Cubs: Joe Maddon will manage the great expectations for Kris Bryant


Cubs: Joe Maddon will manage the great expectations for Kris Bryant

There are times where it feels like Kris Bryant would be a great stand-in for an updated version of the old “Superfans” sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”

Instead of obsessing over Mike Ditka and “Da Bears,” we’d get the boys riffing about Bryant hitting 100 homers this year once the Cubs take care of “Da Service Time.”

There’s a don’t-rule-it-out feeling around the team about Bryant making his big-league debut on Friday afternoon against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field.

But everyone’s guilty of building up Bryant to the point where you wonder if Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect will ever be able to live up to these unbelievable expectations.

It’s the national writers, the beat reporters, the prospect gurus, the bloggers and pretty much anyone holding a microphone at Clark and Addison.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

It’s Theo Epstein’s front office selling The Plan and the business/marketing wing putting on those dog-and-pony shows for the media and season-ticket holders.

It’s Boras Corp. and the Major League Baseball Players Association using the Bryant case and posturing for the next rounds of collective bargaining.

It’s coming soon since Thursday marks the 12 days the Cubs needed to keep Bryant in the minors in order to set his free-agency clock to after the 2021 season.

“I’ve been around prodigies before,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The thing I like to do with young players like that is to really just try to emphasize you’re just one of the group.

“That would be the rhetoric from within. The rhetoric from outside’s going to be glamorous, glorious, hyperbole, whatever you want to call it. But from within, it’s got to be real.

“If it’s a Kris Bryant or if it’s eventually an Addison Russell or a Javy Baez – we have a lot of these guys – when they eventually get up here I really try to disarm that whole thing conversationally.

[MORE: Good vibes around Cubs interrupted by bad news about Neil Ramirez]

“(You) try to reduce (everything to) my expectations are that you play hard, you do your work and you care.”

By all accounts, Bryant already checks those boxes at the age of 23. The Cubs loved his sense of purpose and professionalism coming out of the University of San Diego, where the 6-foot-5 third baseman/outfielder developed into a Rhodes Scholarship candidate and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

Bryant led the minors with 43 home runs last year and crushed Cactus League pitching (1.652 OPS) this spring. He hasn’t moped around at Triple-A Iowa, going 8-for-24 (.333) with two homers and seven RBI through six games.

Is it fair to expect that Bryant will have to go through some struggles and adjustments once he gets here?

“My experience has been sometimes when they come up, they don’t,” Maddon said. “Only because they haven’t had a chance to process the whole thing. You just come up here and you almost have blinders on, in a good way.

[ALSO: Soler has Andre Dawson potential?]

“You just go play like you’ve always been playing. Then maybe, eventually, the blinders become extended and more light’s being let in. And all of a sudden you notice things you hadn’t noticed before. And that’s where the struggle can occur.”

The Cubs wanted Maddon around this group because they saw the way he nurtured a talented core for the Tampa Bay Rays, creatively deflecting the attention, trying to reduce the pressure, boosting clubhouse confidence and pushing their development to the next level.  

“I really believe oftentimes when a young guy comes up, there’s that naiveté about it that permits you to perform like you always have performed,” Maddon said. “I love when the guy’s able to maintain that level of naïve-ness. Because once you start to get too sophisticated, you start overanalyzing the thing. That’s what can possibly become a problem.

“But whenever these dudes show up, I really believe that they’ll all come up here and contribute very quickly.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season


Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.