Sports

Remember when Cubs’ Bryant struck out five times with Boise? Bill Buckner does

Boise Hawks hitting coach Bill Buckner works with catching prospect Willson Contreras before the start of the 2012 Northwest League baseball season in Boise.
Boise Hawks hitting coach Bill Buckner works with catching prospect Willson Contreras before the start of the 2012 Northwest League baseball season in Boise. Shawn Raecke/Idaho Statesman

Former major-league star Bill Buckner is a no-nonsense tough guy who was smothered by a wave of nostalgia Wednesday night.

The Boise resident was the Hawks’ hitting coach in 2012-13, working with future Chicago Cubs stars Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora.

Today, those players are World Series champions.

Buckner played for the Cubs between 1977-84, and “spent more time in last place than first place.” He had a much different feeling after Game 7 against the Indians.

“It was a great game, might be one of the better ones of all time, and then having the young guys I worked with on top of that, and being with the Cubs and playing there, there was a lot of nostalgia going on there, and it was pretty cool,” said Buckner, who attended Games 4 and 5 in Wrigley Field.

Buckner loves to share the story of Bryant striking out five times in his professional debut, July 23, 2013, as the Hawks won in Eugene, Ore.

“He hadn’t played in a month, which makes a big difference, and then I put him in the cage for some drills, and he struggled with those,” Buckner said. “After about a week, he was locked in.”

MANAGER STILL WITH CUBS ORGANIZATION

Buckner worked under former Hawks manager Gary Van Tol, another Boise resident.

Van Tol served as the manager of the Hawks, the Cubs’ short-season A minor league affiliate from 2001-14, until the Eugene Emeralds became the Cubs’ affiliate in 2015. Six different former Hawks helped bring a title back to Wrigley Field for the first time since 1908.

Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, John Lackey, Kyle Schwarber and Bryant each made positive marks in Boise, on-and-off the field. Included among the memories are Bryant’s graciousness and signature smile. It was the exact smile he flashed as he fielded the game’s final out and threw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo before collapsing to the ground in pure joy.

“What separates him from a lot of guys is his makeup and his character. You couldn’t ask for a better face to have all over your organization,” said Van Tol, who helped lead the Emeralds to a Northwest League title as an assistant in 2016. “He’s just another guy from that standpoint. And that’s what makes him special. If I talk to him tomorrow, it would be just like we were back in Boise. And that takes a lot. (He’s a) special human being.”

RADIO VOICE: BRYANT ‘TOTAL PACKAGE’

College of Idaho sports information director Mike Safford, who served as the Hawks’ radio announcer from 2003-2014, remembers the veteran presence that players such as Bryant and Schwarber had just days after being drafted in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Though they were new to professional baseball, the stage never seemed too big.

“When Kris Bryant walked into the clubhouse … you could just tell he was the total package. It wasn’t just his ability. You could tell by the way he carried himself around the clubhouse, with the media, that he was mature. That’s what sets the really good players apart,” Safford said. “Very first night Kris Bryant put on a Boise Hawks uniform, he struck out five times. (Then) he hit a couple of the furthest home runs I’ve ever seen. But despite all that, he didn’t change as a person.”

GENERAL MANAGER: ‘INCREDIBLE’

Former Hawks General Manager and President Todd Rahr, who worked for the club from 2004-15, knew early that a pair of his players were going to make their marks in the majors. The only thing that surprised him was how fast it happened.

“I felt, seeing Bryant and Schwarber come through, these guys are on the right track. To think that it would go as fast as it did? I don’t think so,” Rahr said. “To see them do it this quick is incredible.”

Schwarber, who made it to the majors almost a year to the day after being drafted No. 4 overall from Indiana, frequently put on a show at batting practice. While Bryant spent much of his time hitting to the opposite field, Schwarber was hitting lasers in the cage. Though he missed nearly the entire 2016 regular season (knee), Schwarber came back for the World Series and provided the Cubs with a major lift.

“There is nobody who hits the ball better than (Schwarber),” Rahr said. “When I heard he was coming back for the World Series, I wasn’t surprised (with) what I saw.”

But the guy who could hit the ball the farthest? That was Baez, who played in two games with the Hawks in 2011 due to injury. The incredibly talented yet raw infielder hit moonshots.

“Javy had just unlimited power,” Safford said.

Though he won’t take any credit for helping the Cubs reach the pinnacle, Rahr said he feels a sense of pride in seeing former Hawks reach baseball immortality.

“Surreal is a good word. In my 24 years in baseball, 11 of those were spent with the Cubs. That was the team I was closest to. To see them winning, there was a lot of pride,” Rahr said. “A thousand little things add up to one big thing, so in that … maybe we helped a little bit.”

VAN TOL GETTING TWO RINGS

Van Tol was at Wrigley for Games 3 and 4 and was introduced on the field. He will also get a World Series ring. Given that his Emeralds team just won the Northwest League and a few months later will get fitted for an even bigger ring, Van Tol has had a solid fall season. And the gravity of the situation isn’t lost on him.

“You could feel the connection with everybody in our organization. It was a very proud moment, because you represent the Chicago Cubs. You take a step back. You’re trying to gather all of your emotions, all of your feelings. ... You’re totally exhausted, watching it like you’re managing,” Van Tol said. “There’s such a following with the organization. Honored to be a part of it.

“It’s a good day to be a Cub.”

Boise Hawks connections to the Cubs

  • OF Albert Almora (15 games in 2012): .292, HR, 6 RBI
  • INF Javier Baez (2 games in 2011): .167, RBI
  • 3B Kris Bryant (18 games in 2013): .354, 4 HR, 16 RBI
  • C Willson Contreras (124 games from 2011-2012): .268, 5 HR, 66 RBI
  • P John Lackey (15 games in 1999): 4.98 ERA, 77 K, 50 BB
  • DH Kyle Schwarber (5 games in 2014): .600, 4 HR, 10 RBI
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