Eleven months ago, Kris Bryant went from the best player in any spring training camp in baseball to the worst emotional place of his spring in the span of one early-morning meeting with Cubs officials.
Teammate Anthony Rizzo quietly consoled him with a simple thought: “Fast-forward a year, and everything you’re going through, which is the biggest thing in your life right now, is not going to mean a thing to you anymore.”
But then the fast-forward thing happened. And almost as soon as Rizzo and Bryant got together for the first time in Mesa this spring, Rizzo said to him: “See what I mean?”
Bryant, now the reigning National League Rookie of the Year in the heart of the Cubs’ batting order, is at the other end of the spring training universe this year.
“It’s hard to even put thought into it now, just because it’s so far away, so far in the past,” he said. “I figured this year in spring training I would get asked questions about it, but for me I’ve moved on to bigger and better things.”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy, not for at least for a few days after the morning meeting, when he was cut from big-league camp despite the best offensive spring training in the majors in at least a decade.
Bryant, the No. 1 prospect in baseball entering camp last year, was told he had a chance to win a big-league job if he performed well enough, even though it seemed obvious from the beginning that he would open in the minors to delay the start of his service-time clock, thereby delaying free agency by a year.
For that to happen, he needed to spend 12 days in the minors. He was called up on the 13th day of the season.
It was the top story in baseball for multiple news cycles, especially as Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, spoke out.
It was such a conspicuous case of the kind of service-time manipulation that’s common in the game that the players’ union issued a rare statement decrying the move, and then filed a grievance, which remains unresolved as the union and owners head into a collective bargaining season.
Manager Joe Maddon has had more pleasant meetings with players than the one 11 months ago with Bryant.
“He was straight up with me,” Maddon said, “looked me right in the eyeballs, and he was very self-confident.”
And Bryant told the manager the team was wrong. That he deserved the job.
“And I don’t blame him,” Maddon said. “And then when he got up here he showed that that was true.”
Bryant batted cleanup his first day in the majors. The third baseman started a game in center field six days later. He made the All-Star team. He hit home runs off Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and the left-field video board (on the way to 26 total). And he was the unanimous Rookie of the Year choice in one of the deepest rookie-class years in history.
“I was interested to see [how he would respond to the demotion],” Maddon said. “I was also confident that he would respond well.”
Maybe it was Rizzo’s advice. Or an angry passion that came out of that morning meeting 11 months ago. Or, as Bryant suggested, something he learned over three years at the University of San Diego.
Either way, “I just looked at it like I did everything I could,” he said of regrouping emotionally. “I got over it pretty quick.”
He homered in his first minor-league spring game after getting sent down. He raged through his seven games at AAA – taking a rainout day along the way to shoot a commercial for an energy drink company depicting Chicago’s anticipation of his arrival.
“It’s about learning to forget the past and live in the present and not really worry about the future,” he said. “I honestly can say that I did that. And I think I’d grade myself an A-plus in that area.”
That perspective, that attitude is something the Cubs say is almost as valuable to the team as his hitting ability.
“All the media attention he got from it and the way he handled it was incredible,” Rizzo said of what Bryant’s spring last year. “He could have easily spoken out on his own behalf, but he let other people do it for him.
“Then getting called up with all that media hype and punching out 10 times in his first game [actually four times] and still coming back and rebounding, that’s not easy. But he does a really good job of controlling himself and his emotions.”
Bryant is “grounded and cocky at the same time,” Rizzo said. “Kris is a superstar. And he has zero ego.”
Bryant downplays how much has changed from one end of the spring training spectrum to the other since last year.
His biggest task of this spring is continuing to work on an adjustment he made with hitting coach John Mallee last year to reduce his uppercut to keep his bat on the zone longer – and to sort through the boxes of gear that keep piling up at his locker now that he’s the All-Star, Rookie of the Year big shot.
“It’s just the circumstances are a little different this year,” Bryant said. “But I came in last year with a purpose, and this year I’m coming in with the same purpose.
“You’ve got to earn everything, especially in this game.”