Den Leader: Slugger and cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo holds the Cubs together
- Chicago is laughing in the face of adversity with the same kind of positve attitude that helped popular first baseman Anthony Rizzo beat a dreaded disease and become a major league superstar.
This story appeared in the July 18, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
In a small trattoria in the tiny Sicilian hilltop village of Ciminna, amid a Norman castle and churches that date as far back as 1500, John Rizzo, vacationing three years ago with his wife, Laurie, and his baseball playing son, Anthony, did the best he could without speaking Italian to convey to the townsfolk that his grandmother's family, the Frangipanes, hailed from Ciminna. A member of the trattoria's staff who spoke English sprang into action. Tables were pushed together, homemade wine was summoned from the basement, several pizzas were served up, and the Rizzos found themselves dining with a dozen new members of the family.
Ciminna knows hospitality. The town of 3,800 holds at least 11 festivals and processions every year, including the Feast of San Vito, the patron saint of Ciminna, as well as of comedians and dancers.
Anthony Rizzo has brought a taste of Ciminna to Chicago. Not only is Rizzo, 26, an All-Star first baseman for the Cubs and on his way to becoming the first lefthanded hitter in franchise history with three straight 30-homer seasons, he also is the enthusiastic team leader, host and comedian of the most rollicking, fun-loving, thick-skinned, insult-hurling fraternal team in baseball. For a club that has shed 51 of the 52 teammates Rizzo played with when he joined the Cubs just four years ago (only pitcher Travis Wood remains from that 101-loss outfit), Rizzo is the guy who pushes the table together to make the Cubs one big familia.
"He is probably the most important player we have on the team," says catcher David Ross, "just as far as his attitude and how he's able to get along with everybody and gets to know everybody.
"Every time you're around him, whether you're on the field or out to dinner or any place, he wants everybody to have a good time. He's more worried about everybody else and puts himself second. Whether it's his at bats, batting practice or anything, he's quick to take a backseat to others. That's unusual for a superstar."
The Cubs reached 50 wins in 76 games, the fastest start for the franchise since 1918. They have soared despite an amalgam of players who didn't develop together as professionals. Of the 37 players used by Chicago this year, Cubs president Theo Epstein acquired 29 of them from other teams in 4½ years on the job, starting with Wood in December 2011 and Rizzo one month later. The Cubs have yet to use a pitcher this year who originally signed with the organization.
Rizzo is the mortar that binds the bricks. On a Sunday night during a June homestand, when major league players typically scatter to their families and pads, Rizzo helped organize a dinner that drew 20 members of the team. In Washington, Rizzo took outfielders Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward to dinner. Whether it's breakfast in San Diego, lunch in Pittsburgh or cheesesteaks in Philly ("He always buys," Ross says, "but that one was on me because I told him I could afford it. It was like 40 bucks"), Rizzo is the team concierge.
"He'll send out a text and invite some of the guys who don't have family in town," Ross says. "He knows when guys are solo. He keeps tabs on everyone, which is cool. He's a chameleon; he can fit in like that. You're never around him where you don't have a good time."
Says Laurie, "He was always the leader, even growing up. When you had to plan something—a party, homecoming, whatever—he'd be the one in charge. Always."
Rizzo has big plans. The Cubs infamously haven't won the World Series since 1908, when they also were led by a first baseman, player-manager Frank Chance. Known as the Peerless Leader, Chance doled out maxims such as, "Don't turn a player down too quickly. Give him a chance to develop and show what he has in him." That ancient wisdom applies to Rizzo, who was passed over through 203 picks in the draft, was traded twice before age 22 and spent his formative pro years stuck on depth charts behind nondescript hitters such as Lars Anderson, Kyle Blanks and Yonder Alonso.
In between Chance and Rizzo, first base for the Cubs has been a carrier of bad karma. Among those to man the position were Charlie Grimm, who played and managed 3,453 games without winning the World Series; Eddie Waitkus, who was shot by a stalker in 1949; Ernie Banks, who played more games than anyone (2,528) without getting to the postseason; and Leon Durham and Bill Buckner, who made two of the most infamous errors ever by a first baseman.
Rizzo, more than any other Cubs player, willingly shoulders the responsibility of ending this Dark Century. Last year he boldly predicted that the Cubs would win the National League Central. They didn't, but they did win 97 games, a wild-card spot and a Division Series against St. Louis before losing four straight against the Mets in the NLCS. This year he talks openly about winning the World Series.
"We know when we win it's going to be insane," he says. "And that's more motivation to do it, because it's never been done before—not that anyone can remember. So when it happens, it's going to be epic."
It's pointed out that he's saying "when," not "if."
"We believe it," he says. "You talk to these guys who won championships: Jon Lester, [John] Lackey, Rossy.... That 2013 [Red Sox] team knew they were going to win a World Series. They believed it and they envisioned it. That's the feeling I have.
"That's obviously big picture. You have to do the little things every day. But we envision the parade down Michigan Avenue. We're going to do it. It's not going to be easy, but we're ready for the challenge."
