Bryant and Co. free to be 'a little selfish'

March 10th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- Part of 's offseason routine included heading to a local track near his home in Las Vegas, where he would get some running done. At one point, his trainer offered a bit of advice that has stuck with the Cubs' star this spring.

"We'd be in our lane," said Bryant, sitting at a table outside the Cubs' complex on Tuesday morning. "You'd see the two lines, and he'd be like, 'Run your own race.' That really kind of rings true for me, and the whole team."

It is a theme that Cubs manager David Ross has reiterated over the first few weeks of camp, following some forgettable showings from Chicago's key players in the abbreviated season last year. Ross wants his players to focus on their individual identities, believing the team identity will form in the process.

Ross cites the "back of the baseball card" and rattles off the list of awards won when explaining why he continues to trust in the Cubs' core. And the manager is not wrong in that regard. Javier Báez, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Bryant do have a considerable pile of trophies and All-Star appearances.

And so, Ross wants those lineup leaders to swing the bat with some swagger, rather than always have a team-first approach to a plate appearance.

"I'm OK with them being a little selfish this year," Ross said. "Sometimes you've got to take care of yourself and get your numbers. And if they all get their numbers, like we've said, I think we're going to be just fine."

Bryant said he has had conversations about this topic with Ross behind the scenes this spring.

During last season's 60-game season, when there was such a heightened emphasis on each victory, and the year-end statistics were all out of whack, Chicago's players concentrated on long, grinding plate appearances. The Cubs ended with an average of 4.11 pitches per plate appearance, ranking third in the Majors.

The buzz word around camp this spring has been "aggressive," and Ross has praised how the batters have come out swinging to find their timing and swing mechanics. Come Opening Day, Ross hopes to continue to see that aggressiveness, especially from the players who have found stardom with that approach.

"It's a weird word to say. Nobody wants to be labeled as 'selfish,'" Bryant said with a smirk. "I'll never go out there and say, 'I just want to be selfish,' you know? Me, me, me, me. I think what [Ross] means when he says that is that, inherently, this game, you are defined by what you do -- the back of your baseball card, whatever it is. That's what you're defined as.

"But at the end of the day, you do have to find your own individual identity to ultimately help the team. And I think that's what he means, is that, just get back to being yourself."

There was really only one moment in which Bryant felt and looked like himself last year. In 34 games, he hit .206/.293/.351 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 147 plate appearances. He posted a 73 OPS+ (after averaging a 137 OPS+ in the previous five years).

After a summer filled with injury issues -- back trouble during Summer Camp, a left elbow problem in July, wrist and finger setbacks in August, and an oblique injury in September -- Bryant found his form in the final two games of the season. He had two homers and six RBIs against the White Sox to close out the year.

In a Sept. 27 romp over the South Siders, Bryant pulled up his pant legs, played with high socks, put on two gold chains (a fad started by Rizzo earlier in the summer) and launched a grand slam. When he crossed the plate, Bryant broke into a grin and pulled the chains out from under his jersey.

Bryant was playing loose, knowing the Cubs were heading to the playoffs.

"The last series was like, we know we're going to play past this," Bryant said. "I was like throwing on two gold chains and wearing my pants up. I, essentially, just was kind of goofing around, having fun out there. And, shoot, I hit some of the best balls I hit all year.

"Maybe that's what I've got to do. Maybe I'll just wear two chains all year."

Bryant let out a laugh, but there was some truth in his joke. He knows he could benefit from playing more carefree in the months ahead.

Barring a contract extension, the trade rumors are not going to go away for Bryant, who can become a free agent next offseason. This could be his last ride with the Cubs alongside Rizzo and Báez. Bryant has been a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and an All-Star (multiple times).

That is where becoming a little "selfish" comes into play.

"Just be yourself," Bryant said. "Be who you are. Be who the back of your baseball card says you are. That's kind of a good thing for myself, individually, and the team, too, this year."