A friend tells a story:
It was close to eight years ago when he coached a fall baseball team that competed in a wood bat league in Las Vegas. The team added an eighth-grader as a pickup player for one tournament, a kid who arrived with a reputation in town for being incredibly talented.
He was pretty much your way-above-average ringer.
“He hit one ball over 400 feet,” my friend says. “Just a great kid. Humble. He didn’t say, ‘Yes, Coach,’ to everything in the way others do when they’re forcing it or trying to say what they think you want them to. He was just a really nice, down-to-earth kid. We would say something and he would be like, ‘OK, whatever you need.”
Derek Stafford tells a story:
It was five years ago when he sat down with one of his Bonanza High players and asked what the kid wanted to do after high school.
“He said, “Coach, I want to be a dentist,” Stafford said. “Now, this was someone who was already an all-conference player and had hit 10 home runs as a 15-year-old and had already committed to going to the University of San Diego. He was good. But he only talked about becoming a dentist. He never mentioned baseball or playing in college or being drafted or making the game his life.
“Ever since then, I knew the kid had his head on straight.”
I have never seen Kris Bryant swing a bat or any of the mammoth home runs others talk about, never witnessed firsthand the skill that the Chicago Cubs recognized in making Bryant the No. 2 overall selection last week in the Major League Baseball Draft.
I just know that if the young man who walked into the cafeteria at Bonanza on Monday is a true reflection of the person the Cubs are about to pay millions of dollars to and count on to help anchor a lineup alongside Anthony Rizzo for years to come, the Curse might not last forever.
Bryant led the nation in home runs (31), runs (80), walks (66) and slugging percentage (.820) this season. He also says the word “awesome” about as much as some blink. He crushed the theory, like he has so many fastballs, that a kid can play one sport his entire life and not emerge some sort of characterless robot.
There is a competitive fire to Bryant that many mistake as shyness, a sort of inner conviction that, although he knows his is a special gift, he rarely speaks about it unless asked.
Did I mention he thinks most everything is awesome?
“I played football and basketball in the street growing up, and that’s all the fix I really needed for other sports,” Bryant said. “I just always wanted to play baseball and be the best I could be. I think things changed around age 12. I hit like 19 home runs in Little League and thought it might be something I could do well. I became more serious about it.
“I owe so much to (Bonanza) and the coaches here. Every year, my game got better here. Made awesome friends. Met awesome people.”
He never has been to Chicago, unless you count when San Diego spent time in the airport on a layover and Bryant stared out a window at the city’s skyline. His mother was born in the area and still has family there.
How quickly he will go from playing third base in the minors to doing so at Wrigley Field is anyone’s guess. He is represented by Scott Boras, baseball’s most infamous agent, whose face probably adorns many a dartboard within the game rooms of major league general managers.
Bryant owns even more leverage in that he could return to San Diego for his senior season, but the odds of him turning down the nearly $7 million Chicago has slotted for its first-round pick rival those of Boras allowing the Cubs to control negotiations from beginning to end.
Kris Bryant is on his way to the bigs and probably will arrive sooner than later.
Dental school, for now, must wait.
“Kris was never treated any differently here at Bonanza,” Stafford said. “He was never allowed to throw a bat or a helmet or talk to an umpire without being disciplined, because no one is allowed to do those things. The success doesn’t surprise me. How he has handled and reacted to it doesn’t surprise me. He’s 21, is having a lot thrown at him and has handled it all with such incredible grace.”
There’s a word for that: awesome.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.