“A hell of a player:” Chicago Cubs fans reflect on Kris Bryant years

May 31, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant (17) smiles after hitting a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres during the fifth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
May 31, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant (17) smiles after hitting a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres during the fifth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

CHICAGO — I made a new best friend at Sluggers Sports Bar in Wrigleyville over a pint of beer and tales of Kris Bryant in a Chicago Cubs uniform.

“He was a hell of a player,” said Eddie, wearing a Chicago Cubs cap that had likely been in his possession since Andre Dawson roamed the outfield at the Friendly Confines. “The Cubs should have never let him go. Ever.”

Chicago Cubs fans still shake their heads that Kris Bryant is no longer on the team

Just a short walk from Wrigley Field down Clark Street, Sluggers has hosted Eddie and many other Cubs fans through the years, including the wee hours of November 2, 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Bryant, playing third base, threw across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo to record the final out and send Cubs fans into euphoria, a moment he reflected on with me now that he’s a member of the Colorado Rockies.

There’s something else about Sluggers though that I had to ask Eddie about. Across the street from the bar is a mural that was painted right after Bryant was traded at the 2021 MLB trade deadline to the San Francisco Giants.

“It’s nice to see him there, but I should be seeing him every day over there,” Eddie says, pointing in the direction of Wrigley Field. “He should be a part of the present and not the past.”

The present, however, is this weekend as Bryant returns to Wrigley as a member of the Rockies for a three-game series. The four-time All-Star and former National League MVP who called Wrigley Field home from 2015 until the trade deadline of 2021, however, won’t take the field this weekend as he is currently working his way back from plantar fasciitis that has sidelined him since the end of July.

Ask Rockies fans and they’ll tell you that the Bryant era in Denver has gotten off to a disappointing start. He’s played in just 42 games this season, battling back and foot injuries, and has certainly not made the impact Rockies management was hoping for when inking him to a seven-year, $182 million deal before the season.

That, of course, is a different story than Bryant authored while with the Cubs, following a Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 while the MVP honor in 2017. In all, during 833 games with the Cubs, Bryant slashed .279/.378/.508 with 160 home runs and 465 RBI.

Now hoped to be a foundation piece for Colorado as the Rockies rebuild, there are plenty of Cubs fans along with Eddie who wish Bryant was around for this version of the Cubs rebuild.

“He was an integral part of the World Series team. Part of the heart and soul of the Cubs,” Dr. Sheri Doniger, a dentist in suburban Lincolnwood and long-time Cubs fan, told me. “It is disheartening when players get traded away when they were so important to a historical event. Bryant meant more to Chicago because he was on the World Series team and was traded to rebuild. It was very sad.”

Doniger and many other Cubs fans get the reason Bryant was traded as Chicago looked to reduce payroll. Rizzo, who caught that throw from Bryant in the World Series, is now with the New York Yankees, dealt in the days before Bryant left as the Cubs cleaned house and looked to the future.

“It appeared he (Bryant) wanted to stay but (Cubs chairman Tom) Ricketts wanted to clean house of salaries with no hope of rebuilding the team in the foreseeable future,” Doniger said with the frustration that so many Cubs fans have about the last couple of seasons. “I was happy I saw them win the World Series. My dad would have been happy too. Bryant was a huge part of making lifelong Cubs fans believers. We miss him and the team he was a part of.”

Even those who don’t claim to be Cubs fans know can see what Bryant meant to fans on the North Side. Robert Pollyea, a local accountant who says he follows the White Sox, said that Bryant’s start with the Cubs got off to a shaky start thanks to service time manipulation and ended with a thud as he was traded away.

“Bryant, in my mind, was screwed over by the Cubs who used the system to contain him and his earning capacity,” Pollyea said. “I’m not sure if he had a bad bone in his body. I hope he has some big years left and the team that he is playing with will respond to the type of person and player that he is. Kris truly epitomized being a Cub.”

As Bryant answered questions for the media before Friday’s opener, calling 2022 “a weird, weird year” because of the lockout before the season and his injuries, he talked at length about the moments he spent in a Cubs uniform and what advice he would give for Ian Happ and Willson Contreras as they approach the offseason and choosing where they will play in 2023.

Bryant can’t escape questions about the Cubs … because he will always be a Cub in the minds of so many raised on WGN and still bleeding Cubbie blue in the Loop and beyond.

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“I’ll always be a Cub fan, but I will also always be a Kris Bryant fan,” Eddie said. “The man did a lot for us fans and played his heart out. He’ll always be welcome here.”