Derek Jeter is the headliner trying to corral enough heavy hitters to close a billion-dollar deal for the Miami Marlins, the sale of a dysfunctional franchise hanging over the All-Star Game this week in South Florida.
Kris Bryant is the National League’s reigning MVP, not invited to Major League Baseball’s showcase event, an awkward symbol for an underachieving Cubs team that won’t have a single player from last year’s World Series winner there on Tuesday night at Marlins Park.
But the glass-half-full look at the rest of this season begins with Bryant, whose relative downturn includes 18 homers, a .928 OPS that’s only 11 points from where he finished his MVP campaign and a WAR rating that still makes him a top-15 player in the NL.
Bryant also possesses the inner drive, natural calm and sense of responsibility that draws comparisons to Jeter, a player he publicly patterned himself after while being anointed as the franchise savior, trying to deflect credit and attention and defuse controversy.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities there between KB and Derek,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said on this week’s upcoming Cubs Talk podcast, remembering his time as a Yankee staffer on championship teams in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. “Derek’s focus, No. 1, was on the score. You never really heard about any personal achievements with him.
“It was about coming here to beat the other team, day in and day out, whether it be with a great play or a bunt or a smart base-running play. He was always looking for some way to change the game in a positive manner for our team.
“That’s the mark of a winner. They have to find some part of their game that’s going to effect the score in a positive way, whether it is defense or base running. Obviously, when (KB’s) swinging the bat, he’s a game-changer. But when those guys aren’t swinging the bat as well as they want, or getting the hits, they find a way to still effect the game and help the team win.
“I see KB that way. When KB’s hot, he’s hot, great. But what about when you’re not? And how does that affect you mentally? You watch Kris and he may be the best base runner on our team and his decision-making is always on point.”
Jeter is a far more complicated figure behind the scenes, but his brand became synonymous with winning, a baseball shorthand for how to handle yourself in the media spotlight, in the corporate world and in October.
For Joe Maddon, it starts with the manager’s only rule about running hard to first base. As much as anyone, Bryant represents an idealized version of The Cubs Way, one of their best hopes that this 43-45 start is a fixable glitch and not a system-wide breakdown of a one-and-done team.
“It’s hard to throw him out on a routine groundball,” Maddon said. “How about his effort to first base? I mean, he’s a Rookie of the Year, MVP, (25 years old). Um, I don’t want to say he doesn’t have to do that. But he doesn’t have to do that.
“He does it, every day, and he sets a wonderful example for this entire organization. Not just this club. I’m talking like everybody in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. When they tune in the game and they see KB turning a routine groundball to shortstop into a bang-bang play, what does that mean?
“So when you go to spring training or guys come up and you talk about ‘Respecting 90,’ here’s the poster child right here, man. He does it as well as anybody. I always thought that about Derek Jeter. I see (Mike) Trout do that a lot. I’ve seen Jeter in the past hurt – bad foot, bad ankle – do that. And then he’d limp out to shortstop. The real guys do that kind of stuff and he sets a great example.”
Bryant obviously has years and years to go before coming anywhere close to matching Jeter’s five World Series rings, 3,465 hits, 14 All-Star selections and no-doubt Hall of Fame credentials. But Bryant already understands his role as an ambassador, saying “yes” over and over again to media requests and signing autographs in a mostly empty complex around 5 p.m. on the day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Arizona.
“What you’re talking about is franchise players have instincts,” super-agent Scott Boras said. “There are few of them. And certainly it’s not something Kris tries to do. It’s something that Kris instinctively knows to do.”
Where Jeter dated models and actresses and enjoyed the New York nightlife, Bryant married his girlfriend from high school and likes to order in food and watch Netflix at home. Where this season already dented Kyle Schwarber’s legendary status and Addison Russell’s off-the-field reputation, Bryant is hitting .213 with runners in scoring position.
Bryant’s ability to ride the waves without crashing is exactly what the Cubs need now if they are going to make up those 5.5 games, catch the Milwaukee Brewers and chase that kind of Yankee dynasty.
“I just feel very determined,” Bryant said. “When things aren’t going my way, there’s just a switch in me that makes me want it even more. And sometimes when you want it even more, you end up going the opposite way, so it’s a fine line there.
“But it’s just a matter of showing up and competing. You are the player who you are and things usually work out in the end. I think that goes for everybody in this clubhouse.”