Kyle Schwarber, the first homegrown core player kicked to the curb by the Cubs during their nine-month roster purge, watched Kris Bryant’s Wrigley Field homecoming Friday from the other side of town.
Among other things, he wondered whether Bryant had the same pile of candy waiting for him in left field that Schwarber got when he made his return to Wrigley in May.
“I hope he did. That was funny,” said Schwarber, who munched on the candy bar Bryant left for him on the grass that day — before homering for the Nationals later in the game. “He might have hit a homer if he ate a Twix.”
Schwarber’s pitch for a Mars endorsement aside, he texted his old friend to enjoy the moment and then watched from a distance with interest the emotions and spectacle of Bryant’s moment — like he’ll do again someday when Javy Báez and maybe Anthony Rizzo have theirs.
“We all built memories there,” Schwarber said of the bonds to the city, the fans and each other that Cubs championship core spent six years growing during the most successful six-year run in franchise history.
“You see Kris [Friday], where he was emotional,” Schwarber added. “It can hit you in terms of that could possibly be the last time you could play there, that it’s kind of the goodbye, that it could be.”
Bryant’s return came barely a month after he was traded to the Giants at the July 30 trade deadline.
It came on a day that came nine months and two baseball lifetimes ago for Schwarber since the cost-cutting, big-money Cubs chose to non-tender him rather than pay the $8 million or so he might have made through arbitration.
“It turned out to be one of the better things that could happen for me in my career,” Schwarber said from the visitors dugout on the South Side Friday afternoon, wearing a Red Sox T-shirt and mask.
The Nationals quickly signed Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2022 after the penny-pinching Cubs cut him loose.
And after making his first All-Star team this year, he was dealt to the Red Sox two weeks later with the Nationals out of the race.
“Going to Washington and being here now, and pushing for a playoff race,” Schwarber said in a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, “it could have been one of the better things that happened for me in my career.”
Despite a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak that put star pitcher Chris Sale on the COVID injured list Friday, the Red Sox opened their weekend series against the White Sox in the American League’s first wild-card position.
Schwarber’s taking nothing for granted on the field or off, wearing his mask despite having antibodies from contracting the virus in April and despite subsequently getting vaccinated.
“This is no joke,” said Schwarber, whose wife also contracted it and endured worse symptoms than he did. “It can be scary for people.”
The easy part for Schwarber these days is the baseball.
And it looks even easier for him than it ever has in many ways.
He’s in the midst of his best season, with an uptick in his All-Star performance even since joining the Red Sox’ pennant race — a .932 overall OPS and one home run shy of his third 30-homer season entering play Friday.
For Cubs fans and media watching what the Cubs do next with their rebuild and watching their championship-core players pursue October with other teams this month, it suggests an obvious question:
Could Schwarber ever see himself playing for the Cubs again?
“The answer would be I would never shut the door on anything,” he said.
Which is the nice, diplomatic way most players — including Bryant on the same day — answer that question.
It also happens to echo the public comments Cubs president Jed Hoyer, manager David Ross and other team officials have said since the trade deadline — “not closing the door on any of those players.” Privately, sources say they have no intention of pursuing returns of the core players traded.
What goes without saying from a player’s perspective is that if any team throws enough money at any player, anything’s possible — a scenario that makes it almost a non-starter for the budget-frigid Cubs at a time Schwarber’s value has never been higher.
In Schwarber’s case, there’s also the matter of that $11 million option with the $3 million buyout.
And Schwarber’s experiences with two very competitive, very different teams since being non-tendered by the Cubs has given him a much broader outlook on the game, having tasted the business end of baseball and good people and experiences in other cities along the way.
“It’s very lucky and rare that you see guys that are from the organization and stay there until the end of their [careers],’ he said. “For me I was excited too about getting the opportunity to go to a new organization and seeing how things are run and see different philosophies even. You’re around different guys, players, you’re hearing their experiences, through the playoffs and other things.
“It’s not a negative thing. I don’t think that can be a negative.”
Whether it’s in part a byproduct of those new experiences, Schwarber looks back at those 5 1/2 years with the Cubs since breaking in the summer of 2015 and says he’s “grateful” for what they accomplished.
He also sounds a little chapped at noise from the outside that tries to suggest the core underachieved by not winning more than one championship — the same number as the Dodgers, Nationals and Astros have won in the last decade.
“It’s really hard to win a World Series, and ’16 was great,” he said. “And in our minds we knew we wanted to do it again. We were at the top, and we got that taste, and we wanted to keep doing it. And the next year — people wrote about the World Series hangover. I think you can go shove that up whatever.
“We went out the next year in ’17 and won how many games — 90-something? What hangover was there? We went to the LCS. …”
They tied for the NL lead with 95 wins in 2018 and got chased down by the “historically hot” Brewers, who won literally all their games the final week to catch the Cubs and force a Game 163 that the Cubs lost, before losing an extra-inning wild-card game the next day.
“Everything we did there was great,” said Schwarber, who will finish 2021 on a winning team for the seventh time in seven career seasons. “Obviously, we didn’t get it done [a second time], but for five out of six years in Chicago [making the playoffs]…
“That’s why I’m grateful for what we all did there.”
What happens next for Schwarber or the Cubs is anyone’s guess.
But it’s almost certain to include a lot more winning a lot sooner for Schwarber.
That’s the other part working against a possible reunion. Whatever the Cubs might think of Schwarber and his potential value in the clubhouse and the left-handed batter’s box if he hits the open market, they never engaged last winter after non-tendering him (despite “leaving the door open” then, too).
And despite Schwarber’s strong affection for the city and the organization, a rebuild doesn’t seem to be in his future anytime soon.
“I think everyone — players, fans, and any organization I’ve been a part of or going to — they know I want to win,” he said. “That’s my motto every day. I want to do something that day to help the team win.
“I like to win. I’ve been part of winning seasons my whole career. And I want to keep winning.”
That was not the message the Cubs have sent anyone — fans or jettisoned players — in the last nine months (though Schwarber said he takes responsibility for underperforming in 2020 in his case).
“I got the move,” he said. “But for me, still, I know what kind of baseball player I am and want to be. And I know I can keep getting better. …
“And I want to keep winning.”