Kris Bryant was the face of the franchise before he ever played a game for the Cubs.
A quick glance toward the sky on the way into Wrigley Field for the 2015 season opener said that much.
Actually, it said: “Worth the wait.” Those were the words on the billboard next to the fresh young face of baseball’s top spring training performer, who had been assigned to start the season at AAA Iowa last year.
The wait lasted 12 days, until the Cubs were assured of an extra year of club control over their projected superstar – just long enough for Bryant to shoot a commercial in the minors for one of his endorsement companies, making fun of the wait and the goat curse.
“I figured if we’re going to be 11 days in the minor leagues, we’re going to do something special,” Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, said with a laugh, recalling the closing scene with Bryant boarding a Chicago-bound bus in a rainstorm, and leading a goat on a leash.
Bryant handled the rest of that part.
The kid who was the national college player of the year when the Cubs drafted him second overall in 2013, was named Minor League Player of the Year in 2014 and followed that with a National League Rookie of the Year season after his belated start in 2015.
And now, fresh off a curse-busting Cubs’ championship finish, Bryant is poised Thursday to become the first in history to win those three awards – and an MVP award – in consecutive seasons.
“Anytime you’re attached to the letters M-V-P, it’s an honor and says a lot,” Bryant said. “I just try to go out there and be the most unselfish player I can be and move all over the field and bat throughout the order and do what’s asked of me and contribute.”
Bryant has been considered a favorite for the award even before he was named one of three finalists, along with the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager – and long before he played such a key role in helping the Cubs kick the goat off the bus with their historic championship this fall.
The third baseman’s power (39 homers), on-base ability (.385 OBP) and versatility – including 35 starts in left field, 12 in right and five at first base – say almost everything a voter would need to know about his value.
“But the real thing about him is he’s the classic fighter-pilot personality,” Boras said. “The more planes that are in the air, the calmer he gets. You know why? Because he goes, `Great, I just get to shoot more things.’ That’s just his way of looking at life. The pressure, whatever it is, it’s just, `Let’s go.’ “
That’s more than agent speak.
Bryant, 24, has seemed to raise his performance with the stakes or the stage. During this year’s playoff run alone:
He homered in the ninth to tie Game 3 of the NLDS in San Francisco; he started the series-clinching rally in the ninth the next night with a leadoff single; he drove in the Cubs’ first run of the NLCS against the Dodgers, drove in the first run of the NLCS clincher against Clayton Kershaw; and his 6-for-11, two-homer, two-walk finish the last three games of the World Series comeback earned him Series MVP votes from Chicago media.
“Every day he shows up,” manager Joe Maddon said during the NLCS. “Last year was a great learning experience for him, being so young, playing this deeply into the season. He’s in better shape, mentally and physically, going into this moment than he was last year at the same time. That’s why when we have a bad moment, he knows, `Let’s just move it to the next 24 hours.’ He’s learned that very quickly.”
And what about adding a fourth major award in as many seasons?
“I’ve always said they’re just trophies to me,” Bryant said the final week of the season of a possible MVP. “When I think back to last year, I mean, I won the Rookie of the Year Award. It was cool, the trophy, but it’s all the memories that go along with it. No one expected us to win 97 games and go to the playoffs and make a run. That’s kind of what it’s all about.”
To hear Boras, that’s what that goat commercial before Bryant ever played a big-league game was about, too. The idea for the commercial was the endorsement company’s, but Boras’ agency loved it as soon as they saw the mockup.
“I go, `That looks good. Let’s do that,’ ” he said, laughing. “If we can’t play in the big leagues, at least we can kill the curse.”
Past Cubs MVP winners:
- 1998 Sammy Sosa*
- 1987 Andre Dawson
- 1984 Ryne Sandberg*
- 1959 Ernie Banks
- 1959 Ernie Banks
- 1952 Hank Sauer
- 1945 Phil Cavarretta*
- 1935 Gabby Hartnett*
Note: The MVP has been award by vote of the BBWAA since 1931. Before that, the Cubs had one winner of the League Award, “for greatest all-around service to his club” (Rogers Hornsby, 1929); and one Chalmers Award winner, for “the most important and useful player” in the league (Frank Schulte, 1911).
*-Qualified for postseason.