Baseball’s hottest prospect, Kris Bryant, joined the Chicago Cubs on Friday, after two years of steadily increasing anticipation. Bryant, a clean-cut 23-year-old with cerulean blue eyes and close to matinee-idol looks, led the majors in spring training with nine home runs while batting .425. In 2014, he led all professional baseball with 43 homers. Bryant’s call-up also has not been without its share of drama: a soon-to-be-forgotten contretemps over general manager Theo Epstein’s decision to send him back to Triple-A ball for the first 12 days of the season (to get another year out of him before free agency, critics assert).
To say that expectations for Bryant are high in Chicago, whose Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908, would be the understatement of the season (or century). All the hype has put intense pressure on the rookie in his first days in the majors.
But step back from the plate or the front office for a moment, and there is nothing but joy to be found in Bryant’s arrival at Wrigley Field. It is a timeless story of baseball itself, the eternal spring of hopeful beginnings, of rookies with endless promise and dreams of glory, of certain failure and slumps, and grinding effort and the satisfaction of earned victory. If former baseball commissioner and Yale president and Renaissance scholar Bart Giamatti explained to us that baseball was designed to break our hearts, then it is also designed to sustain us with eternal hope, and no more so than when rookies get their big break.
Only in baseball do draftees, no matter how celebrated, need to prove their mettle in the minor leagues. The wait to make it to the Show can be short (as in Bryant’s case after being drafted in 2013) or long (never happening for the majority of players). During those years of apprenticeship, the lesson that the ultimate prize must be earned is inescapable. The hardest throwing pitcher in baseball history, Steve Dalkowski, never made it to the bigs, while smaller players without obvious power, like Ozzie Smith, became the best ever at their positions through steady work and timely heroics.
But for the fans, it is watching the progress of the prospects that is most satisfying. To see them develop, inching their way up from Rookie League to Single-A, then the hardest jump, to Double-A, before becoming a major leaguer-in-waiting in Triple-A, mimics our own life’s journey. Learning that life means taking on ever more responsibility and harder challenges, and reaping greater rewards, is what helps us navigate our path. There are many ways to learn that lesson, from our parents and churches and synagogues, occasionally from our schools. But an equally powerful, and perhaps the most enjoyable, way is from baseball. After all, as the hoary saying goes, it is only in baseball that the greatest players fail seven times in ten.
A player’s debut in the major leagues, then, is the most satisfying moment of his career, probably his life, up until that point. It is a time for celebration and thankfulness, and the best of our young athletes understand that. Bryant tweeted the morning of his call-up, “Today I got to tell my family that my dream is coming true.” That is the right way, to honor one’s family first, and to be humble in the recognition that a dream doesn’t always work out. Both he and his girlfriend, like many people in sports, are comfortable in the language of faith, calling themselves blessed, another lesson from the hard work of delayed gratification.
But baseball’s best, and hardest, lesson, is that the journey never ends and the goal is never fully achieved. Chicago fans may have been ecstatic that the franchise’s future had finally arrived, but when his first moment in the spotlight came, there was no Roy Hobbs moment, no Disney ending to his journey. Bryant went hitless, 0 for 4, in his first big-league game. Of course, so did Babe Ruth, who went 0 for 2 in his first appearance for the Boston Red Sox.
The measure of each of us is how we respond to those challenges and setbacks. How we do so is in large part determined by our character, but in no small way influenced by the experiences and preparation that have come before. That is why baseball is such a mirror of life, with its steady, unceasing flow of 162 games a year, requiring constant effort, patience, and the strength to do extraordinary things when the moment demands.
It’s a lesson Kris Bryant seems to have learned. He bounced back in his second game, going 2 for 3, with his first RBI. Neither of the hits was for power, but that’s not the measure right now. Those will come, as will the heroics, in time, but only if everything else is in balance. Bryant’s journey is just beginning, as one time was Derek Jeter’s and Ernie Banks’s and Joe Dimaggio’s. We can be thankful, not only for the promise it holds, but for the hope it gives us and the lessons already taught.