LAS VEGAS — Kris Bryant picks up one end of the big flat-screen, high-definition TV and lifts it high as he carefully starts climbing the stepladder. His dad, Mike, picks up the other end and climbs the other ladder.
‘‘You see it?’’ Mike says, looking behind the TV, lining up the wall bracket.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Kris says. ‘‘Got it.’’
A few seconds later, the TV sits securely in place on the wall above the Bryants’ indoor batting cage.
What’s the best minor-league prospect in baseball doing while he’s not playing for the Cubs this September? When he’s not hanging TVs on walls, he’s hitting golf balls instead of fastballs, taking his mom out to dinner on her birthday instead of taking his best shot at the St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and sleeping late instead of hitting early.
‘‘I’m trying to relax a little bit and not really think too much about baseball at this moment,’’ Bryant, 22, says. ‘‘But having fun — I don’t really know what to do with my time. I don’t really have a routine right now.’’
The consensus minor-league player of the year and the top prospect in baseball, according to some of the latest rankings, Bryant might be the most important prospect to the Cubs’ rebuilding plans — and certainly the most conspicuous absence among the touted rookies getting valuable at-bats this September with an eye toward an important 2015 for ‘‘The Process.’’
It has been a tough lesson in baseball business for Bryant, a former finance major at the University of San Diego, whose monster season at Class AA and Class AAA wasn’t enough to trump roster and service-time issues and deliver a big-league debut.
‘‘I definitely learned some things this year in terms of stuff that happens off the field,’’ he says, ‘‘but I’m ready for whatever comes [next].’’
He and his dad have an offseason plan for getting the most out of whatever that might be, wherever that might be.
As for the September that Bryant isn’t spending at Wrigley Field, the premature end to the most prolific power season for a minor-leaguer in nine years has brought him back to where it all began.
A hitter is born
The legend of Kris Bryant started at the Little League fields of Rainbow Park, a quiet, suburban oasis about eight miles west of the Las Vegas Strip.
‘‘That’s where he hit his first dinger,’’ Mike Bryant says, pointing in the distance to a small brown bridge beyond the center-field fence, just to the right of the small scoreboard.
Kris was a 60-pound 8-year-old, playing with older kids.
‘‘A week later, he hit one off the scoreboard,’’ Mike says.
By the time Kris got to Bonanza High School, where the west wind is known to buffet a hitter as fiercely as the lake wind on a pitcher’s day at Wrigley Field, the legend grew quickly.
As the wind howled before a game against Western High in Kris’ sophomore year, then-coach Derek Stafford warned his hitters: ‘‘Nobody hit it in the air. Nothing’s going out.’’
Kris hit a ball over the telephone wires beyond the left-field fence that landed on the other side of the street.
During a scrimmage 18 months later, he hit one over the 408-foot sign in center that headed into the park across the street.
‘‘It still hasn’t landed,’’ says Bonanza coach Mike O’Rourke, who was an assistant when Kris played there.
A few months later, Kris broke an aluminum bat hitting a ball that still got to the fence for a double.
‘‘It sounded like a shotgun went off,’’ says Mike, who keeps that bat — with its long, lightning-shaped split through the metal — at the family batting cage, where Kris takes BP and Mike gives lessons.
Kris snapped another bat off at the handle during the Area Code Games the summer before his senior year.
But the one people talk about with Babe Ruth-like reverence is the one he hit in college on a cold, drizzly night in San Diego against Saint Louis. He drove a first-pitch fastball over the left-center-field wall at a height exceeding the 80-foot light tower and out of the Toreros’ ballpark.
‘‘And it disappeared, climbing into the night sky through the fog,’’ says Jack Murray, San Diego’s play-by-play man. ‘‘The only thing I could think of was ‘The Natural,’ when he broke the light tower.’’
Kris almost didn’t play in that game. He felt sick. But instead of pulling himself from the game, ‘‘I was like, ‘I’ll just swing at the first pitch,’?’’ he says. ‘‘He happened to throw a fastball up and in, and I just caught it flush. .?.?. That was definitely one I’ll remember for a while.’’
‘‘I’m jealous of Chicago,’’ Murray says.
No Strip, no distractions
If Kris Bryant sounds too good to be true, baseball is only a small part of it.
