from the cheap seats to the visitors’ dugout: Ian Happ comes to town
It was hot and humid at PNC Park all weekend. After three games in less than 48 hours, Ian Happ looked spent as he sat bent over in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse late Sunday afternoon.
Then the Mt. Lebanon High School graduate stood and was asked about playing his first three games as a major-league ballplayer in the stadium where he used to sit in the cheap seats.
His face lit up.
“Awesome weekend,” Happ, a Chicago Cubs rookie second baseman and outfielder, said. “Just special. Family being here, friends being here. Can’t say enough about the support coming out of here. Winning the series, playing good baseball was great.”
Happ had a strong weekend. He was 4-for-12 at the plate with a double, a walk, a sacrifice bunt and two runs scored, and he saved the best for last – a homer, his eighth since he was called up May 13, into the Cubs bullpen in center field in the ninth inning of Sunday’s 7-1 Chicago win.
You had better believe he procured that ball.
Happ is 22. The June 16-18 weekend series, in which Chicago won two of three against the Pirates, came just a little over two years after he was a first-round draft pick by the Cubs out of the University of Cincinnati.
He matriculated through the minor leagues quickly. He came back to Pittsburgh – and, briefly, back to Mt. Lebanon – as a big-leaguer with a promising future.
Get a load of the praise heaped on Happ by Joe Maddon, the manager of the World Series champion Cubs and a fellow Western Pennsylvanian:
“He’s very talented. Incredibly strong. You look at him. Not this imposing figure, but when he hits the ball it comes off really hot. Great kid. Not a good kid; a great kid. And he’s becoming a better second baseman than I thought he could. He’s becoming a very good second baseman. Can play all the outfield positions. Really good baserunner. He’s fast. This kid’s got tools. He’s tooled out. He’s going to be really good. Over the next couple of years he’s going to turn into a very, very good baseball player.”
And yet Happ, in his gut, is still in some respects the kid who used to go to PNC Park when the Pirates offered $9 general admission tickets – a dollar an inning – and, in the company of a big bag of sunflower seeds, find a spot in an otherwise vacant upper-deck section near the left-field foul pole to watch games.
For the three weekend Cubs-Pirates games, Happ had a lot of support in the stands. Family. Friends. Former teammates and coaches.
Lebo High baseball coach Patt McCloskey went to all three games. He had seats behind the Cubs dugout. McCloskey, who called Happ “the best player we’ve ever had,” said he doesn’t get real emotional often, but two times he did were watching live on MLB Network when Happ got drafted and Friday night watching him play at PNC Park.
Before that game, Happ spoke to a group of reporters and paid tribute to his baseball upbringing.
“I can’t say enough about the level of coaching that I got at a young age,” Happ said, adding that the commitment within the high school program, such as breaking down video and McCloskey’s work to get an indoor facility built, gave him an advantage. “To have that kind of support at a young age and that kind of environment to grow up in and to really learn to play the game the right way, learn to play baseball, was something that I don’t think I’d be here without.”
McCloskey saw a video of that interview on a Chicago newspaper website.
“He didn’t have to say that,” McCloskey said. “I just hope I made his high school baseball enjoyable for him. To see him, knowing that it has only been five years since he was playing in high school, that’s a credit to his work ethic.”
McCloskey, a lifelong Pirates fan, said it was odd to suddenly and openly root for the Cubs, but he made the transition quickly with Happ on the field.
“He looked so relaxed,” McCloskey said. “It look like he was playing down at Wildcat Field.”
The Cubs had the day off Thursday between series, and Happ spent part of it admiring the renovations at the high school and with McCloskey at the indoor facility.
Friday, with a lot of time before the night game, Happ took a walk through the Strip District. Wouldn’t you know, he ran into several people he knew from high school.
Then he made the iconic walk across the Clemente Bridge to PNC Park from the team hotel.
It’s not a guarantee Happ will spend the full season in the major leagues this year, but his future is bright, and it’s highly likely he will play at PNC Park many more times.
Coming out of the weekend series, Happ was hitting .223, not a great average but not a bad start, and 16 of his 23 hits in the majors had been for extra bases.
“I’m not concerned about the average. That’s just going to come with at-bats,” Maddon said.
Happ certainly hopes so.
“Continuing to have better at-bats,” Happ said. “It’s a learning process, and I’m enjoying it.”