Theo Epstein said back in 2014 that he wanted to give fans an annual feast, not just cookies. Seven years later, the dirty dishes from that long-finished banquet are still clattering in the dishwasher and one of the chefs finally brought cookies to the table. Literally.
In an emotional return to Wrigley Field Friday afternoon, Kris Bryant and his wife, Jess, brought cookies for every ballpark employee. The treats came with a note thanking them for being part of the Bryants’ family for the last seven years, which is exactly the kind of thoughtful gesture you’d expect from the perpetually underappreciated star.
Lots of emotions! pic.twitter.com/qzFPj5Nu5t
— Jeremiah Paprocki (@jtheannouncer) September 10, 2021
“It’s easy to thank your hitting coach or your teammates or the people writing out your checks, but the people behind the scenes here really make this place go,” Bryant explained. “They’ve been through a lot here. A lot of them have 20-years plus of working in the stands and have gone through a lot of losing seasons and to finally win one and see how happy they were and just how they’ve treated us my whole career here, it was just a little something I could send their way to show how much me and my family appreciate them.”
News of the baked goods primed the pump for waterworks that began when the Cubs played a tribute video prior to the start of the game. Similar highlight films were put together for Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber earlier in the season, but there was a little more distance there in terms of their time away from the Cubs. Bryant made it to the 1:47 mark of the video without tearing up, then he made the mistake of turning to look into the crowd.
Visibly moved by the warm welcome from the fans, the Giant had to adjust his sunglasses in order to wipe his eyes. And it wasn’t just a few little tears spilling onto his cheeks, the man was having trouble keeping his composure. If that didn’t move the hearts and minds of those who — in spite of everything he’s said and we’ve reported over the years — have harbored the belief that Bryant didn’t want to remain in Chicago, nothing will.
“It was kind of hard to play a baseball game after that, for sure, but I really appreciated it,” Bryant said. “When I first started my career here, I don’t know if I could’ve ever dreamed of having that type of reception and the fans welcoming me back like that. Definitely something that is one of the highlights of my career so far.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Willson Contreras and Kyle Hendricks saw fit to take their time with a little extra communication in order to allow for a lengthy standing ovation prior to Bryant’s first at-bat. He did indeed appear to be a little shaken, striking out on three pitches to end the opening frame, though it would be unfair not to acknowledge how good Hendricks looked on the afternoon.
Bryant ended up going 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in a very easy 6-1 win for the Giants, so it was bittersweet all the way around. The Cubs lost, Bryant didn’t do particularly well, and having both Jed Hoyer and David Ross quarantined due to COVID meant Crane Kenney and Jason McLeod were part of the gift-bearing entourage during the pregame ceremony.
There’s irony in that group I won’t get into here, but it just felt a little off. Kind of like seeing Bryant at Wrigley in a Giants uniform, or for him to have to navigate the park from a different entrance and clubhouse.
“This place is home to me. It always will be,” Bryant said. “I know my way around here. Anytime I’m in here, I’ll always feel like it is home.”
Welcome back to the Friendly Confines.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 10, 2021
Kris Bryant wasn’t a perfect ballplayer by any stretch, though even being the best of all time might not have been enough to meet the expectations set forth by an unprecedented run of initial success. He went from being named the best player in college baseball to the best in Minor League Baseball to Rookie of the Year to National League MVP to World Series champion. That’s more than 99% of baseball players will accomplish in a lifetime and Bryant did it in four years.
Then came the disappointment of falling short in the playoffs or not making them at all while playing through injuries that prevented him from getting back to the big counting stats everyone wanted to see. His reputation was sullied by reports of contract demands and fans turned against him because of an inexplicable belief that he was a prima donna. I don’t care that it’s all water under the bridge at this point, I’m petty enough to keep calling out that foolishness until the end of days.
For now, though, I’ll leave off by saying that Bryant did everything the Cubs asked of him and then some. He helped carry a fabled franchise to the end of the most storied championship drought in American sports history and remained humble throughout. He ushered in a new era of Cubs baseball and was ushered out when it became clear that era had ended. With full knowledge that MLB is a business, it’s still tough to see the way everything crumbled at 1060 W. Addison even as the team pumped hundreds of millions into “Saving Wrigley Field.”
But at least Bryant has a chance to win another title with the Giants, and I’m rooting like hell for him to do it.