Cubs’ Mr. Nice Guy on critics, position changes and All-Star Game No. 3
“I just care so much,” Kris Bryant said. “Every big situation, I want to come through. Every big play, I want to make it. When I don’t, I feel like it’s the end of the world. I feel like I let everybody down.”
Kris Bryant may have been the most accessible superstar in baseball.
His first few years in the big leagues, he was, from a media perspective, money in the bank. At his locker in the Cubs clubhouse every day, earnest and unhurried in interviews, amiable and considerate always.
In truth: Not as much anymore. Bryant got into the habit of making himself scarce before games — not nearly all of them, but enough that it was noticeable — in 2018, as he dealt with the pain and frustration of a shoulder ailment. He has been less available to reporters through the first half of the 2019 season.
But don’t misunderstand the point here, please. No one’s complaining. It was inevitable that someone as high-profile and in demand as Bryant would reclaim a bit of his time. Human nature. Totally understandable. All good.
Asked directly about it a few days ago in Pittsburgh, though, Bryant seemed unburdened as he explained himself.
“I guess I just got really tired of being asked questions all the time,” he said. “It all started sounding like the same things, day after day. You know what I mean?
“But I have felt really bad about not being available. I apologize for it. I feel like I’ve failed in that area this year.”
This was hardly lip service to a lone reporter. The next day, Bryant approached the writers who cover the team on an everyday basis and told them the same thing.
Look, you don’t have to give a rat’s tail if Bryant talks to the media daily, weekly or never. This anecdote merely is illustrative of the person Bryant is.
There’s a word for a guy like him: nice.
“Too nice,” he said with a laugh. “I think I’ve definitely always been too nice.”
Cubs assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge cut to the quick during a recent conversation with Bryant.
“You’re too nice,” Sledge told him.
Bryant was bummed out because the Cubs were in a rut and he wasn’t helping matters by struggling in key situations. He is well aware of the common criticism that, despite his wealth of talent, his “clutch” numbers — including a .237 average with runners in scoring position this season — generally haven’t been so hot.
“I just care so much,” Bryant said. “Every big situation, I want to come through. Every big play, I want to make it. And then when I don’t, I feel like it’s the end of the world. I feel like I let everybody down.”
Last season was far worse. As Bryant’s shoulder screamed at him — his home-run power dialed down to whisper level — he fell into the awful habit of reading social-media posts about him. While on the shelf for much of the second half, he did it even more.
“ ‘Get rid of him,’ ‘trade him’ — I was like, man, people are saying that about me?” he said. “People have nothing but bad things to say about you when bad things are happening. That hurts. Being a people pleaser, it’ll really get to you if you let it. I felt terrible not being on the field.”
It’s a side of Bryant that didn’t come out in 2015 and ’16, his first two All-Star seasons. The NL’s Rookie of the Year and then its MVP — and a World Series champ, to boot — Bryant boasted an unassailable combination of baseball tools, movie-star looks, boy-next-door charm and postseason pedigree. He was the game’s golden boy.
It’ll be interesting for him in the coming days in Cleveland, site of the 2019 All-Star Game. Back for the first time in three years, Bryant will come off the bench as a reserve. Before then, he’ll face questions from the national media about his underperforming team and, likely, his own trajectory. Though he considers himself — and rightly so — a better overall player than he was in 2016, he isn’t quite the “it” player in all of baseball that he once was.
“I actually think I’ll be able to enjoy it more,” he said. “The first couple All-Star Games were kind of, like, such a whirlwind with [the Cubs] coming up and starting to win again. I think we got to seven All-Stars in 2016 and it was just all about the Cubs. Now it’s almost like we’re — not an afterthought — but people know our team and what we’re about now. I think I’ll find a way to just relax and take it all in.”
Javy Baez, who will start at shortstop for the NL, has surpassed Bryant as the Cubs’ biggest superstar. He envisions both of them in many All-Star starting lineups to come.
“He’s just got to get back to where he was [going],” Baez said. “The pressure sometimes is what gets everybody, not just him. I go through it, too. I was [feeling it] in April, or the beginning of the season. But we all know what KB can do. He’s done it in the past, and he’ll do it in the future.”
When Bryant was a high school sophomore in Las Vegas, he wasn’t too nice to beat out senior Tomo Delp for the starting job at third base. Delp went on to have a fine college career at Maryland. Bryant — who’d played in the outfield as a freshman — moved to shortstop as a junior and senior, mixing in bits of first base and pitching. Years later, he’d make it up to Delp by marrying his sister.
Anyone who wonders why the Cubs don’t play Bryant at third base every day should at least know he has moved around the diamond his whole life. In little league, he played a lot of catcher. In travel ball, coach Mike Bryant moved his son all over the field. Why? To be nice — at least, in his own way, which is roughly 100 times gruffer than his son’s.
“In youth baseball, I’m sure you’ve heard of all the stupidness,” the elder Bryant said. “The inmates are running the asylum. Parents complain about everything. So I’d move Kris around so their sons could play wherever. It actually benefitted him tremendously.”
According to an ex-GM of one NL team, moving Bryant from third base to the outfield does him a “disservice.” Bryant says no.
“I take pride in being that guy who, if someone goes down at a certain position, can take over,” he said. “I think that’s what a baseball player is. I like moving around sometimes. It’s fun.”
And another thing, which ought to get the full attention of those who wonder if the Cubs and Bryant — who will become a free agent after the 2021 season — will stay together forever:
“When you’re more versatile,” he said, “teams want you more.”
But back to Mike Bryant to end things. He wanted to put a couple of things out there — from him, he emphasized, not from his son.
One is for anyone who thinks the Cubs might be better off without Mr. Nice Guy:
“If they think they can make their team better by trading him, I think they’re crazy. When Kris is bad, he gets on base at a .400 clip. When he’s good, he hits 35 home runs, drives in 100 and gets on base at a .400 clip. … Who’s doing a better job on their team? Kris is No. 1 in runs scored and has the highest OBP on that team. You think you’re going to find anybody better than that?”
And the other is for Bryant’s harsher critics:
“He wants to play in Chicago, he loves the city — he’s a city boy — and he loves the Cubs. People want to give him heat for that? I wish I had a Twitter account. I’d probably get in trouble or arrested or thrown in jail. It drives me nuts. They don’t know my kid.”
If Bryant shares that sentiment, we’ll never know it. He’s far too nice to say so.