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THE FATHER OF last year's National League Rookie of the Year puts a ball on a tee, picks out a point in the upper right corner of the enclosed batting cage and tells a 12-year-old boy to swing away. In his backyard west of the Las Vegas Strip, Mike Bryant is trying to teach yet another kid to be like his son Kris.
Yes, that Kris, the Cubs' 24-year-old All-Star third baseman. In his first major league season last year, he posted a .369 on-base percentage, 26 home runs and 99 RBIs. As such, Mike's hitting lessons have picked up -- parents want their children coached by the man who brought Kris forth. The man who's agonized over his own brief pro career and has spent years passing lessons learned from father to son. The man who has become the greatest entry point to Kris, a preternatural talent who prefers to let his on-field play speak for him.
Mike's student takes an uneasy cut at the teed-up ball and squibs a grounder up the middle. "Elevate it!" Mike says, his Boston accent booming off the walls, a Cubs hat pulled over his bald head. "Feel what your body's doing." He adjusts the boy's feet, tells him to open up his hips a little more. "You need the right knowledge," Mike says. "Believe me, I'm not wrong. I've spent the past 15 years being vindicated and validated."
As proof, Kris' likeness hangs in the batting cage on a massive banner that adorned Wrigley Field last season, a gift to Mike from Cubs president Theo Epstein. There's a jersey Kris wore at the University of San Diego, where he hit 31 home runs in his junior year -- more than 223 Division I teams that season -- and made himself into the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft. Kris' bronzed cleats from his first major league at-bat are mounted to a plaque on the wall.
The kid drives a ball to the upper corner.
"See, your body's telling you what you need to do," Mike says. "Kris has done that since he was little."
Another drive to the top corner.
Mike pauses the lesson. "You play Little League?" he asks.
The boy nods.
"Does Kris still have the record for home runs?"
The boy shrugs.
"Twenty-three home runs in one season," Mike says. The kid looks perplexed. Mike can sense it. "You could break that record," Mike continues.
There's a brief pause.
"But, you know, that's like one home run per game."
MIKE TEACHES HITTING the way Ted Williams taught him at spring training in the early 1980s, when Mike was a center fielder trying to survive the Red Sox's farm system. Use a slight uppercut to launch the ball into the air. If it was good enough for the best hitter ever, Mike thought, it was good enough for his boys. He started with Nick, his oldest. Then Kris wanted to learn. Mike showed them how to hold a bat, how to keep their feet under them when they swung. Just the basics. They'd hit for hours in the backyard. Nick was good, but Kris was exceptional. A few months after his fifth birthday, Kris was turned loose on the youth baseball players of Las Vegas. He hit a ball 180 feet.
MIKE IS TRYING to find a piece of paper, his motivation. It's in a binder packed with nearly two decades of Kris' work, Dad's version of a scrapbook. On one page, there's a photo of 11-year-old Kris swinging a bat, with typed notes: top hand works under the bottom hand. firm front leg. massive weight shift through the ball. this ball went over 300 feet! There are newspaper stories, printouts of statistical analyses, strike-zone evaluations.
Then there's Kris' high school scouting report from Baseball America. It takes Mike some time to dig through the papers, but he finds it buried near the back. He pulls it out and stares at it. The words still sting.
Kris always had doubters. First, he was too small. Then he grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-4 in one high school year. They criticized Kris' swing, that uppercut stroke his dad had helped hone. Then Kris hit 25 home runs in his first three high school seasons -- plus 22 more in his senior year. They said Kris had "light-tower power" but wondered whether it would translate to a wooden bat. They pointed out his strikeouts.
Mike reads the report aloud: Batting-practice hitter. Long swing. Wood bat. The same old stuff. He gives a dismissive laugh. "No one remembers the doubters now," he says.
MIKE OPENS THE door to the batting cage, checks his appointments and plans the rest of his night. It'll be a late one. The last kid, a high schooler, won't leave until at least 9. Dexter Fowler and Shane Victorino, two of Kris' Cubs teammates who also live in Vegas, can attest to this. Some nights they have to wait until 9:30 at night to use the cage. Mike spends 50 hours a week here, at $70 a lesson, coaching kids of all ages. He has worked with Joey Gallo since the Vegas-raised, power-hitting 22-year-old Ranger was 7. Almost impossibly, two of the game's most exciting young mashers have sprung from Mike's work.
Victorino has thought about this. He says Kris understands how special it is to have someone in your life who's a father and a coach and a former pro. If Kris struggles at the plate, Mike can offer more than encouragement. He can help put together a plan.
Of course, that's partly why this 72-foot-long, 18-foot-wide cage exists. It's a present from a grateful son. It's a place that's given Mike the freedom to concentrate on baseball, to move from the workaday grind of sales jobs to something he's passionate about. But the cage has also become a respite for Kris, a place far from prying eyes. He will never show the finer points of his work to the greater public.