He and older brother Nick graduated high school with 4.78 GPAs. Neither drinks, Mike says, and they stayed out of trouble growing up, even as the bright lights of the Strip beckoned less than 10 miles away.
Every coach, scout, teammate and executive who has evaluated or worked with Kris raves about his focus, makeup and approach.
‘‘He’s kind of different as far as his expectations of himself,’’ teammate Logan Watkins says. ‘‘He wants to get a hit every time he’s up at the plate. He wants to just be perfect. I get on him about that a little bit: ‘Hey, man, just have fun.’?’’
Mike says that focus comes from his wife, Susie.
‘‘If there’s a driving force for success behind Kris and all the important things he represents, it was Susie,’’ he says. ‘‘She was the driving force behind the makeup everybody always talks about when they talk about Kris.’’
Mike? He was the baseball force, a constantly moving, talking, coaching, outgoing counterweight to Susie’s more reserved, conservative, media-shy nature.
From the time Kris was 5, Mike, a former Boston Red Sox farmhand, has been his hitting coach. Wiffle Ball in the cul-de-sac turned into hitting in the batting cage behind the garage with Mike, which turned into the stuff of local legend.
Kris says he’s hungrier than ever to get to the big leagues — not to show anybody he should be there, but to see it for himself.
‘‘I can’t predict the future or how good of a career I’ll have,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t even know if I’ll make it. But it’s definitely something I’ve been dreaming about ever since I’ve been taking cuts out there in my batting cage.’’
“It was probably the best decision I ever made”
Maybe if Kris had skipped college and signed out of high school, he already would be in the majors. Bryce Harper, one of Kris’ former teammates growing up in Las Vegas, skipped a year of high school, came out in the 2010 draft and is in his third season with the Washington Nationals.
Kris, projected by some that year to be a first-rounder, fell to the 18th round because of signability questions, and the Toronto Blue Jays wouldn’t pay the $2.5 million for him to give up school. Kris, who was invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, was sold on the combination of education, quality of life in San Diego and baseball development at that level.
‘‘It was probably the best decision I ever made,’’ he says. ‘‘Those were the best three years of my life. And I think the development path is very different for me coming out of college.’’
Maybe that’s a big part of how Kris got to this point so quickly after being drafted. He had a 1.098 OPS this season, and his 43 homers still lead pro baseball more than three weeks after his last game.
Maybe it’s also how he wraps his mind around the possibility he’ll open next season in the minors again, no matter how he does in spring training.
‘‘I won’t set my expectations too high just because I hear a lot about what people are saying,’’ Kris says. ‘‘But I’ll definitely go out there and show them what I’ve got and not hold anything back.
‘‘If I start the year in the minors, that’s OK. If I start in the bigs, that’s great. I don’t get to control that. I can only control how I practice, play and have a good attitude about it. I think if I’m doing that, then everything takes care of itself.’’
But can you hit Wainwright’s curve?
If the Cubs won’t provide Kris with the September training program Jorge Soler and Javy Baez are getting, he and his dad plan to do everything they can this winter to compensate. He ordered the kind of pitching machine big-league clubs use, with settings for curveballs and 90 mph sliders.
‘‘With this machine, you can definitely simulate an Adam Wainwright curveball if you figure out how it breaks, so I think there’s definitely ways to practice it,’’ Kris says.
He admits that’s not the same as Baez and Soler (four combined strikeouts) actually facing Wainwright on Monday.
Mike also is adding a Ted Williams technique of creating a strike zone seven baseballs across and 11 down, then identifying where among those 77 spots are the holes in Kris’ swing.
‘‘Then we’re going to plug them up one after another,’’ Mike says.
During an awards event in February in San Diego, Murray finally handed Bryant the ball he had been waiting much of the last three years to ask him to sign.
Thing is, it already had a signature on it: Barry Bonds’.
‘‘He did a double take,’’ Murray said. ‘‘He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said: ‘I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. Whether you ever break [the home-run record] or not, at least you’ll do it right.’
‘‘Later, I said to Mike: ‘You know what the amazing thing is? I think Kris is going to be the valuable signature on that ball, not Bonds.’ I’m convinced of it.’’
