and marveled at the No. 17 “Bryant” jerseys occupying every seating area he could see, more than an hour before game time.
“Can you believe this?” he said.
Mike’s kid, Kris, had been in the big leagues less than three months and was already an All-Star, a Home Run Derby participant and, increasingly, a Chicago pop-culture icon — his jersey sales already ranked No. 2 in the majors by midseason.
By the end of the season, he was No. 1.
By October, he was batting third in a young Cubs’ playoff lineup — a major part of a 97-win team that became one of the surprise success stories in baseball with its run to the National League Championship Series.
And on Monday night, Kris Bryant – as expected – became the sixth National League Rookie of the Year in franchise history, first since Geovany Soto in 2008.
Can you believe that?
“It’s awesome,” Bryant said when the announcement was made on MLB TV. “Truly and honor.”He was the unanimous selection — a first for the franchise — beating finalists Matt Duffy of the Giants and Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates.
Imagine what the versatile Cubs’ third baseman might have done if he hadn’t missed the first eight games of the season while the Cubs kept him in the minor leagues to assure an extra year of club control.
“He’s one of the better young baseball players I’ve had, period,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who managed Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist and a raft of other young All-Stars in nine seasons managing the Rays.
A dean’s-list college student with an easy smile and a humble public demeanor, it’s no wonder Bryant has become so beloved so quickly by a fan base starving for heroes and success since Theo Epstein took over the front office four years ago and demolished the team to rebuild.
When he made the All-Star team, Bryant said, “It’s all happened so quick. It’s kind of weird.”
But the humility can’t hide the confidence and pride, and the swagger that lies just beneath the surface.
Bryant was upset when he didn’t make the team out of spring training, after the front office told him performance would matter regardless of the business side of it. That he was called up at exactly the cutoff point that assured the club an additional year of player control was not lost on him – though he never publicly criticized the club.
“I played as hard as I could with a little chip on my shoulder,” he said during Monday’s awards broadcast. “Things turned out great. We won; we surprised a lot of people. Moving on from this season, I think the future’s so bright for this team.”
When asked about that last week, Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras said: “I think Kris proved his point that he didn’t need any further minor-league [seasoning] – unless you can argue the seven games in AAA baseball dramatically allowed him to improve.”
The most anticipated Cubs rookie since Mark Prior — the franchise’s previous No. 2 overall draft pick – Bryant came with far more hype in a social-media generation.
That included his shoe company plastering his face on a billboard outside Wrigley Field the opening week of the season, saying “Worth the wait.”
It included an energy-drink sponsor building a commercial around him the week leading up to his callup, complete with a goat, a bus headed to Wrigley and Chicago celebrities talking about him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that anticipatory moment that he had to go through,” Maddon said. “He couldn’t have dealt with it any better than he has.”
When Bryant bought a downtown Chicago condo, he was featured in a video by the realtor that major news outlets throughout the city quickly published along with fawning prose.
And he hasn’t gone a day as a Cub without being one of the most recognized players in town.
“The ones that get me more are when people recognize my family,” he said. “Like, `Aren’t you Kris Bryant’s girlfriend?’ Or `Aren’t you Kris Bryant’s dad?’ I kind of laugh it off a little bit.”
“It’s amazing,” said teammate Anthony Rizzo, a two-time All-Star who took much longer to get acclimated and have success in the majors. “He’s come up with all the hype and all the pressure that people try to put on him, and he’s never fazed by it, not one bit.”