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San Diego ready to embrace Cubs' Bryant

As an official scorer at Petco Park for Padres games and the voice of University of San Diego baseball the last 18 years, Jack Murray sees a lot of old friends in the press box.

Inevitably, they ask about Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ All-Star third baseman Murray came to know well during Bryant’s career at USD. Murray finds himself answering similar questions around town about the budding superstar who returns to San Diego for Tuesday’s All-Star Game a legitimate National League most valuable player candidate after a fantastic first half.

“Everybody wants Kris Bryant stories — he’s become a cult icon here,” Murray said. “When he came back to Petco last year for the first time and walked out of the dugout, fans reacted like he was born two blocks away. Larger than life. When word spread that Kris was skipping the Home Run Derby (today), people were devastated.”

Maybe Bryant just figured he never could hit a homer in front of San Diegans farther than the one he sent over an 80-foot light tower one rainy Friday night in 2013 at USD’s Fowler Field. The Roy Hobbs moment came against Saint Louis University in front of only 500 home fans on a first-pitch fastball Bryant sent sailing “at least 550 feet,” Murray swears. No video evidence exists because the school’s basketball team played in a conference tournament in Las Vegas the same weekend and needed the equipment.

“I remember my call: ‘My God almighty, it went over the light tower,’ and I looked down at the stands and Mike Bryant (Kris’ dad) had his arms raised to heaven signaling touchdown,” said Murray, who helped Mike search for the souvenir after the game. “Even Kris was giggling as he rounded the bases.”

At a banquet last offseason, Murray asked Bryant to compare that home run — “The most amazing thing in baseball I’ve ever seen,” he said — to the 495-foot bomb he hit off the Wrigley Field video board last September. Bryant giggled again.

“He said because it was a wood bat he hit the Wrigley homer better, but in terms of distance it was the one at Fowler,” Murray said. “One coach said he had never seen a golf ball go that far.”

Local legend about Bryant goes beyond the way he blasted majestic home runs and carried San Diego to a second straight NCAA Regional with a .340 batting average and NCAA-best 31 home runs in 2013. People who saw Bryant develop from an unassuming 18-year-old freshman, who “moved into the dorm with three other guys and wore a ball cap to class like most kids” into a polished national player of the year marvel at his growth unrelated to baseball.

Murray remembers wanting to introduce Bryant to his wife and daughters shortly after meeting the prospect as a high school junior curious about educational opportunities at San Diego. Head coach Rich Hill can’t believe the Bryant who clowns around in commercials with Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo is the same tall, shy teenager he recruited out of Las Vegas. Hill recalled fighting back tears hearing Bryant thank his coaches, his family and his fiancee after receiving the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

“I saw him grow up right before my eyes and become much more comfortable in the spotlight,” said Hill, who also wondered if Cubs manager Joe Maddon would bat Bryant leadoff against American League teams — like he did as USD. “Kris once was a reserved kid, and now you see his personality really blossoming. In Wikipedia, if you look up ‘Too Good To Be True,’ there’s a picture of Kris Bryant.”

Bryant’s image only figures to get bigger and better the more success he and the Cubs have. The most engaging star on a major-market team full of young talent, Bryant represents everything professional sports organizations seek in the face of a franchise, a player whose humility exceeds his rare ability. That down-to-earth trait comes through almost every time Bryant addresses the media, such as when he described the thrill of making his second straight All-Star Game.

“It’s hard to put into words how cool the All-Star Game was last year,” Bryant said with awe. “Ken Griffey Jr. was walking through the clubhouse, and Pete Rose. I didn’t know what to say. I’m in the Home Run Derby against Albert Pujols, and it was unbelievable. Having your teammates and friends there would be more special.”

Family friend Murray planned to have breakfast this morning with Mike Bryant, who probably never has to buy another fish taco in the Gaslamp Quarter. Hill raved about the Bryants inviting him to participate in one of the pregame ceremonies with Kris. The struggling Cubs have enjoyed July as little as any team in baseball, but it will be impossible for Bryant to go back to Chicago not having savored the experience in a Southern California city that embraces him just as tightly.

“Home away from home,” Mike Bryant called San Diego.

The familiar sweet spot awaits his home run-hitting son.

Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant, a budding superstar, returns to San Diego for Tuesday’s All-Star Game as a legitimate National League most valuable player candidate after a fantastic first half. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS