Cubs give Bryant hero's welcome in return

September 10th, 2021

CHICAGO -- From his seat near the front of the Giants' team bus, could see the crowd outside Wrigley Field as his team approached the old ballpark on Friday morning.

The former Cubs star anticipated some fans, but not to this extent. It brought a memory flooding back. After Chicago ended its 108-year World Series drought five seasons ago, fans flocked to the Friendly Confines in the early-morning hours.

"That was kind of what it was like to me," Bryant said prior to the Cubs' 6-1 loss to San Francisco. "I wish I could sign autographs for all of them, but it's a busy day. I had to get in. It was really cool."

Bryant received a hero's welcome in his return to the North Side, which is still coming to terms with the franchise-altering deals that dismantled the Cubs' core at the Trade Deadline. It was a glimpse into what is possible for the next wave of players, as Chicago tackles this current rebuilding phase.

There was a standing ovation for Bryant during his pregame introduction. The Cubs put together a video montage, highlighting the many highs in his decorated time in their uniform. Bryant appeared emotional as he watched, and then received a No. 17 plate from the Wrigley Field scoreboard and a 2016 flag as gifts.

It was a similar scene to when Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Schwarber and other members of the 2016 championship club made their respective returns. When Anthony Rizzo (traded to the Yankees) and Javier Báez (Mets) come back, expect more curtain calls and tributes.

And know that, each time it happens, the up-and-coming Cubs get a taste of what their own future could hold.

"They showed them what the promised land looks like by winning a World Series, by fans falling in love with them, by showing some personality and being good people that actually care about their community," Cubs bench coach and acting manager Andy Green said.

"They showed them a good model of what that looks like and the way love is reciprocated when you play like that and act like that. By simply doing that, they kind of dangled the carrot out in front of these younger guys, or these newer guys."

Before the game, Green cracked a smile when asked if Bryant or Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks -- a pair of long-time teammates -- had the advantage on Friday.

"Either answer could make me look like a fool right now," said Green. "We're going to be believing in Kyle today, because he's in Cubbie blue."

When Bryant walked to the batter's box in the first inning, "Warm it up," by Kris Kross blared through the stadium's speakers. Bryant smiled, as catcher Willson Contreras stood in front of the plate and Hendricks waited behind the mound, giving him and the fans their moment

"He deserves all that. I know he was probably going through a lot today -- a lot of different emotions," Hendricks said. "He wore these pinstripes for so long, man. I'm always going to see him in this uniform. It was weird when he came to the plate a little bit, but just had to lock back in and focus on my task."

Hendricks then proceeded to strike Bryant out with a sharp changeup in that first-inning meeting. Overall, the veteran right-hander held his old friend to an 0-for-3 showing with a pair of strikeouts and one groundout.

Hendricks logged six strong innings, allowing just one run before the Giants pounced on the Cubs' bullpen.

"His advantage over everybody," Bryant said, "is that you have no clue what's going through his mind on the mound, good or bad. That's what makes him so great. I'm happy he's still here."

Hendricks is not only still with the Cubs, but under contract through 2023 with an option for '24. The pitcher has been a source of consistency for eight years and is one of the few leaders left from the '16 team, as the front office plots its future course.

As for seeing Bryant in a different uniform -- not to mention players like Báez or Rizzo -- outfielder Jason Heyward said he appreciates how strange it can be for Cubs fans.

"I feel like it's a privilege and an honor for a fan base to have players to miss," Heyward said. "Regardless of how they leave, time is going to always win. There was a group that did a lot of special things here.

"So I think, if anything, it's a treat for them to root for players that come back through here so soon."

From his perspective, Heyward said he is just thrilled Bryant and some of the former Cubs are getting the chance to play October baseball this fall. In Bryant's case, San Francisco notched its 91st win and is vying for the NL West crown.

In Chicago, Bryant was accustomed to that type of winning, having helped the franchise reach the playoffs five times in a six-year span. That explains the number of fans who flocked to see the star on Friday.

"If you treat the fans the right way," Green said, "if you leave everything on the field, Chicago will love you. And I think that's as profound of an impact as you can possibly have, even if you didn't share the locker room space with them.

"He showed them. Rizz showed them. All those guys. Jon Lester showed them. All the guys that were here before. It makes you want to be a part of this city and this club."