STORY BY COLE NORUM
It’s as American as apple pie, Chevrolet and claiming to have seen “them” before “they” got popular.
The 2015 season is approaching for the Iowa Cubs, Des Moines’ minor league baseball team, who will play 71 home games at Principal Park beginning April 17.
The I-Cubs recently garnered three 2015 Cityview Best of Des Moines awards, snagging Best Local Sports Team, Best Outdoor Sporting Event and their stadium taking home Best Place to Watch a Sporting Event.
Fan-favorite promotions return for the season, including fireworks after Friday night games.
The team’s 33 year as the Chicago Cubs’ highest minor league team will have new start times — at 12:08, 1:08, 6:38 and 7:08.
The time-change is a result of a recent partnership between the organization and KCCI Channel 8.
Also new to the year is the air of hope and anticipation surrounding their parent club, the first in more than five years in which the Chicago Cubs enter their own season with high hopes for reaching the playoffs.
A slew of offseason acquisitions, headlined by the arrivals of new manager Joe Maddon and starting pitcher Jon Lester, have fostered a new round of optimism for Chicago’s north-side squad.
While they strive in Chicago for their best season in years, the goal is a bit different 298-miles west on I-80: player development.
The teams that comprise the multi-tiered structure of Major League Baseball’s minor league system are often referred to as “farm teams,” more a nod to their existence as cultivators of talent than their geographic locations.
Much like the ground in which Iowa farmers sow their corn and soy, the I-Cubs have a rich history of fostering young players in their last stop before the big leagues.
From current Chicago Cubs players, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo and right fielder Jorge Soler, to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who were integral to the Cubs’ 2003 near-World Series appearance, to Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, the Des Moines’ club boasts a legacy of past and current big league alumni.
But there is a reason the Chicago Cubs are especially excited for this season beyond adding Maddon and Lester. The excitement spurs from someone new. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall, plays third base, hit 43 home runs in 138 minor league games last season, won every award imaginable and turned 23-years-old three days after New Year’s.
His name is Kris Bryant, and he may only be in Des Moines for a couple of weeks. And while it’s a good thing for Iowa baseball fans, that he will be in the minor leagues for even a day is a source of controversy in the baseball community.
A rule exists in MLB’s collective bargaining agreement regarding a team’s control of a player after drafting him, which the Cubs did with Bryant in 2013 when they took him second overall.
By preventing Bryant’s ascension to their team by even just two weeks this year, they will prevent him from accruing a full year of service, thus delaying his ability to enter free agency by an entire year.
In more simple terms, by refusing to place the player widely regarded as the best in the minor leagues to begin their season, and then waiting to promote him later in the year, the Cubs will get an entire additional year of Bryant’s services before having to negotiate against other teams for what is sure to be a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
It may make sense to more business-oriented minds, but it doesn’t fly with Tony Clark, the executive director of Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA).
In a conversation with reporters in March, Clark expressed dissatisfaction with the perceived manipulation of a rule by many clubs in order to prolong their control of players.
“We don’t think it’s in the industry’s best interest, to not have the best players on the field all the time,” Clark said.
By trading 2014 starting third baseman Luis Valbuena, the Cubs signaled they were one step closer to handing Bryant the starting job.
Now, Mike Olt, owner of a career .159 batting average, stands in Bryant’s way — if only for a few weeks.
Despite his strong spring training performance — leading all of baseball with eight home runs at the time of this writing — Bryant noted his confusion regarding the disconnect between his high level of play and the equally high likelihood of remaining in the minor leagues.
“I’m hearing from my teammates that they want me up and I’m doing well,” Bryant said in a Chicago Sun-Times article.
“That’s kind of sending mixed messages to me.”
With Clark’s comments about the rule in general and Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, asserting the Cubs’ handling of his client’s path to stardom is “damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball,” Bryant himself hasn’t kowtowed to the mum’s-the-word-script athletes are more or less expected to follow regarding controversial circumstances.
“It’s an honor to wear this uniform every day — I can’t help but smile every time I put it on,” Bryant said. “But I’m not a child out there. I realize there’s a business side to this thing.”
That business side could very well allow I-Cubs fans and Drake students alike to brave April chills to see the Cubs’ next phenom-in-waiting.