Happ wishes he could share big league moments with dad

Cubs prospect misses close relationship with father, who passed away last year

Happ wishes he could share big league moments with dad

MESA, Ariz. -- Ian Happ, the Cubs' top pick in last June's Draft, is back at second base. He's doing extra work every day and is making the most of his first Spring Training, and he has received one at-bat in a Cactus League game.

The only downside is that Happ can't call home and share the day's events with his dad. Ian's father Keith died in October of brain cancer. He was 58.

"I used to debrief my dad every day after practice," said Ian, sitting in the dugout at one of the Cubs' Minor League fields. "He loved knowing what was going on. He would come watch practice in high school, but whether it was college or professional ball, I would always call and let him know. I still talk to my mom and my brother. It's definitely been an adjustment."

The Cubs knew about Keith Happ's battle with cancer when they drafted Ian. Last July, the team invited the family to Wrigley Field to watch Ian take batting practice there with the big league team before he joined Class A South Bend. Happ had batted .283 in 29 games at Class A Short-Season Eugene before making the trip to Chicago.

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The team wanted to give Keith a chance to see his son in a Major League ballpark.

"It was very special for him to be there and see that," Ian said. "That was one of the last times he was able to move around well. When he was in the house, we had a picture of us at Wrigley with [Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein]. They did a great job. It was a really special day."

During that visit, Happ met Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber. The two not only have the same agent, but they also have an Ohio connection, as one of Schwarber's coaches at Indiana had gone to Cincinnati, where Happ played.

In the offseason, Schwarber trains in Florida, and he invited Happ to join him.

"I said, 'I have a spot for you if you want to come down and live,'" Schwarber said. "He's a really good kid and has a bright future ahead of him. It's looking promising for him."

Ballplayers talk about how their team becomes their second family, and the Cubs have embraced Ian. Schwarber knew what happened to Happ's father, but he didn't need to talk about it.

"I never wanted to bring that up," Schwarber said. "He did a really good job, from what I saw, separating himself from that. He came there to work, and I definitely feel like he did get better that offseason. We'll see what happens."

"It was a good setup," Ian said. "He's just a nice Midwest boy, Ohio grown. He's a great guy."

Last November, Happ's other "family" at the University of Cincinnati also rallied behind him. The Bearcats baseball team honored Keith Happ's memory with a no-shave November Fundraiser for Cancer Prevention. Happ wrote on his Twitter:

"Almost 3 weeks ago my father lost his battle with brain cancer. Keith Happ was my role model and my hero. My dad was my biggest supporter, my batting practice thrower, fungo hitter, throwing partner, golf coach and much more. He was my mentor in every endeavor. I am grateful for the 21 years I spent with my father."

The goal was $5,000, but the team topped that and raised more than $7,000.

"They didn't tell me about it at all," Ian said. "It was some of the guys who I played with for three years. What an awesome thing for them to do.

"The overwhelming support we had from the university, fans, friends, family -- we did a couple charity events for my dad. We had a celebration after he passed. We didn't want anything, we wanted people to donate to support the cause and spread awareness. Everyone was more than generous."

Happ played exclusively in the outfield last season in the Minor Leagues, but he is back at second base this spring -- and he's thrilled about it.

"I grew up a shortstop, grew up an infielder," he said. "This is like coming home for me. Being back in the dirt is what I wanted to do as a professional. I'm enjoying every minute."

The Cubs do have Happ playing at least one day a week in the outfield. Versatile players are a theme in Cubs camp, and it will make Happ more valuable to the big league team.

"The outfield was a little more of a new thing than [second base] is," Happ said. "I'm getting comfortable again. I'm learning the position at a new level, at a higher game-speed. It's been awesome."

While in Florida, Schwarber and Happ did similar drills to soften their hands and improve their fielding skills.

"He wasn't too good at first, and getting very frustrated with himself," Schwarber said. "We had video from the first day and the last day, and he looked like a completely different person on the last day. He definitely got better.

"He wants to make it happen. He's a determined kid. Good things will happen to him."

Happ didn't pepper Schwarber with questions about the big leagues -- at least, not at the beginning.

"We went on a hunting trip, and we were out in central Florida, out in the woods, and it kind of broke him open," Schwarber said. "Then he started asking questions -- how is it, how guys are, what it's like up there and things like that."

Keith Happ worked for the United States Golf Association, and he passed on his love of that game to his sons.

"My brother and I, some of our fondest memories were on the golf course with him," Ian said of his dad. "I recently had a putter made, and I put his initials on it. He loved watching baseball, but we loved being on the golf course with him."

How's Ian holding up?

"My family has been great," Ian said. "The support we've gotten has been unbelievable. My mom has been the strongest woman in the whole world through the entire thing. I think she's the strongest person I've ever met in my life."

And a very key part of Happ's ever-growing family.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.