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Nightengale's Notebook: 'Why not?' Kris Bryant responds to critics who questioned move to Rockies

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Kris Bryant has made an indelible impact from the moment he put on a Major League Baseball uniform.

He was the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year winner. He was the 2016 NL Most Valuable Player. And, of course, he was an integral part of the Chicago Cubs' 2016 World Series championship that ended their 108-year drought.

Now, two weeks into his new seven-year, $182 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, he is responsible for a philosophical and moral change by MLB front offices.

The Kris Bryant Rule, implemented in the new collective bargaining agreement, is already having a major effect in helping rookies with no major-league service time make opening-day rosters.

Pitcher Hunter Greene will be on the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day roster.

First baseman Spencer Torkelson will be on the Detroit Tigers' Opening Day roster. Center fielder Riley Greene would have made it, too, if not for a fractured foot.

Third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. made the Kansas City Royals' Opening Day roster.

The Seattle Mariners are expected to have outfielder Julio Rodriguez on their opening-day roster, despite having played only 46 games in Class AA.

Teams, which have traditionally have manipulated service time to assure rookies would be under tcontrol for seven years and not six, now are taking advantage of the new rules in the CBA that reward clubs and players for rookie success.

Rookies who finish first or second in the Rookie of the Year voting will automatically receive a full year of service, no matter how many games they play.

And clubs who promote their top prospects to Opening Day rosters will be eligible to receive draft picks if the player finished among the Top 3 in the Rookie of the Year voting or the Top 5 in the MVP or Cy Young balloting.

All of a sudden, teams are more interested in having their rookies help out immediately rather than trying to save a few bucks and delay free agency.

Kris Bryant signed a seven-year, $182 million contract with the Rockies this offseason.
Kris Bryant signed a seven-year, $182 million contract with the Rockies this offseason.

Go ahead and take a bow, Kris Bryant.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but let’s see how it plays out," Bryant told USA TODAY Sports. "I still want to sit back and see how it all plays out. I feel like if you really wanted to, you could hold someone down long enough so they wouldn’t be eligible to become Rookie of the Year.

“But maybe teams are buying into this, knowing they’ve got a chance to get a draft pick out of it, and everyone is rewarded."

The Cubs kept Bryant in the minor leagues at the start of the 2015 season despite hitting .425 with nine homers and a 1.175 slugging percentage in 14 spring-training games. He was called up eight games into the regular season, leaving him with 171 days, one day shy of having a full season. It delayed his free agency by a year.

Bryant and the Major League Baseball Players Association immediately filed a grievance, which was finally heard in 2020, but he lost.

Still, Bryant made the point, loud and clear, that he believed he was wronged by the Cubs and the system.

“It’s the main reason I did what I did, being very public about that," Bryant said. "I didn’t necessarily enjoy all of that attention, and the negativity around it, but the whole point of going through what I went through was fighting for the guys who came after me. They get a full year of service when they deserve it, and that feels really good to me.

“I felt like my case was a really good case, but I knew I wasn’t going to win it. But all I went through was worth it at the end for the players as a whole. It perhaps changes the landscape of how this game is governed along the way."

Bryant, 30, is hopeful now that his stunning decision to sign with the Rockies may change the view of future free-agent classes, too.

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Bryant keeps hearing folks question why he signed with the Rockies, a franchise that has never won the NL West, and has won just one playoff game since 2009.

Bryant answers back: "Why not?"

“I don’t know why people are surprised," said Bryant, a native of Las Vegas. “Denver has always been a place for me where I’ve been attracted to. It fits my personality. It’s a great city and fanbase. So I don’t care if people are surprised or not.

“I just think it’s a thing when you come from such a well-known team, doing a lot of things in the spotlight there, it’s different when you go elsewhere."

The Cubs were in the playoffs all but one year Bryant was in Chicago, and after he was traded last summer to the San Francisco Giants, they won the NL West over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now, he goes to a team that has had only five winning seasons in the last 21 years.

“I have plenty of good friends that have gone on to play with other teams that they thought were going to be so-called World Series contenders and they’re not even in the playoffs," Bryant said. "I think that speaks to how our game is. There are no certainties.

“People just have the opinion that these are the teams that are going to compete, so you should go play for those teams. It just doesn’t always work out that way."

Besides, he points out, Jon Lester took the gamble in December 2014 when he signed a six-year, $155 million free-agent contract with the Cubs, who were coming off five consecutive losing seasons.

They were dousing one another in champagne two seasons later during the World Series celebration.

