PITTSBURGH – Whatever becomes of Kris Bryant’s career in Chicago, nobody will ever be able to claim the long-touted slugger didn’t know what he was getting into.
Or that the media put too much hype on him, that the fans piled on expectations that were too high – or even that he doesn’t know how unruly or smelly that damn goat is.
Bryant, who might be the Cubs’ most anticipated prospect ever, hadn’t played a game in the big leagues when his shoe-company sponsor plastered a billboard outside Wrigley Field with his picture and the words: “Worth the wait.”
By the time he got his first big-league hit Saturday, production was done on the instant-hit commercial – filled with goats and Chicago celebrities – that his energy-drink sponsor released over the weekend.
“I think it turned out great,” said Bryant before his fourth major-league game, Monday – in which he went 3-for-4 with a walk, double off the center-field wall and three RBIs in a 5-2 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park. He’s 6-for-14 (.429) with a .579 on-base percentage (and 1.150 OPS).
“I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I think they did a good job of barely showing me. I don’t want that attention being the young guy here.”
Whether the irony was intentional or actually lost on him, this was, of course, with full consent, all about him – the commercial centering on Chicago’s reaction to Bryant’s service-time exile to the minors and imminent, presumably explosive arrival to the North Side.
It featured former Cubs playoff third baseman Ron Cey, Bulls center Joakim Noah, Bears icon/Sun-Times columnist Mike Ditka and Smashing Pumpkins front man/Cub fan Billy Corgan.
Not since perhaps Gabe Kapler’s shoe-company ad campaign 20 years ago – before Kapler played a pro game — has a player ridden his own, sponsor-created wave of hype and expectations into a big-league career.
Which, in the end, might make Kris Bryant the perfect combination of temperament, savvy businessman, self-aware celebrity and, maybe, even ballplayer to overcome the bust-riddled path of Cub phenoms before him and beat the fishbowl of stupidity that has consumed so many.
(That is, assuming Bryant comes closer to living up to All-Star expectations than Kapler, who had a nice but unremarkable career).
And if that’s the case, then it might make him an ideal teammate for all the other kids the Cubs hope will follow in the next few months and years – whether Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber or C.J. Edwards.
In three decades as a coach or manager with the Angels and Rays, only one player Cubs manager Joe Maddon had comes close to a reasonable comparison to Bryant and the expectations that arrived in the big leagues with him.
And not even Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria had the entourage of sponsors and personal media blitz.
“Had he been a Chicago Cub minor league player, he may have gotten the same kind of attention,” Maddon said. “I think it’s a matter of where you’re potentially going to exist that breeds the hype prior to it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that anticipatory moment that [Bryant] had to go through, and I thought he dealt with it extremely well. Couldn’t have dealt with it any better than he did.”
Maddon said before Monday’s game that he hadn’t seen the Bryant commercial, which was shot only last week in New Orleans over a five-hour stretch on a day the I-Cubs and New Orleans team were rained out.
“Longo did that hat commercial pretty quick,” Maddon said. “But I don’t think it was prior to him getting his first big-league hit. That’s pretty solid, man.”
And Bryant plans to keep it solid, off the field as well as on – where he says nobody’s expectations are bigger than his own. He made a point all weekend at Wrigley (as he did during spring training) to sign as many autographs as he had time for.
“I remember going to games as a kid being the kid asking for autographs,” he said.
As for the billboard, he said he remembered doing a photo shoot for the sponsor but didn’t know about the actual billboard until Anthony Rizzo texted him. “He sent me a selfie with him and the billboard,” Bryant said. “I was, like, that’s pretty cool. That was funny.”
Like the commercial with the goat at the bus stop in the rain, and the bus to Chicago pulling up.
And if all it winds up putting a target on Bryant’s back?
“I just think it comes along with it,” said Baseball America’s 2014 Minor League Player of the Year and this year’s top-ranked prospect I the game. “When you sign these contracts and use people’s equipment, they want to broadcast you. And they’re proud of it. And I’m proud I’m with a brand that works with me like that.
“In terms of a target on my back, if I go about things in the way. then I’ll earn that respect. And that’s all I ever want.”