Hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Ian Happ went to work at the team’s sprawling Arizona complex, meeting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines at a batting cage that November morning.
Surrounded by Cubs fans the night before, Haines had watched the epic Game 7 with Double-A Tennessee hitting coach Jacob Cruz at Culinary Dropout, a Tempe restaurant, the TV audience multiplying to around 40 million viewers. Together, they saw the organization’s first-round picks from 2014 (Kyle Schwarber) and 2013 (Kris Bryant) jumpstart the 10th-inning rally that would beat the Cleveland Indians and end the 108-year championship drought.
Around 7:30 a.m. – while the Cubs were just beginning a World Series hangover that would last for most of this season – Happ and Haines talked about getting ready to win the next one and began early hitting before the Arizona Fall League action that afternoon.
Happ – the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft – is so driven to make it in The Show and focused on earning a ring that he doesn’t need to see the symbolism in that moment.
“That’s my goal,” Happ said. “It just happened to be the time that we were there.”
In terms of timing, yes, Happ missed the unbelievable ride last October, seeing Schwarber up close while he trained briefly in Arizona before his dramatic, post-knee surgery World Series return and getting glimpses of playoff games on an iPad in the dugout in between innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.
But Happ maximized his opportunity in the middle of May when the Cubs dealt with the types of injuries that would contribute to their first-half funk, promoting him after only 26 games at Triple-A Iowa. Happ made his big-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, launched a two-run homer 413 feet off Carlos Martinez and never went back to Des Moines.
What the Cubs initially framed as a temporary solution became a key piece to the 92-win team that is about to face the Washington Nationals in a best-of-five National League Division Series.
“Right away,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, starting in spring training, “the veteran guys really gravitated towards him. They loved the way he worked. They loved his intensity. It’s just a really serious demeanor. He fit right in with this group immediately. He had zero assimilation process, just because of the way he carries himself and the way he takes everything so seriously.”
During three years at the University of Cincinnati, Happ made the dean’s list five times and earned a 3.68 grade-point average as a finance major. Happ’s father, Keith, a longtime U.S. Golf Association agronomist, died of brain cancer two years ago. Happ’s mother, Mary Beth, is a Ph.D-level dean/professor at Ohio State University’s College of Nursing.
Except for the occasional faux TV interview in the dugout, Happ maintains the same game face. He plays with an edge, internalizing the idea that the Cubs drafted him because he would be on a faster track as a college hitter and could be marketed in a deal for pitching later.
The Cubs never traded Happ for a Jose Quintana or a Sonny Gray as manager Joe Maddon started him at second base, third base and all three positions across the outfield. Happ became the fastest player in franchise history to 20 home runs (89 games) and his 24 homers are the second-most all-time by a switch-hitting NL rookie (Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell put up 26 this season). Of Happ’s 68 RBI, 30 came with two outs. Of Happ’s 92 hits, 44 went for extra bases.
“He’s right in Joe’s wheelhouse,” Haines said. “He plays multiple positions. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s competitive. Winning is really, really important to him.”
So even if Happ’s name isn’t in Friday night’s Game 1 lineup at Nationals Park, there will be ways for him to impact not only this series, but make his mark in the playoffs as the Cubs try to become a dynasty.
“I think this team is going to be good for a long time,” Happ said in spring training. “It’s nice to be part of an organization that doesn’t feel like it’s a one-and-done situation. It feels like they’re building something here. And you’re going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come.”