Bryant would love to have that kind of impact in Denver, hoping that his presence would lure more high-powered free agents. If it wasn’t a desirable place to play, infielder Ryan McMahon wouldn’t have signed a six-year, $70 million contract extension last week, along with pitchers Antonio Senzatela and German Marquez over the past three years, with Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado before them, and Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki before them.

Yet all that is remembered is that Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million contract extension, and was sent to St. Louis two years later after he requested a trade, following a public personality clash with former GM Jeff Bridich.

“People are more caught up with what had happened in the past here, with Nolan leaving," said Bryant, who has a full no-trade clause and no opt-out provisions in his contract. “I just really have a good feeling from ownership and the front office, and Bud Black is an unbelievable manager.

“We’re in a division that is very, very competitive where they could just roll over and say we don’t really want to sign guys. But they did it with me and Ryan McMahon and Senzatela and Marquez. It says a lot about the people running the show here. I’m so glad this is my home. This is where I want to be."

Bryant and his wife, Jessica, just bought a home in Denver. They have a 2-year-old son and twins on the way that are due in July. They’ll continue to live in Las Vegas during the offseason, but plan to at least make visits to Colorado in the winter, if nothing else, just to see snow.

“I’m attracted by the challenge of trying to turn wins here," said Bryant, who’s hosting a team party Sunday. “Look what happened in Chicago. I took pride in helping turn things around here. This team was just in the playoffs four years ago.

“There are cycles in this game, things turn around, and I’m hoping to add a veteran presence, a winning presence. I think I can do that."

Minor league housing concerns

If you’re a married minor leaguer, and particularly those with kids, do you really want to share an apartment with a teammate during the year?

Would you dare ask someone to share an apartment with you, your wife, and 5-month-old baby?

Married minor leaguers are incensed that few clubs are making exceptions to having their own apartments during this season.

MLB announced a new minor-league housing policy during the winter that provided most players with furnished housing and will limit the number of players to two per room.

“I have no idea whether my wife is going to stay with me, or if she has to stay home, or what," said one American League Class A player. “She’s 14 weeks pregnant. We have doctor’s appointments and everything, and we have no clue what we’re going to do. It’s very stressful. There’s no rhyme or reason what they’re doing."

The Advocates for Minor Leagues openly criticized the housing plan this week, saying that no one should be required to share a bedroom at home, much less those who are married or have children.

“As anyone who is married knows, sharing a bedroom with a teammate is completely unworkable," said Advocates' executive director Harry Marino. "In practice, each of these players will be forced to opt-out of team-provided housing and to instead pay for housing on their own, as in the past."

Most minor leaguers make less than $15,000 per year, Marino said in October.

“There’s so much frustration and anxiety,’’ said one AL East minor-leaguer. “It shouldn’t be that big of an ask to want your own place. Come on, I’ve got a wife and a 5-month-old crying baby. I can’t share an apartment with a teammate. I wouldn’t even dare ask.

“We’re not asking for the Ritz, just a roof over our head."

The frustration among minor leaguers is that teams are all handling the minor-league housing differently. Some are providing housing with everyone having their own apartment, with others requiring roommates, no matter if you’re married with kids or single.

“Certainly, we hoped that when MLB stepped up to say they were going to fix this problem, every player would have his own room," Marino said. "Unfortunately, the way these things operate, if they can get away two guys to the room, most teams will exploit that and do the bare minimum.

“We think it’s our job to identify those teams, and the fans of those teams, to let them know they are operating cheaply while other teams are doing the right thing with housing accommodations.

"It’s inexcusable for teams not to accommodate players with their own bedrooms."

Budweiser house man

He’s the 64-year-old dude you see in the bleachers the moment the Wrigley Field gates open, bringing his Louisville Slugger baseball glove.

The name is Ken Keefer, a Chicago sales manager for computer representatives, who just so happens to be a Cubs fixture.

You can’t miss him.

He sees about 100 home and road games with the Cubs, has caught about 2,000 batting practice home runs, 30-game home runs, and has collected autographs from 281 Hall of Famers.

“One time in Pittsburgh I got two homers in one game on Father’s Day," he said. “They tried to throw me out of the game because I threw them back on the field because they were Pittsburgh homers."

If he’s not in the bleachers, where he pays $19 for each of his three season tickets, you can find him at every home game sitting in his patio. He’s right across the street at the famed 130-year-old Budweiser House on Waveland, with its roof once used for $450,000 advertising rights before the new Wrigley Field video board blocked the view. If you want to see him during spring training, he’ll be in the outfield grass behind the left-field fence, paying $10 a ticket, living in an apartment right across the street from the Cubs’ spring-training home at Sloan Park.

