When Kris Bryant was introduced at the All-Star Game and tipped his cap, the guy sitting alongside at Buffalo Wild Wings said the Cubs’ rookie third baseman must have grown a good four or five inches since the first time he saw him on a baseball diamond.
Not as many people watch the All-Star Game as when Pete Rose was bowling over catchers at home plate, because there are a lot more home improvement shows on TV now. But about 11 million still do watch it.
When Bryant tipped his cap, the odds I‘d be watching with someone who had seen him through his growth spurt never occurred to me. They must have been infinitesimal.
Derek Stafford was Kris Bryant‘s coach at Bonanza High School, though he said that probably was too strong a word for it. Stafford said Bryant never needed much coaching, even as a 14-year-old freshman who still was growing.
He said you can tell who the ballplayers are from the way a kid wears the uniform and how he plays catch. Stafford knew straight away that young Kris Bryant was going to be a special player. He knew how to play catch; he had a nice crease in his cap.
Stafford showed a copy of the Bonanza Baseball Agreement from 2010, when Bryant was a senior. It said the undersigned, should he desire to play for the Bengals, must not obtain failing marks in class. And that if the undersigned disrespected the program by drinking or getting into other shenanigans, he would be asked to turn in his uniform.
Even if his cap had a nice crease.
"I prided myself on teaching work ethic, respect for the game, carrying yourself the right way," Stafford said before the chicken wings and tenders arrived. "These things were always easy for Kris because he had a solid foundation from his parents."
A lot of people have gotten to know Mike Bryant, Kris‘ father. He‘s the one who pitched to his son in Monday‘s Home Run Derby in Cincinnati. Not as many people know Kris‘ mother Suzi.
Mike Bryant is sort of feisty. Suzi Bryant sort of isn‘t, Stafford said.
"I do think Kris gets his cool, quiet-yet-confident demeanor from Suzi," he said.
The other stuff, the Ted Williams-style uppercut and the patience in the batter‘s box and the hitting of the cutoff man, that was Mike Bryant‘s influence.
"At the end of the day, I didn‘t make Kris Bryant a home run hitter, I didn‘t adjust his swing." Stafford said. "I do like to think we continued to instill a good work ethic and respect for the game.
"Kris was raised the right way. But I think our program was an extension of how his parents raised him, I really do."
Bryant hit 47 home runs at Bonanza, which would be like Barry Bonds hitting a bazillion homers with the Giants, because whereas the Giants usually are pretty good, Bonanza was never known for its baseball teams.
Stafford, 35, became the Bengals‘ head coach when he was 23, if that tells you anything. When was the last time Bishop Gorman hired a 23-year-old baseball head coach?
But Bishop Gorman didn‘t have Kris Bryant (or Bryce Harper the year after).
"Even his sophomore year, he had 10 ," Stafford said, getting back to Bryant‘s home runs. "In six games, he hit a home run in each game — six in a row. It‘s like a video game. Holy smoke. He‘s a sophomore — he hits 10 as a sophomore.
"Ten‘s a phenomenal number, especially at Bonanza High School."
Stafford said they built the Bonanza diamond in the 1970s and it faces the wrong way. Sewage issues or something. The outfield seems enormous.
"The fences are 10 feet high and they lay on brick. So they are about 12-foot high," Stafford said. "The ball does not travel — it‘s got to be the worst hitter‘s park in Southern Nevada. And he hits 47 career home runs."
Remember that recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit where a bunch of guys are in a bar raising glasses to Bill Brasky, a friend known for Herculean feats?
That‘s how Derek Stafford was talking about Kris Bryant. Except Stafford was drinking soda. And every Herculean feat actually happened.
During his senior year, Bryant hit 22 home runs in 79 at-bats. When the other teams wouldn’t pitch to him, Stafford had Bryant bat leadoff. At least they‘d have to pitch to him once.
"The saberheads thought I was a genius," he said of those who keep track of baseball statistics in an empirical fashion.
So for six innings Derek Stafford told Kris Bryant stories with boyish enthusiasm. He even has purchased satellite radio so he can listen to Kris‘ games with the Cubs — and he‘s a lifelong Cardinals fan.
Stafford said he was so proud to have been Bryant‘s coach, and that people forget about Chasen Shreve, now pitching for the Yankees, and that Bryant and Shreve were teammates at Bonanza for two years — and who would have thought little Bonanza High would put two guys from the same team in the big leagues?
And who also would have thought Bonanza would knock off Bishop Gorman in the playoffs a couple of years ago, after Bryant and Shreve had gone on to college?
The odds must have been infinitesimal.
That was a special day, said Derek Stafford, now dean of students at Las Vegas High. But a few innings earlier, before the chicken wings and tenders arrived, he had seen one of his players tip his hat at the All-Star Game. It doesn’t get any more special than that.