On Monday, June 27, Kris Bryant had a day for the ages against the Cincinnati Reds, going 5-for-5 with three home runs and two doubles. As this had never happened before in baseball history, tributes to his achievement poured in from all over the baseball landscape.
(Except for one Boston hack who sniffed that Bryant was overrated for crushing homers off the likes of Dan Straily and Ross Ohlendorf while never getting a single hit off a truly great Reds pitcher like Johnny Van Der Meer just because he happens to be dead.)
While his jaw-unhinging feats on the field justifiably dominated the night, one of Bryant’s most interesting moments actually happened after his third home run. As Cub fans throughout Great American Ball Park cheered the history they were witnessing, Bryant’s teammates encouraged him to take a curtain call. And despite the joy that enveloped the entire ballpark in that moment, Bryant refused.
And the FCC official in charge of monitoring Marty Brennaman’s play-by-play said “Thank you.”
Bryant’s explanation for refusing the curtain call on the road was succinct and provided a perfect summary for who he is as a major leaguer:
“I’ve never been the type to show up an opponent or anybody. I don’t think it’s ever happened in baseball and I don’t want to be the first. I’m just not that type of player.”
In that moment (and completely unbeknownst to himself), Bryant became a spiritual heir to a tradition of Cub legends that began with Billy Williams and passed down through Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson: Kris Bryant had become the Cubs’ latest stoic superstar.
What jumps off the page immediately about Bryant’s quote is how much it echoes the words of Sandberg. (I will now pause while you Google the question “Does silence echo?”) In his autobiography Second to Home, Sandberg captions a celebratory photo:
“I never liked showing up my opponents but the fans forced me to take a curtain call after my second home run off Bruce Sutter on June 23, 1984.” (Sandberg, photo page 9)
Apparently Sandberg never would have acknowledged the fans if June 23rd hadn’t been 9mm Day at the ballpark. That John McDonough was a genius!
It’s revealing that Bryant and Sandberg refer to the act of the curtain call as “showing up an opponent.” And the fact that they refer to such a brief and relatively tame gesture this way reflects that despite possessing generational talent, they first and foremost want to be perceived by their peers as worthy adversaries.
For players like this, the joy of baseball exists entirely in the game itself. The time to celebrate success is in the moment that it happens. And then once that moment has passed, there’s nothing they’d rather do than keep playing so that they can chase down the next one.
As for why players like Bryant and Sandberg are so concerned about the perception of their opponents, a clue can be found in a part of Ryno’s Hall of Fame speech that rarely gets discussed:
“And I want to say thank you to every teammate, coach, manager, and–just as important–my opponents who made the game fun for me.”
“Respect for the game” has become a trite cliche at this point, usually dropped by the baseball police to try to convince Bryce Harper to get a better haircut. But Sandberg’s quote articulates what’s really behind the approach of such “respect.” For the baseball stoic, the challenge of beating a major league caliber player is what makes baseball enjoyable. So why would they want to deliberately antagonize someone who makes the game fun?
Besides concern for the perceptions of his peers, the biggest trait that Bryant shares with his stoic brethren from the past is relying on others to sing his praises. Joe Maddon has noticed this quality and, as with most subjects, is able to articulate it about as well as anyone in baseball:
“He’s just different. There’s no pretentiousness about him whatsoever.”
This is certainly true. Bryant never walks around the clubhouse quoting NPR or the films of Kurosawa. Hopefully his influence can spread around the team as sources indicate Miguel Montero never visits John Lackey on the mound anymore because he’s tired of discussing Infinite Jest.
Maddon continues with one of the highest compliments a baseball lifer can give:
“He’s a baseball player. He loves to play. He comes ready. He doesn’t whine, he doesn’t complain.”
Maddon’s tribute to Bryant sounds an awful lot like Billy Williams’s self description:
“People say I’m not an exciting player. I go out there and catch the ball and hit the ball and play the game like it should be played.”
Williams was the perfect example of a baseball stoic. Because the closest he ever came to showboating was reciting his job description. And it only sounded like boasting because that description was “Hall of Famer.”
In that quote, Williams reveals the downside to stoicism: even though players like he and Bryant perform at a superstar level, they come to be viewed by the media and public as “bland” and “vanilla.” But while humility plays a rolein this, it’s hardly the only reason why they choose not to seek out the camera’s red light after every great moment. As Bryant reveals, it actually makes good baseball sense:
“I’ve always been about action, doing it on the field and not worrying what people are saying about me or anything like that, because I know deep down I want to be better than what everybody is saying about me.”
In other words, Kris Bryant doesn’t care to talk himself up because he’s too busy using your praise to inspire himself to get better.
In the end, that’s the goal of every baseball great. Every one of them wants to live up to the goal of greatness that they set for themselves. It turns out that the one thing Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant have in common is that they’re both motivated by the great things said about them by Bryce Harper.
Sandberg, Ryne with Barry Rosner. Second to Home: Ryne Sandberg Opens Up. Chicago. Bonus Books, Inc. 1995
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.