When Kris is training here in the offseason, they typically start off with the tee, then move to the Hack Attack pitching machine, which Mike bought after seeing a model at one of the Cubs' facilities. If Kris wants to work on bat speed, Mike will dial in a 96 mph fastball, center-cut. Kris' favorite. Mike has figured out the dials on the machine, says he can pull up an Adam Wainwright slider on demand.
There's an intimate relationship between hitter and instructor. Mike tells Kris to see the ball, to track it, to be easy. He knows Kris is a unique ballplayer. His kid, he says, is built for the ages.
MIKE WONDERS IF he sounds nuts. He traveled to 30 games last season, threw to Kris in the Home Run Derby and became an associate scout for the Cubs. He's got a business card. It's not a full-time job, but he gets $250 if a kid he recommends is signed to a contract. Adidas, which endorses Kris, is backing Mike on a youth team in Vegas. He has a lot of new shoes. He lives vicariously through his son, he admits, "just like you're not supposed to do."
When Kris reached the majors last April, he couldn't take his college number, 23, which belonged to Ryne Sandberg and is retired. So Kris' mother, Sue, suggested he take 17, the number he used during brief minor league stints in Iowa and Tennessee. It was also his father's number. Kris thought it was a good idea.
On April 23 in Pittsburgh, Joe Maddon penciled Kris in at center field. It was a rare outfield start for the rookie. Mike had gotten to the stadium early, as he always did, to watch batting practice. When Mike looked to the outfield, he could see the lineup posted on the scoreboard.
17 BRYANT CF
Kris was hitting fourth. Mike's old spot. Mike's old number. Mike's old position.
After 56 years, he had finally made it.
MIKE WANTS TO clear up a rumor. On June 25, the Cubs played the Dodgers, and Kris left the game early. Mike knows there was message-board speculation that his son was hungover. Not true, he says. Kris doesn't drink. At least not yet. Someday, he's told his father, he will take a swig of champagne. It won't happen when he marries his high school sweetheart, Jessica Delp, next year. Instead, it will come in the Cubs' clubhouse after they win the World Series.
MIKE WAS THERE when Kris hit his first over-the-fence home run. Kris was 8. As his boy rounded third base, Mike greeted him, scooped him off the ground and wrapped him in a hug. He knew Kris was a special kind of talent. He could see it in his pensive blue eyes, in the way he translated instruction into action at the plate, as if he were a decade older. Mike knew what he had was rare, and he understood he would have to train his son differently.
"Pro batting practice" started at 11, with Mike making Kris use the entire field to create hits. During games, Mike would bench Kris, at least for the first inning but sometimes two or three. The pair talked strategy while the other kids played. He wanted his son to see the game, not just be in it. Mike also took to putting Kris at the bottom of the batting order. Two hits that day and Kris could move up one spot. After games, Mike would find the team's scorekeeper and scrutinize his son's numbers. He changed every one of Kris' infield hits to outs. Derek Jeter would have made those plays, Mike told his 12-year-old.
The idea was simple: Kris needed to earn everything.
MIKE'S FENDER STRATOCASTER sits in a corner of the cage, below a photo of him at spring training with the Red Sox. On the guitar's front, there's a painted picture of Kris in his batting stance. Body low. Legs wide. Hands near his ears. Kris' number by the guitar's neck, "Cubs" written in cursive with "Mike" just below. A Fender Strat, man. Mike still can't believe it. There's a message on the back. "Dad," it begins, "thank you for all you did to help me reach my dream."
MIKE KNEW HIS son would struggle. A father just knows. After his freshman year at San Diego, in 2011, Kris played in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. Break out there and you ascend to rarefied territory. Major league dreams become real possibilities.
Mike was forced to watch his son's games online, 2,700 miles away, unable to afford the plane ticket at the time. Each pitch was agonizing. After Kris struck out seven times in two games, he phoned his father. Kris called his dad often, but for the first time, Mike could hear frustration in his son's voice. Kris had never felt like this before, never sounded this way. The phone went quiet for five seconds. Ten. Fifteen.
"Did you forget how to hit?" Mike finally asked.
Kris needed to take his mind to the backyard. Feel the flow of the game, his father told him. These pitchers have been having their way with you. They're enjoying it too much. Get angry at the plate. Shoot the ball where the pitcher puts it. If it's a mistake pitch, punish it. Move on to the next at-bat.
Mike watched the next game on his computer and saw his son blast a double. Two games later, he hit a grand slam. Over the Cape league's final seven games, Kris raised his batting average 19 points. After the summer season ended, Mike began processing what he'd witnessed in those last days -- Kris finally understood that he could play this game.