MORE ABOUT KRIS BRYANT
Home Run King
Unless Nelson Cruz hits four home runs in the Baltimore Orioles’ final four games or Chris Carter hits seven in the Houston Astros’ final three, Kris Bryant will finish with more home runs this season than anyone in North American professional baseball, despite not having played a game since Sept. 1.
“That would definitely be pretty cool. That’s definitely not a goal that I set out to accomplish. But it just happens based on going about it the right way and having a routine and sticking to what you know.”
Bryant’s 43 home runs is the most for a minor leaguer since Angles’ prospect Brandon Wood hit 43 in 2005.
Even though he might be in the big leagues by now if he had signed with Toronto after being drafted out of high school in 2010 (18th round), Bryant believes he made the right decision to spent three years at the University of San Diego – for baseball development as much as education.
“That was the biggest thing when USD was recruiting me, that they were saying to use college as your minor leagues. And it definitely is the truth,” he said. “Because I played there, and then last year I played three levels and then got to AAA my first full year.
“And you see it now. High schoolers can take three years to just get to AA. I think the development path is very different for me coming out of college. When you go to college you don’t have to go on 14-hour bus rides either. It’s a whole lot more fun.
“Maybe in the Midwest League, you’re 18 years old and you don’t really know how to handle 14-hour bus rides. It’s definitely tough. There’s definitely a few guys out there that can do it. Albert Almora is probably a good example, just because he’s a very mature kid beyond his years. But a lot of high school guys out there might struggle with it.
“That’s why I’m a big believer in going to college.”
Wiffle Ball and mental approach
Cal it the Zen of Wiffle.
All these years later on some of the most competitive ball fields in the world, Bryant says he still draws on those days as a small kid playing Wiffle ball with his brother and neighbors in the cul-de-sac where he still lives in the off-season with his parents.
“We’d get together on the street and play Wiffle ball every single day,” he said. “If we hit it on this roof over here it’s a homer, above that tree there it’s a homer.
“When I’m out there now and I might be struggling, I think about times where I’m playing Wiffle ball in the street with my neighbors and how fun that was. When you think of times like that it puts the whole game into perspective.”
On avoiding the tempations of the Vegas Strip
If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Bryant wouldn’t seem to know much about that. Las Vegas is home, and the Vegas strip is just one small part of the city – a part he has tended to avoid.
Should make the Wrigley Field spectacle/fishbowl easy.
“We would only go down there for like high school dances or special occasions,” he said. “We really stayed away from it just because it’s not really a good area to be at. It’s kind of dangerous.
“When you grow up here, you don’t really want to go down there. It’s just not the place to be. I think what people don’t realize is that there’s actually people who live here outside of the Strip.”
Not that he could avoid it as a teen. His high school is just a few blocks off Sahara Drive, and the Strip is visible from that corner, only five miles away.
“When you’re growing up and you’re used to that, it’s not as attractive to maybe a tourist who hasn’t really seen it,” he said.
No temptation even to satisfy the curiosity – even to just wander the floors and experience the lights and constant, hypnotic ding-ding-dinging of the slot machines?
“We got that when I got my drivers license,” he said. “There’s a casino [near the house] a movie theater, so we’d go there all the time, and we’d hear the ding-dings and all that.”
On finishing season in the minors, while others were called up
He said he started tasting how close he was getting to his dream even last year in A ball.
“But since I’m pretty close to Chicago now, I definitely feel it even more,” he said, “and getting to watch Javy [Baez] and Jorge [Soler] and getting to see them make their debuts.
“I definitely taste it a little more than I did last year, that’s for sure.”
If anything, the longer the wait for Bryant, the louder the hype might get by the time he actually does debut next season. Is he ready for that? How does anyone live up to those kinds of expectations?
“My expectations are higher than anybody else’s out there,” he said. ”When people expect a lot of things out of me, I can assure you that I expect a whole lot more out of myself.”
Does he realize even Derrek Lee got booed at Wrigley over a slow start?
“That’s all part of the game, though,” he said. “Cubs fans are the best in baseball. I sure hope to be up there doing great things for them. But there will be times where I struggle. But it’s all part of the game. It’s all for fun. I don’t take it for any more than what it is.”
Kid has had batting cages in his home since he was a kid.
This kid is going to be a STUD.