Newspaper article International New York Times

Cubs Prodigy Embraces Lessons of Ted Williams ; Bryant Has Blossomed Using Slugger's Advice: Hit It High and in the Air

Newspaper article International New York Times

Cubs Prodigy Embraces Lessons of Ted Williams ; Bryant Has Blossomed Using Slugger's Advice: Hit It High and in the Air

Article excerpt

The father of Kris Bryant taught him to follow what Williams preached, to hit it hard and to hit it in the air.

The first thing Ted Williams told Mike Bryant was that he was late, because he was only 10 minutes early to their practice session. The second thing he told him just may help end the most persistent streak of failure in professional sports: the championship drought of the Chicago Cubs.

Bryant was an outfielder in the Boston Red Sox system, destined to last only briefly in the low minors. The game would spit him out after two seasons, 1980 and 1981, and send him home to Massachusetts with a .204 average frozen for all time. Before he left, though, Bryant absorbed a principle from Williams that he would never forget.

"We're going to learn how to do two things," said Williams, the Hall of Famer whose famous mission was to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. "We're going to hit it hard and we're going to hit it in the air."

Bryant never properly applied that. He managed just four home runs in nearly 400 plate appearances, unable to handle the failure embedded in the game. But it made perfect sense: Pitchers throw the ball on a downhill plane, so hitters must swing up to meet it squarely. Swinging down on the ball, or even with it, produces ground balls. Pitchers want those. Hitters want home runs.

A decade after the Red Sox cut Bryant, his son Kris was born in Las Vegas. By the time Kris was 5, Mike Bryant said, his talent was astounding: He swung a 31-inch bat and could launch balls high into the air.

Bryant ran an outdoor furniture business that demanded most of his time. He sold it when Kris was 8 to take a 9-to-5 job, with weekends off. He was determined not to miss the baseball development years of Kris and his older son, Nick.

An outdoor batting cage, with lights, went up in the backyard, and Mike Bryant would point to an area high in the cage as a target. Photos and statistics of Williams were essential teaching tools, and Williams's manual, "The Science of Hitting," was gospel. The boys earned college scholarships, and Kris would leave the University of San Diego as the No.2 overall draft choice, by the Cubs, in 2013.

Kris Bryant was in Stockton, Calif., for a tournament that spring and met with Cubs officials in a hotel lobby before the draft. They spoke for an hour and a half on the finer points of the swing: leverage, the strike zone and the challenges Bryant would face as a hitter with long arms and a 6-foot-5 frame.

The Cubs' top baseball executives, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, grew up in New England and had worked for the Red Sox. They loved that Bryant was raised on the wisdom of Williams. But mostly they loved that in a game trending toward pitchers, Bryant was a polished, and unapologetic, slugger.

"He knows that when he hits it clean, with the right swing, it's a homer," said Hoyer, the Cubs' general manager. …

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