It's a long way to October, as well as through it. The franchise is a stunningly inept 22–55 in postseason games since Chance's champions of 1908. What is certain is that wherever the Cubs are headed, Rizzo will show them the way. He will show them how to hustle, how to hit with two strikes, how to play loose, how to be a good teammate and how to enjoy life.
Life? From what Rizzo has seen of it, 108 years without a World Series title is nothing.
The simplest words are the most powerful. This is the word most often used to describe Rizzo.
"He's always happy," says Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez. "He's so positive."
Rizzo's lightness influences how the team plays. A pop-up will shoot skyward in the infield, and he will yell at shortstop Addison Russell, "Don't trip!" or "Watch the skateboard!" Rizzo will predict to teammates how a pitcher will pitch him, and after one or two pitches that prove him right, he will step out of the batter's box and look into the dugout with a wry "told-you-so" smile.
Rizzo saves his best barbs for Ross, the veteran catcher who happily returns fire. When Ross looked to throw out a runner this year after the winning run already had scored, Rizzo texted him a screen shot of the gaffe. When any infielder makes an error, Ross tells him, "Hey, police your area, Rizz."
Once, during a replay challenge, Rizzo engaged Ross in a staring contest. Ross, with his right hand hooked on his belt, discreetly showed him his middle finger. Rizzo adjusted his cup.
For Father's Day, Rizzo gave Ross a card with the handwritten inscription, "Thank you for everything you have done for me! Love, your son,Anthony."
Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant started an Instagram account in the name of "Grandpa Rossy" to celebrate what the 39-year-old catcher said will be his final year playing.
"What's cool," Ross says, "is when Rizz and KB touch something like that, my popularity has gone through the roof. I can't go to restaurants, whereas before it was no big deal. Our relationship is little brother-big brother."
There is a popular catchphrase among the Cubs: "Too soon?" It's the typical response if anybody dares show the least bit of sensitivity to a friendly insult or jab. Such looseness serves a team well in the face of high expectations. On June 13, for instance, while Washington pitcher Max Scherzer whiffed nine of the first 10 Cubs batters, the Chicago dugout was oddly giddy.
"Can somebody please make some contact?" Rizzo cracked.
"At least we're getting his pitch count up!" somebody added.
Says Ross, "Literally, we were laughing. What should we be pouting about? This guy is dealing. It's easier to do when you're winning, but that's the personality of this team."
Beyond the jocularity, Rizzo sets the tone for Chicago by how he plays. Broad-shouldered, with massive hands and, according to Ross, the most strength on the team, Rizzo works out nearly every morning and almost never misses a game. He hustles on the bases. He plays a slick first base.
At the end of every season he asks coach Mike Borzello, who breaks down opponents' weaknesses, "How would you get me out?" and sets about fixing those vulnerabilities. Rizzo has quickened and flattened his swing after struggling against fastballs in 2011, adopted a two-strike approach late in '13 in which he chokes up on the bat and forgoes his usual high leg kick and moved on top of the plate in '14 to better attack pitches away. (Pitchers rarely test him inside.)
"I hate striking out," Rizzo explains.
The erstwhile free-swinging Cubs have taken their cue from him. Ross and infielder Javier Baez are among the teammates who have adopted their own versions of the Rizzo two-strike mode, and Chicago has improved from the worst two-strike hitting team in baseball last year (a flaw that helped doom them against the hard-throwing Mets staff in the NLCS) to a respectable middle-of-the-pack 18th.
"I think the whole leadership thing in baseball gets overrated," Lester says. "What I've seen over two years is that he's a leader because he goes out and plays hard every single day. He almost never takes a day off. Never takes at bats off. Believe me, he's so important to us that everybody notices that. That's leadership."
Laz Gutierrez, an area scout for Boston, kept using that word in 2007 to Red Sox scouting director Jason McLeod whenever he described the makeup of a 17-year-old first baseman for Stoneman-Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. "He kept saying, 'It's the person behind the player,'" says McLeod, who now holds a similar position with the Cubs.
Major league scouts packed Stoneman-Douglas games, but mostly to see a catcher, Danny Elorriaga-Matra. The Red Sox surreptitiously pivoted toward Rizzo.
The first day of the draft, covering five rounds, passed with Rizzo still on the board. Some teams worried that his big frame presaged conditioning problems and a lack of athleticism. Most figured he was ticketed for Florida Atlantic University. Boston began to hear rumors that Detroit, picking 27th in the sixth round, might take Rizzo. The Red Sox, at 20, called his name. They signed him for $325,000, the equivalent of second-round money. Rizzo has since accumulated the highest Wins Above Replacement of any position player in the 2007 draft except first-rounders Heyward and Josh Donaldson, and second-rounder Giancarlo Stanton. "Over the years he has tinkered with his swing mechanics, his hand position and where he sets his feet," McLeod says. "What hasn't changed is, once he lets that swing go, his ability to just hit it straightaway to left centerfield with backspin.
"Laz was right. It became quite apparent in his first season. We heard from coaches about the leadership qualities this kid had and how he took to everybody on the team. Latin players, American players ... it didn't matter. They all gravitated toward him. And once you got to meet his parents, you could see why."