The Cubs have plenty of characters among their fans, but no one is bigger than Keefer. He moved full-time to Wrigleyville 12 years ago from the Chicago suburbs, paying $400 a month for a single room – which has now increased to $1,500 for his own floor – and has no plans to ever leave.

“I used to drive in from the burbs, had kids, and didn’t drink at games," he said. “When they got to high school, I’d drink and let them drive home. So, when they had an opening in the house, I just paid for it so I could get drunk and sleep there.

“It’s the best corner and gathering spot in the entire neighborhood. I ended up staying and never left. I ain’t ever leaving that house as long as I’m alive and got my Cubs’ tickets."

Around the base paths

► The San Diego Padres were willing to part with pitchers Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers for Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Bryan Reynolds, but according to a Padres executive, balked at including prospect C.J. Abrams.

► One high-ranking A’s executive predicts their team will be playing in Las Vegas within five years.

► Commissioner Rob Manfred quietly met with small groups of players in Florida and Arizona this past week in an attempt to thaw the icy relationship between himself and the players after the 99-day lockout.

“I respect him for wanting to meet with us," Bryant said. “it says a lot about him. He has taken some heat, and it’s cool for him to get in front of us and talk some things out. I think it was very admirable."

► The Dodgers had an MLB-high $285.6 million payroll last season.

They now have topped it before Opening Day, checking in at $292.9 million after acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago White Sox.

► Cardinals president John Mozeliak on bringing back Albert Pujols for one final ride:

“When you think about the impact he made on this franchise, and for him to want to come back and finish his career with the Cardinals, it’s a storybook ending."

Said White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who managed Pujols during his entire 11-year stay in St. Louis: “I’m ecstatic, especially for him. It’s exactly where he needs to be. I’m ecstatic for the franchise and the fans.

“Don’t ever underestimate him. He will be a valuable contributor to that club."

► One of the most heart-warming Opening Day stories of the year is journeyman Adam Oller making the Oakland A’s roster.

Oller was the 615th pick in the 2016 draft who was released by the Pirates and then Giants, played in the Frontier League, and spent his winters working time as a substitute teacher, Home Depot, a valet, and a bartender. He became a minor-leaguer in the Mets organization and was included in the Chris Bassitt trade.

A’s manager Mark Kotsay broke the news to him over the weekend that he made the team.

“It was something I never thought I would hear in my career," Oller told reporters. “Just with all the ups and downs that I’ve had, it was a very surreal moment."

► Strangest scheduling quirk in the restructured 2022 season:

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who will leave the state of California for only one three-game series after Sept. 1, close out the season with a six-game series at Dodger Stadium against the Rockies.

► Throwing a little shade department: Mets manager Buck Showalter, when told that Mets reliever Adam Ottavino grew up a Yankees fan and that his dad’s favorite manager was Showalter: “Well, forgive him for that. Not everybody has the great fortune of being a Mets fan. Somebody’s got to pull for the Yankees, right?”

► Who can blame Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman for his excitement about playing in the Freeway Series beginning Sunday.

Freeman grew up in Orange County and was a lifelong Angels’ fan, but has played at Angel Stadium just once in his career. He says there could be an entire section of friends and family at the game considering it was too far for them to attend games at Dodger Stadium when he came into town with Atlanta.

“Any time you grow up in a place and you can have any of your family members who want to come out come out, it’s always special," Freeman said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s a spring training game or not. It’s still fun.”

Atlanta comes to Dodger Stadium on April 18-20, and GM Alex Anthopoulos asked Freeman if he preferred to get his 2021 World Series ring then or when Dodgers come to Atlanta on June 24-26.

He chose Atlanta.

► The Milwaukee Brewers are going to Baltimore for the second series of the season.

The last time they were there?

2003.

The new balanced schedule beginning in 2023 will change that.

► Red Sox second baseman Trevor Story signed a six-year, $140 million free-agent contract on Saturday, March 19, took an early morning flight to Fort Myers, Florida, on Sunday, had a press conference Wednesday, flew back to Texas on Friday for the birth of his son, and was back to Fort Myers on Sunday, March 27.

“Definitely the craziest week of my life. …It was like a movie, Story told reporters."

► Cool moment when Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto watched his son, Jonah, a minor leaguer with the Royals, pitch against them last week. He broke down in tears when his son handed him the hat he wore during the game.

► MLB and EL1 Sports, a national youth sports training company, announced a partnership to support local youth sports ecosystems around the country. EL1 operates nine indoor training facilities in Washington, California, Hawaii and Pennsylvania, including three Dodgers Training Academies.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kris Bryant responds to critics who questioned his move to the Rockies