By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI - The University of Cincinnati Bearcats were on the field at Marge Schott Stadium last Saturday getting ready to play UCF when they heard the news that the Chicago Cubs had called up Ian Happ from their Class AAA Iowa affiliate.
"It was the buzz in the dugout," said UC coach Ty Neal. "We're out for
Just two years earlier, the 22-year old Happ, the 2015 American Athletic Conference player of the year, was on that same field as he neared the end of his UC career, awaiting the Major League Baseball draft that would take place in a few weeks. At the time, he was projected as a first-round pick, the first in UC history. On June 8, the Cubs took him the ninth pick overall.
Happ quickly established himself as one of the Cubs' top minor league prospects. At the time of his call-up, he was ranked No. 2 in their organization by MLB.com and No. 25 in all of
"He's earned it," Neal said. "I know how he's gone about his business and the pride he's put into it. I'm just overwhelmed with joy for him. He's another young man realizing his dream. It's pretty sweet."
Happ started for the Cubs in right field Saturday in his major league debut in St. Louis. He went 1-for-3 in a 5-3 loss to the Cardinals and hit a home run in the seventh inning. On Sunday, he went 2-for-4 in another Cubs' loss, giving him a whopping .429 average in his first two games.
"He's very calm and a confident young man," Cubs manager Joe Maddon told the Associated Press after the game. "What you saw today was not a surprise to any of us. He's obviously an interesting young player. He was not overwhelmed by being here today. He put the uniform on and went out there and hit a homer."
Happ, who grew up in Pittsburgh, developed a relationship with former Reds first baseman Sean Casey, who's also from Pittsburgh. Casey said he was thrilled when he heard about Happ's call-up and was even more excited when he saw him hit the home run.
"I know what that feeling's like," Casey said. "I remember getting called up by the Indians in '97. When he hit the home run in St. Louis for his first big league hit, you feel like you finally made it. Your dream has come true. I shot him a text and told him how awesome it is, to cherish it and wished him many more to come."
Casey said he talked extensively with Happ when he was a senior in high school about the importance of the mental approach to hitting.
"That was the one thing I tried to teach him a long time ago," Casey said, "that how you think about every pitch is going to determine how far you go. He understands how important it is to never give a pitch away. He's really grasped it."
Happ, who led the AAC in batting average (.369), slugging percentage (.672), on-base percentage (.492), total bases (133) and walks (46), during his junior year at UC, played under Neal for two seasons. He was recruited by former UC coach Brian Cleary, who coached him during his freshman season.
There's no foolproof way to predict how a college or high school player will do professionally, but Neal said he was confident Happ would succeed at the next level, citing the same mental approach that Casey talked about.
"Being around some of the other guys that I've coached in the past, there's something different about those guys and sometimes it's not even the physical stuff," Neal said. "He had all the physical tools in the world, but if you listen to him speak, if you listen to him in all the interviews he had while he was here at the University of Cincinnati, just emotionally and mentally he's at a different level. And that's what it takes.
"He used the words `handling failure and defining success,'" Neal continued. "Just as a 21-year-old, for him to be able to have a conversation like that in
Neal has coached five players who are currently in the major leagues. In addition to UC's Happ, the others are Micah Johnson (Braves), Josh Phegley (A's), Kyle Schwarber (Cubs) and Alex Dickerson (Padres), all of whom Neal coached as an assistant at Indiana.
"I think it's great for our program," Neal said of Happ's call-up. "It gives guys within our program hope that hey, Ian Happ made it out of the University of Cincinnati. It gives future recruits hope that hey, if I go there, at least they're not going to hold me back. And if you dig deeper into this place, the resources are here for guys to develop year `round. It allows a high school kid to maybe dig a little deeper into our program and say, you know what, Ian Happ developed there. They may have some resources there that could help me as well."
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.