John, a security firm manager, and Laurie, who worked in fashion in New York City, lived in Lyndhurst, N.J., before a winter's vacation in Florida convinced them to move there in 1986, one year before their first son, Johnny, was born and three years before Anthony. His parents, as they still do, called him Ant or Antnee, while his friends called him Little Rizz in deference to his football-playing brother. After Rizzo's first minor league season, McLeod sent him to Instructional League in the Dominican Republic.
"It was an eye-opening experience for him to see where these players came from and how little they had," McLeod says. "I'll never forget, he was talking to his parents and said, 'Is there anything we can do for these guys? What can we do to help?' He was just a kid."
Another powerful word. Happy's enemy. That's the word the doctor used in 2008. One minute you're 18 years old, tearing up the South Atlantic League with a .373 average, despite odd swelling in your legs and feet, and the next a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital is telling you about two tumors, one on either side of your pelvis. It's Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I didn't know what anything was," Rizzo says. "I didn't know what chemotherapy was. I thought chemotherapy was cancer. I had no idea. So they explained what they had to do, and I was like, O.K., let's go. It was obviously tough. I'm an emotional person. There were tears. But there was never a doubt. I truly believed after my first treatment I was all better. You still had to go through the process. It was six months."
Says Laurie, "It was shocking, devastating. But we had a lot of support at the hospital. And once he got a hold of himself, it was, 'Let's do this. I want to get this out of my body.'"
Rizzo came back in 2009 and resumed mashing. McLeod and assistant GM Jed Hoyer left to run the Padres, but Rizzo was climbing the ladder to Boston—until Epstein, then the Red Sox general manager, traded him to his friends in San Diego after the 2010 season to get All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "Someday," Epstein told Rizzo, "I'll get you back."
Rizzo won a job with the Padres in 2011, lost it to Blanks and was demoted. On Oct. 12, 2011, Epstein left the Red Sox to become president of the Cubs. Hoyer and McLeod left the Padres to rejoin their old boss in Chicago. Several months after that, Epstein made good on his promise: He traded pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Padres to get Rizzo.
Says Hoyer, "The Cubs are really fortunate. If Anthony came up and played well, there was no chance the Padres would have traded him."
"I was ecstatic," Rizzo says. "I'm not the biggest West Coast fan. I like being able to stay closer to home."
Says Laurie, "As soon as he was called up to the Cubs [in 2012], he said, 'Let's start a foundation' and we did. His dream was to have a [fund-raising] walk in Parkland. He said, 'If we get 300 people, maybe we can raise $30,000 to fight cancer.' Close to one thousand people showed up, and we raised more than $100,000."
The Cubs are a rolling carnival. Road games are packed with Cubs fans who often drown out the home rooters. The team, at the behest of manager Joe Maddon's "themed" trips, has traveled in "zany suits," track suits, as an homage to NBA warmup outfits, and short shorts. Maddon has fortified the entire silk-screen industry with an endless line of T-shirt slogans: DO SIMPLE BETTER; EMBRACE THE TARGET; IF YOU LOOK HOT, WEAR IT; TRY NOT TO SUCK; et al. In spring training the Cubs were visited by a mime who ran stretching drills, the singer Huey Lewis, honest-to-goodness live bear cubs, Rizzo playing Adele on the electric keyboard and their manager wearing a tie-dyed shirt and driving a 1970s van onto the practice field while blaring Earth, Wind & Fire.
All the goofiness rings with authenticity because the Cubs have won, despite a 6–15 regression going into the All-Star break. And the Cubs win in part because their leader kicked cancer's butt (HAPPY > CANCER would be a nice addition to the Maddon line of threads), which means everyone else with a seat at the Cubs' table sees how well Little Rizz handles two-strike counts, Scherzer fastballs, Grandpa Rossy admonitions and all other challenges thrown his way. (Ross to Rizzo after the first baseman ranged too far for a ground ball, forcing the pitcher to cover first: "Hey, quit being a ball hog! Let the other kids play too!")
"After the cancer," Rizzo says, "it validates everything my parents ever preached to me: Live every moment that you can because you never know. I feel like when I do things, I do them the best I possibly can."
Says Laurie, "Anthony always had an old soul. After the cancer it became more so."
Three years ago Rizzo honored his roots by playing for Italy in the World Baseball Classic. Says Marco Mazzieri, the manager of that team, "The first thing I would like to say is that he is a first-class human being. He is the most unselfish player I have ever managed."
When Rizzo and his parents visited Italy, they surprised Mazzieri with a phone call while in Rome. Of course Anthony invited him to dinner.
The prequel to the story of how Rizzo came to be the leader of the Cubs goes back to 1905. That was the year his great-grandfather Vito stepped off an immigrant ship from Italy and onto Ellis Island. Of course he was named Vito—the same name as the patron saint of Ciminna, comedians and dancers.
Three years later the last out of the last World Series won by the Cubs settled into the mitt of the Peerless Leader, a first baseman named Chance. One hundred eight years have passed since then, one for every stitch on an official major league baseball. Too soon? Nothing for Rizzo can come too soon.