Hitting 50 home runs is a rare accomplishment in baseball, even rarer in the minor leagues, where teams play fewer games and players can be moved from one level to the next at a moment’s notice. Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant is in sight of that number, though he’ll need a big final week at Triple-A Iowa to get there.
The third baseman has 43 home runs entering play Tuesday, meaning he needed seven in the final six regular-season games for an Iowa team that's in the hunt for a playoff berth. (Iowa's regular season ends Sept. 1.) If he can hit 50 -- spread between Double-A and Triple-A -- he’ll become the first player to do so in minor league baseball since former Chicago White Sox slugger Ron Kittle did it in 1982.
“Most guys don’t get a chance to hit 50 home runs," Kittle said of minor leaguers in an interview Monday, "because if they’re having that kind of success, they usually get called up."
That’s not in the cards for Bryant this season, so he's been able to chase a home run mark that’s stood for 32 years. Noting that this is Bryant's first full season in pro baseball and that they might need a 40-man roster spot, the Cubs have said the 22-year-old isn't getting called up. However, they don’t want to highlight the fact that they'll get an extra year out of him before free agency if they wait until next April to bring him up.
“I would probably be a little upset and demand to go play somewhere else in the big leagues,” Kittle joked of Bryant’s plight.
Kittle said he was held back, as well, because the White Sox had an expensive Steve Kemp playing in front of him in 1982. But he did get a September call-up, something the Cubs say won’t happen for Bryant. Who’s ever heard of a player approaching 50 home runs in the minor leagues not getting promoted?
“If he’s thought about it, he’s not mentioning anything to us,” Triple-A Iowa manager Marty Pevey said.
Either way, it’s a special season for Bryant, and if he can get to No. 50, it’s bound to be a lasting memory for him. Kittle certainly remembers his 50th as if it was yesterday. He was playing for the Edmonton Trappers in the Pacific Coast League, the same league Bryant is in.
“It came on the next-to-last day of the season,” Kittle recalled. “On a 3-2 pitch. A slider. I actually got up again in the game with the bases loaded and they intentionally walked me. I’m not kidding.”
Kittle said pitchers stopped throwing him strikes long before he got to No. 50, so he had to take advantage of the mistakes when he could. Bryant has also had issues seeing pitches to hit, and he’s made the best of it by taking walks while still hitting his share of home runs. He had five in April, 12 in May, 11 in June, seven in July and eight in August. Nothing has slowed him down.
“How many guys have you seen hit nearly 50 home runs?” Pevey asked rhetorically. “It’s been a ride for him this year.”
Kittle knows all about the ride. He admits he was gassed by the end of the 1982, when the media attention picked up steam as he got closer to 50 home runs. Then he came to Chicago in September, where the attention grew even more.
“I was tired,” Kittle said. “It was a long season. You’re playing in some hot places. Travel was tough. But it was a great experience. Fifty home runs or 49 was no big deal. I think it was bigger for the media.”
Kittle went on to win Rookie of the Year in 1983, when he hit 35 home runs, helping the White Sox to the playoffs. But his home run totals steadily declined after that season, and he ended up with 176 in a 10-year career. Of course, Kittle was signed as an amateur free agent, while Bryant was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Cubs fans undoubtedly are hoping for more.
“I like people doing exciting things,” Kittle said of Bryant’s quest for 50. “I can’t wait to see him the in the big leagues.”
“That’s your goal. To get to the top.”
Bryant has never showed in public statements any frustration with the Cubs' decision to keep him in the minors. He’s simply stated that he wants them to have a tough choice to make. Hitting 50 home runs -- or even coming close -- puts that decision-making in the spotlight.
There weren’t service-time concerns for players such as Kittle back when he was coming up. But the Cubs can control Bryant a year further into the future if they wait; that’s always been the prudent thing to do. And by keeping Bryant in the minors all season, he has a chance at achieving something special.
Kittle can’t believe no one has accomplished the feat since he did -- even in the steroid era.
“I suppose anybody who was taking any juice was moving up the ladder a little bit quicker,” he said.
As good as Bryant has been this season, it's doubtful he’ll reach 50 home runs -- hitting seven in six games is a tall task, even for him. And if he plays in all six games, that would be only 138 for the season -- fewer than a full season in either Triple A or the big leagues. Whatever the final total, he’s had a magical year. But that round figure of 50 has a nice ring to it.
“It’s a magical number,” Kittle said.