First came a standing ovation as he stepped into the batter’s box, then another round of applause as he headed back to the dugout. He also got cheers when he made his first routine catch on a fly ball to right field by Chicago Cubs infielder Darwin Barney in the second inning.
This is what bringing up a heralded player looks and sounds like for the Pirates faithful, who have been waiting for Polanco to help their underachieving team this season. He was hitting .347 at Triple-A Indianapolis when he was called up to replace the ailing Neil Walker late Monday night.
The Cubs' fan base is waiting anxiously for their version of Polanco, but there will be no dramatic Wrigley arrival, despite the pleas of the diehards. Not yet, at least.
“We’re aware of it,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said before Polanco’s debut, which saw the Cubs beat the Pirates 7-3. “We’re aware of the passion. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative. We have to continue to work to make the right decisions for the organization. Logical, rationale, and that’s not always the way fans want us to go about it.”
That sounds a lot like Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer. Huntington said “emotion” needs to be removed when making “these kinds of decisions.”
Indeed, the problem many Cubs fans have in regard to their own stud prospect -- in this case, Double-A third baseman Kris Bryant -- is that emotion already has been removed. Logic, not emotion, suggests a man that leads a league in all offensive categories needs a promotion.
“I want to see Bryant when he’s ready to be seen,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “I’m not going to base our thinking on what other people are doing.”
So no matter how many prospects make it to the big leagues in winning or losing situations, don’t expect it to have much effect on the Cubs' thinking. George Springer of Houston, Oscar Tavares of St. Louis and Polanco are just a few names that have made it to the show this year. Bryant isn’t expected to be one of them.
A trip to Triple-A Iowa is about as far as Bryant will go this season, and that’s not likely to happen for another month.
“Maybe it’s time to get him out of Knoxville and a little closer to Des Moines, but the good thing about being a player is it's always in your hands,” pitcher Jeff Samardzija said of Bryant. “When you master one level, you’re ready for the next one.”
No one had an answer for when mastering a level has been accomplished. If .357, 22 home runs and 55 RBIs in 63 games isn’t mastering it, what is?
“It’s not my decision to make,” Anthony Rizzo said. “I don’t know when guys are ready and when they’re not.”
Rizzo took the diplomatic approach, but he’s on record for moving guys up quickly if they prove themselves. He didn’t like being artificially held back for financial reasons, and, besides, the Cubs could use the help.
Samardzija was diplomatic about it, as well. He was asked if Bryant should skip Double-A and come right to the majors.
“Probably not,” Samardzija said. “He hasn’t been here [in the organization] that long. I know Starlin Castro did it and had success early, but every situation is different.”
Huntington said weighing the needs of the team and the athlete play a part in the decision, and the team won out when they called Polanco up. But he claims the Pirates didn’t want to make the move. There was more learning to be done and they might need Polanco in Pittsburgh much more than the Cubs need Bryant right now.
“One of the best attributes for decision-makers in sports is patience,” Huntington said. “Patience to stay with a guy when he’s struggling a little bit, patience to stay even-keeled when a guy is going through the roof.
“Performance spikes -- good or bad -- shouldn’t drive our decisions. That’s very hard to do. Especially when you’re losing. We felt the pressure in ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, and we feel it again now.
“You can’t rush this process,” Huntington continued. “You can expedite it to an extent, but you can’t rush this process.”
The difference with the Cubs is they don’t have players clogging things up in front of Bryant, or even Javier Baez, once they move him off shortstop. There are jobs just waiting for them.
Renteria wasn’t sure what’s easier for a heralded rookie, breaking in with a team in contention -- like Polanco is with the Pirates -- or when there is no real pressure to help win games, as when Bryant or Baez will appear.
“In either case, when a young player comes to the big leagues, I don’t think he’s thinking about whether their team is in contention or not,” Renteria said. “The initial response is, ‘I’m really happy to be in the big leagues.’”
That was the exact feeling Renteria had when he broke in with the Pirates as a first-round choice in 1986. The difference is he came up in September and Barry Bonds, among others, had come up earlier that season. Renteria flew under the radar. Bryant and Baez won’t.
The bottom line when it comes to Bryant is different from any other prospect the Cubs employ -- and likely different from most in the game, including Polanco. Consider:
He’s more mature and smarter about his own game than any of them. His presence would cause the same kind of stir that Polanco has created in Pittsburgh and Springer is stirring up in Houston. If there was any player that could deal with the ups and downs and come out better for it, it’s Bryant.
“Without a doubt,” Samardzija said. “Any time you bring a guy up that has impact, he makes a difference. We’ve seen that a little bit with Neil Ramirez even.”
With all due respect to Ramirez -- who has a live arm -- home runs will energize a team a lot more than a nice slider. Bryant is that guy. The Cubs want him to struggle in the minors so he won’t have to struggle as much in the majors. That doesn’t seem to be happening in Double-A.
“Never struggling is always a good big league plan if you ask me,” Samardzija joked. “That’s tough to do. Last thing you want is have a kid over the level that he’s at though.”
So the waiting game continues while other cities celebrate their prospects’ arrivals. Patience is the word of the moment for this Cubs franchise. But you knew that already.
“Fans don’t want to hear about patience, they want to hear about wins,” Huntington said. “But this isn’t like other sports. One or two players can’t take a bad team and make them good.”