Kris Bryant has a better grasp now of just how unique things were so many years ago, when the core of the current Cubs team was just a bunch of raw, talented prospects moving up the farm system. Back then, the goal was to get to the big leagues as swiftly as possible, so not much time was spent savoring the moment at hand.
Bryant can look around Chicago's clubhouse now and see how all those building blocks grew into a cast of players who have played a role in delivering the most dynamic era in Cubs history.
"Our whole Triple-A team," Bryant said, "we had a stacked team and it was really fun playing with them. Obviously, it was the Minor Leagues, and you want to get here as quick as you can, but I wish I kind of remembered more of it, just to see how special it was and what it was going to be."
Bryant will be soaking in each second this week in Cleveland, where he will be a part of the National League's All-Star team, alongside teammates Willson Contreras and Javier Baez. That trio represents a key segment of a Cubs roster that was constructed to contend for World Series glory year in and year out. It is a group that shook off 108 years of championship drought in 2016 and has provided October baseball four years running.
“It gets better every time,” Bryant, now a three-time All-Star, said Monday. “You can’t take these for granted. You never know when you’re going to have a year in which you make the All-Star Game. I’m certainly taking it all in. Cleveland is special for me, we won it here.”
The 2019 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard will be played tonight at Progressive Field, where the Cubs defeated the Indians in the '16 World Series. It will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.
The foundation for this run of success for the Cubs was built through high-caliber position players. Drafted in 2013, Bryant was the prized first-round pick early on in Theo Epstein's victory-laden tenure as the team's president of baseball operations. Baez was the last first-rounder of the previous regime (taken in 2011) and Contreras was an international signing as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela back in 2009.
Bryant reached the big leagues in 2015, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and blossomed into the NL MVP one year later. He has made three All-Star teams along the way. Contreras came up as a third baseman, converted to catcher and started behind the plate for the NL in '18, just as he will in this year's Midsummer Classic. Baez -- an NL MVP finalist a year ago -- started for the NL at second base in '18 and won the vote at shortstop this year.
"It’s really amazing what we've done so far since we got together in the big leagues," Contreras said. "And going to the All-Star [Game] with Javy and Kris means a lot to me. We kind of came up together. We've been playing together for a while now, and it's just amazing what they've done so far to improve themselves. And it shows on the field. That's why we all got to go to the All-Star Game."
Contreras is the first Cubs catcher to start in consecutive All-Star Games since Gabby Hartnett in 1936-37 and the fourth NL catcher (joining Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Mike Piazza) to start in back-to-back Midsummer Classics over the past 25 years. Baez is the first player in MLB history to start at second and shortstop in consecutive seasons.
Contreras and Baez are the first Cubs teammates to start in consecutive All-Star Games since Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson in 1990-91.
"I'm trying to enjoy it this year a little bit more with my family," said Baez, who also took part in the Home Run Derby last year.
This year, however, he looks forward to watching the Derby from the sidelines. His early pick at a winner? Toronto’s Vladimir Gurrero Jr.
“This year I am not doing it,” Baez said Monday, “so I’m trying to enjoy it more.”
Along those same lines, Bryant said this selection felt more special than his previous two All-Star experiences due in part to his revival after the trying season he endured in ’18. He was also touched by being voted in by fellow players.
“That plays into it, coming off of last year and hitting not going the way I wanted to,” Bryant said. “Of course, the most recent ones feel the most special, but having my peers vote me in, that really did it for me.”
The last campaign for Bryant was incredibly taxing -- mentally and physically -- when a left shoulder injury impacted his swing mechanics and production, especially in the power department. Entering the break this year, he has returned to form, hitting .297 with 17 home runs, 28 doubles, 44 RBIs, a .955 OPS and the fourth-highest WAR (3.7 per Fangraphs) in the NL.
Contreras has also rebounded from a rough second half last year by hitting .286 with 18 homers, 52 RBIs and a .937 OPS for the Cubs in the first half. Baez, who has mostly hit cleanup for Chicago, has posted a .289 average to go along with 22 homers, 23 doubles, 62 RBIs and an .881 OPS. His 3.4 WAR ranked sixth in the NL in the first half.
"This moment’s going to be great," Bryant said of sharing the All-Star Game with his two teammates. "But, there have just been so many moments with them over the course of four or five years that some people don’t even experience in their whole career. Making the All-Star team is so special."
The Cubs' core group also does not want to take this era for granted. They are the only group in franchise history to reach the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. That said, the players want to capitalize on all the talent confined in their clubhouse by capturing another World Series crown.
"That’s still in our minds -- to go to the World Series again," Contreras said. "But we still have some work to do."
They are not those raw prospects anymore. Bryant, Contreras, Baez and the other key members of the Cubs' roster have grown into All-Stars and veterans and leaders.
And they all know this window of opportunity will not last forever.
"It's a very hard game, and it’s hard to win each and every year," Bryant said. "And that's something we’ve been able to do here, and we’re not taking that for granted. So we know that our time here in this age bracket is limited, and we’re going to make the most of it."
To that extent, coming back to the site where they clinched the 2016 World Series makes the nostalgia-filled trip east on Route 90 all the more meaningful.
“Forever, whenever I come here, it’s going to remind me of the experience that we had in ’16,” Baez said, “and the special moment with our family.”