Coaching teenagers this week at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., Ty Griffin cautioned his captive audience on the dangers of high expectations.
The former Cubs first-rounder, picked ninth overall in the 1988 amateur draft, spoke from experience without being asked.
"I try to bring it up and give my story to kids coming up who are highly touted," said Griffin, who had 2,813 at-bats as a pro but none in the major leagues. "I'm dealing with 14-and-under players now, and one of the most important things is for them to understand it's not always about talent. It can be about situations, injuries, whatever. You never know for sure."
That's worth remembering for the 21-and-over crowd on the North Side too.
Griffin was Javy Baez before Javy Baez was born, the can't-miss, can-do-it-all infielder also drafted No. 9 overall whose array of skills excited a Cubs fan base starving for success. But due to injuries, a position switch and the inexplicable mysteries of baseball, Griffin's sure path to stardom never stretched beyond Double A. As Griffin tells the kids, you never know for sure.
"They talked about moving Ryne to third but then it was, 'Ty's a good enough athlete so let's try him there and see if we can catch lightning in a bottle,' '' said Griffin, 46. "It was an unbelievable opportunity in my lifetime and something I'll never forget. But when the experiment went south and I injured my arm, there were repercussions."
With Baez preparing to make his long-awaited major league debut Tuesday night in Denver, everybody in Cubdom will swear he is different from the Griffins and Corey Pattersons and Felix Pies and other Cubs phenoms who failed. Anybody who has seen Baez understands that school of thought. And perhaps Baez really is bust-proof, a reasonable conclusion after watching him swing a bat with as much fluidity as force.
But the only sure thing about baseball is that the home team bats last. Even Cubs President Theo Epstein respected the game's unknowns enough to wait until now to bring up Baez, who Griffin believes will benefit from joining a last-place team.
"It's a little easier coming up to a team that's not doing well," Griffin said in a phone interview. "There's a little less pressure. He won't feel like he has to put the team on his back. They don't need him to be Superman. Just come and play."
Playing Baez at second base alongside shortstop Starlin Castro proves the "Cubs Way" manual includes a chapter on common sense. When the Cubs traded Emilio Bonifacio a week after trading Darwin Barney, opening up second base, GM Jed Hoyer insisted that had no effect on Baez's timetable. What changed? The question is moot. The time is right.
This way Baez can start adjusting to major league pitching and learning a relatively new position under conditions more conducive for success now than next spring, a time he routinely struggles. This 52-game cameo can help Baez avoid hitting .172 next April in front of the Chicago media the way he did last April in Des Moines, where the glare was less intense. Intentional or not, the Cubs look smart having Baez make his MLB debut on the road and play his first home game Friday when the local media's attention will be distracted by the Bears' first exhibition game.
Soon enough, more cameras and tape recorders will bombard Baez. The Cubs just became more fascinating to follow, with Baez joining recent call-up Arismendy Alcantara — two guys drafted by the Jim Hendry regime, by the way — in a lineup getting younger and more exciting by the week.
Suddenly, August's hottest ticket at Wrigley might not be for the Pete Ricketts fundraiser. In September, outfielder Jorge Soler figures to join the fun. If Kris Bryant had any agent other than Scott Boras, he probably would have beaten Baez to the bigs. Is the All-Star break 2015 too soon for Addison Russell?
Better days are coming at Clark and Addison. This one belongs to Baez, who Griffin would advise to change nothing but his address as a Cub.
"The one thing I'd tell him is keep doing the things that got him here and play the way you've proven you can do," Griffin said. "They tried to change me. Trying to turn a player into something he's not is when you run the risk of getting a highly touted prospect not doing as well as he should."
For years with prospects like Griffin, the Cubs learned that the hard way.
The faces are different now. So is the feeling.