MILWAUKEE – Kris Bryant is too polite and media savvy to say he deserves to be the National League Rookie of the Year.
A rare unfiltered moment might have come on Thursday afternoon, when Bryant walked out of Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse after the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds again.
Dressed up as a character from Disney’s “Frozen” in a blond wig and a tight teal dress, Bryant stuck out his tongue and gave the thumbs-down sign to the reporters trying to take photos with their phones.
Rookie hazing aside, it’s hard to picture where the Cubs would be without Bryant.
Bryant grew up playing with and against Bryce Harper in Las Vegas, but he is a polar-opposite personality from the Washington Nationals superstar/MVP frontrunner. The Cubs have a franchise player who has handled the nonstop attention and said all the right things since getting drafted No. 2 overall in 2013.
The Cubs had to lose 101 games in 2012 – the first season for the Theo Epstein administration – to be in position to select Bryant out of the University of San Diego and make the 6-foot-5 slugger a building block.
The Cubs lost 96 games in 2013 and could win 97 this year. It doesn’t happen without Bryant’s accelerated development.
“It’s hard to turn around a team that quick,” Bryant said. “But credit to the front office and all those guys. They’ve been doing a great job. They found good players – not just myself – (drafting) Kyle (Schwarber) and (making) some trades and signing Jon (Lester) was huge.
“Usually, if you pick high in the draft, it takes awhile to get back down from there. But to think that was two years ago – it has turned around pretty quick.”
This should be a slam-dunk decision for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters: Bryant entered the season’s final weekend leading all major-league rookies in home runs (26), RBI (99), on-base percentage (.369), slugging percentage (.495) and runs scored (86).
“I think there’s a lot of good rookies out there, especially on this team, too,” Bryant said. “All of them are very deserving. We all do things very differently, but I still don’t even really know how that works in terms of voting or any of that. So it’s good for me to be kind of naïve about that.
“But I definitely think my first year has been a pretty good one and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. So if I’m fortunate enough to get that award, then it would be pretty cool.”
Bryant has also stolen 13 bases (and done enough damage to justify striking out almost 200 times). He has moved around unselfishly, playing third base and all three outfield positions (plus a six-inning cameo at first base).
Bryant embraces the endorsement opportunities and seems to enjoy shooting the commercials, but he’s not a me-first guy. His aggressiveness on the bases and all-around hustle will become part of this team’s identity in the future.
“He plays like that every day,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We have a lot of good players here. But when one of your best players – who everybody knows is going to be here for a long time – plays that way, the impact it has on the rest of the organization is incredible.
“So when a young player comes up, and you want him to play that way, and if they’re giving you any kind of resistance, look at KB. That’s it.”
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Maddon told the same story he brought up when the Cubs reported to camp in Arizona almost eight months ago.
“A couple years ago, we’re playing the Pirates in spring training with the Rays and it was 10 o’clock at night,” Maddon said. “(Andrew) McCutchen hit a routine groundball to shortstop – I mean, absolutely routine – and beat it out.
“When the game was over, I walked up to him and said, ‘Man, that is so impressive. That’s gonna set the tone for your entire team.’ We have those guys now.”
Playing those service-time games in April means Bryant can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, making this Rookie of the Year campaign simply the beginning of what the Cubs hope will be a run of sustained dominance.