MIKE'S PHONE IS buzzing. He pulls the cell from his warm-up pants and scans the text, pushing his Cubs cap higher on his head. It's Bob Tewksbary, Josh Donaldson's personal hitting instructor. Mike is pecking out a few words when he gets another text. It's Kris. Anthony Rizzo just got a Hack Attack. He wants to know Mike's dialed-in pitches.
MIKE AND 18-YEAR-OLD Kris stood on a baseball field at Bonanza High School on Jan. 28, 2010, ready to begin batting practice while a gaggle of pro scouts watched. It was 50 degrees, with the wind blowing in from left field. Mike would throw to his son; Kris would hit with a wooden bat.
Before he threw his first pitch, Mike pulled Kris aside. Work the field, he said. Relax. You don't need to play home run derby.
Kris was the best player in Nevada high school baseball. But here, on this field, he was the other kid from Las Vegas. Across the street from Bonanza was the College of Southern Nevada, where 17-year-old Bryce Harper was preparing for the first game of his college career.
Harper was the wunderkind featured in magazines, in newspapers, on television. A catcher by trade, he could throw 95 mph. He once hit a ball 570 feet. He quit high school at 16 so he could earn his GED, play one year at Southern Nevada and then go pro.
Kris played with Harper on a couple of teams before high school. For years, Kris and Mike had studied Harper, watched the way he hit, the intensity he brought to every pitch. Mike thought his son was every bit as gifted. When folks marveled after Harper hit 10 home runs in a single tournament when he was 10 years old, Mike pointed out that Kris hit seven in a single tournament when he was 9.
Perception was reality, though. Harper was physically mature for his age, a kid who would happily go toe-to-toe with a grown man. Kris, on the other hand, had always been one of the smaller boys on his teams. Joey Gallo and his mother would laugh at the way Kris would wander to the plate, like a lost boy, and then smash a fastball off a pitcher a couple of years older. Harper gave Kris the nickname Silk, and it stuck. Over time Kris had come to see it as a backhanded compliment, like he didn't care. His play on the field might have looked effortless, but it took work. He loved the game the way his father loved it, respected their time too much to waste those hours together.
With the scouts watching, Mike stood near the mound at Bonanza and threw his first pitch. Home run. Each time Kris connected, the bat crackled. Again and again. Swing. Gone. Mike kept track. Eighteen consecutive home runs. Thirty-seven before he made six outs.
MIKE HAS ALWAYS loved playing catch with Kris in the cul-de-sac, father and son throwing the ball just beyond the driveway in the Vegas heat. As Kris got older, the throws got longer. By 16, he could toss a ball from the stop sign -- some 300 feet, nearly the length of a football field. The games continued as Kris went from underrated high schooler to college phenom to highly anticipated pro.
This past offseason, Kris stopped by the house to play. Mike and Kris started slowly, warming up their arms as they increased the distance between themselves. This is so fun, Mike thought. Then Kris really started throwing. To Mike, it appeared as if the ball were still rising, gaining speed, an ungodly hiss emanating from the horsehide as it streaked across the asphalt. When it hit Mike's glove, the ball popped like a gunshot.
Kris' arm was a major league weapon. Mike's hand ached. They haven't played catch since.
KRIS STANDS OFF one of the grass workout fields one spring training weekend in March -- across from the Cubs' massive indoor batting complex in Arizona -- and thinks about how far he's come.
He was doubted as a kid, even though he was a fantastic player. He struggled that one season in the Cape. He was sent down to the minors last spring because of service-time issues, a subject that is now being litigated by the Major League Baseball Players Association. He struck out in his first three major league at-bats. He hit .168 last July.
But the one constant in his game has been his father.
"If I go 0-for-4 with a couple strikeouts, he's always like: 'You had a couple good swings here. You're just missing it. You're right there. Watch,'" Kris says. "My dad isn't one of those dads who pushes you. He picks you up."
Kris Bryant is what a major league ballplayer should look like. Tall and trim, built from muscular right angles, his jaw perfectly square. His hair is clipped short on the sides, fuller up the middle. He is unfailingly polite, a model for any franchise. For the most part, though, he is a closed book.
Except when he speaks about his father. His eyes light up. "He always predicts good things," Kris says of Mike. "Even last year, I was struggling at the beginning of the year. There was all that rookie of the year stuff out there. I never thought about it, but he was always like, 'You're going to win that award. You're not doing that good right now, but you're going to figure it out. You've done this your whole life.' I trust my dad with everything he says."
This could be the greatest team the Cubs have assembled since their last championship in 1908, which makes Kris one of the game's main attractions this season. Fans line the walkways and peer through chain fences to get a glimpse. They listen for the sound of his bat meeting a ball.
One morning, Kris settles at the plate, takes a pitch during a simulated game and bashes it high into the Arizona sky. A couple of coaches nod in approval. A few whisper. Kris watches as the ball lands in the left-field berm over the fence. It's just another swing of the bat. Without saying a word, he steps out of the batter's box and waits quietly for his next turn.