Prior to the New Cubs panel, I found myself talking with Neil Finnell of Chicago Cubs Online about the overall feel of this year’s Convention and how the makeup of the team has contributed to it. We both agreed that having so many guys to whom fans could relate was getting people almost as excited as the wins the team was expected to put up. Sure, winning is the key to the whole thing, but the likability factor cannot be discounted here. Nowhere was that more true than during the Rock Star Rookies panel, populated as it was by Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber.
More than their individual contributions to the team, what has always struck me about each of the Cubs’ youngsters is how well they handled themselves throughout the process of acclimating to the Bigs. Each seems possessed of a maturity beyond his years, an almost preternatural calm that belies the anxiety that surely creeps into any player’s psyche as he realizes his dream and then must come to grips with the fact that what was once fantasy is now reality. I know we’d all like to think we’d handle such an ascension with aplomb, but it’s not as easy as those guys made it look. Hell, I was barely able to maintain decorum in the CubsCon media section.
As you might imagine, the crowd was pretty amped up for this particular session, almost as though it was the headlining act of a big music festival. I guess it’s fitting then that they had titled it Rock Star Rookies. One of my great laments of the weekend is that adults would bum-rush the stage at the conclusion of the Q&A portion to shove autographable items into the faces of their favorite players or execs, particularly when such behavior prevented children from getting up front. At the same time, there’s something about being in close proximity to one’s favorite athletes that reduces grown-ass men to blubbering children. That’s not excusing the behavior, just saying that I can kinda understand what causes it.
In any case, the four young men up on the stage Saturday afternoon were like a boy band and the crowd like so many screaming tweens. I captured a little over 14 minutes of video at the start of the panel before switching over to live-tweeting, but I probably had a goofy grin on my face the whole time. The way the rising sophomores riffed off of each other and the fans just felt so natural and carefree, you couldn’t help but sit bad and enjoy the show.
Even Schwarber, whose interviews I’ve viewed as a little bland in the past, was cracking jokes and laughing along the whole time. At one point, the massive masher’s scoreboard-topping homer was brought up, at which point Kris Bryant — referring to his majestic blast off the videoboard in left — interjected, “Mine went farther,” drawing lots of laughs in response.
The players all took time to thank their parents when asked about how they were able to remain grounded in light of all that’s happened to them over the last year or so. Russell talked about the discipline his parents levied, all well deserved. Schwarber’s dad was a police officer, so he pretty much had to stay out of trouble. Bryant said that his dad actually sold his business in order to coach his son from a young age, and Baez said that baseball was pretty much just something you had to play in his family. It’s pretty obvious that they weren’t raised to be prima donnas, but to appreciate their talent and the oppotunities it afforded.
Family can only take you so far though, and your dad can’t be there to guide you once you get the call to The Show. As such, Joe Maddon and the rest of the staff had to take over. So how did their manager help to keep them loose? Russell said he just allowed them to play, encouraged them to have fun and let their talent speak for itself without pressing too hard. We all know Maddon can be pretty eloquent, and Baez relayed a story of when his skipper was particularly expressive in his advice to the young slugger.
“He just told me to go out there and try not to suck,” Javy quipped.
It wasn’t just Maddon either. Schwarber was effusive in his praise of Jon Lester, David Ross, and Miguel Montero, all of whom taught him about being a pro both on and off the field. Bryant echoed those thoughts, particularly in regard to Ross, and Russell added that the players in the Cubs organization really helped to make the transition from the A’s an easy one. As for a best buddy on the team, though, the shortstop is still searching.
“I don’t have a bromance,” the newlywed lamented, “but I’m craving one so bad.”
He certainly had some fans though, including one young man who had Russell’s visage painted/cut into the hair on the back of his head.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) January 15, 2016
But here’s the really cool part: as the kid got up to ask a question, Russell recognized him from earlier in the day and stepped down from the stage to bring the young boy up with him so that he could show his ‘do to the crowd. It’s little things like that that might escape the awareness of young men with less presence of mind. These Cubs, however, are more than just vapid, self-absorbed athletes.
Further testament to that fact came when Kris Bryant responded to a young woman’s story about a trip she and her sister had taken to Memphis a couple years prior. She talked about driving to the renowned culinary destination to sample the food at several local restaurants, one of which was being patronized the stud prospect. The young woman and her sister were actually seated right next to Bryant and were just as flustered as she obviously was at the mic. As she was relaying the tale, Bryant interrupted.
“Wait, was that Central Barbecue? I remember that! You didn’t even come over.”
“Yes!” the girl exclaimed before asking the players to wave to her sister, who was too embarrassed to come up and who flushed 20 different shades of red as she was called out.
Call me crazy, but that little moment told me a lot about who Bryant is as a person. He spoke a bit about how people are normally really cool with him and don’t harass him when he’s out in public. Still, you have to think he gets more than his fair share of fans coming up to him, even if it’s just to say hi. As such, the fact that he would remember a single encounter at a restaurant in which a couple girls didn’t even approach him really says something. Of course, I’m guessing the sisters were less than clandestine in their admiration of the superstar.
I’ve got to admit, I was having a really hard time keeping my own admiration under wraps. Can you blame me though? Not only do all four of the young young players in question have the potential to be really great baseball players, they seem like really good dudes too. I’m fully aware that they could all just be fantastic actors and that they’re putting on show for the fans, but it all felt pretty genuine to me. And that’s where it all gets back to the aforementioned conversation I had with Neil earlier in the day. These guys make it pretty easy to be a fan.