From the Pages of Vine Line: Rizzo, the leader

Rizzo_Soler
(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo participated in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. The 25-year-old has become the leader both on and off the field and is doing so with a relaxed and positive attitude. The following story can be found in the July issue of Vine Line.

He has been seen with an empty bubblegum bucket on his head as a rally cap and does a “bear dance” in the dugout after home runs. But he’s also the first to reprimand one of his Cubs teammates whenever it’s necessary and has become the captain of the infield. In his youthful, exuberant way, Anthony Rizzo is already the leader of the Cubs at just 25 years old, and his teammates are taking notice.

“He sets the example of how we want to play baseball on an everyday basis,” Cubs veteran catcher David Ross said of Rizzo. “For me, he’s obviously the most valuable player on our team, bar none. He’s the center of our lineup, and he jokes around out there and has fun. He’s learned how to be ‘the guy,’ and I think it’s been nice for him to have some veteran presence around him so he sees what professionals are.”

Ross is new to the Cubs this year, but he’s heard how Rizzo stepped up in the second half of last season.

“Whether that’s maturity or just finding your stride in the game, he’s done it,” Ross said. “He may be one of the most unappreciated guys, in my mind, not knowing how good a player he was. He is a very, very good player—and young still.”

But the fact that Rizzo is a leader certainly doesn’t mean he’s boring. The Florida native, who has been near the top of NL leaderboards in on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging all season, likes to have fun and is often the ringleader when it comes to postgame celebrations or picking music for batting practice. So what’s different for Rizzo this season?

“It’s the comfort of being here in this organization,” he said. “I feel like I’m really here. This is my home. This is kind of all I know now, the Cubs, the city of Chicago. I’m all in. I’m invested all in, from top to bottom.”

The investment he’s made goes beyond spending six months playing at Wrigley Field every year or having his Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation host events in Chicago. He thought he would stay with the Red Sox when they drafted him in 2007. Then, he figured he’d call San Diego home after he was traded there. But now he has a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through the 2021 season, which means he can settle down as much as an eager-to-win young athlete can.

“It’s just loving the situation, being comfortable with where we’re at, having Joe [Maddon], having the front office, and really being in the same place for three, four years—there’s that comfort,” Rizzo said.

Doing his homework

Rizzo and Maddon first met at the manager’s Italian restaurant, Ava, in Tampa last December, when Rizzo and a friend, pitcher Casey Kelly, had dinner there. Maddon kept bringing platters of food and bottles of wine as he got to know his All-Star first baseman.

“The conversation was a lot about philosophically what I think and how I like to do things,” Maddon said. “He listened a lot. From him to me, I got that he was pretty mature for his age and a guy who understands his role within this organization and within the game of baseball.
“I think he understands the bigger picture too. He wants to win, and he’s a guy who embraces a more free-spirited approach to life and the game. We’re on board with the same thing there.”

In parts of five big league seasons, Rizzo has earned a reputation as someone who will do anything he can to improve his game. And that includes much more than just taking extra cuts in the batting cage and studying video of opposing pitchers.

“I constantly pick guys’ brains. I’m constantly talking to [Jon] Lester about the playoffs and David Ross and [Jason] Motte,” Rizzo said. “My big thing is when people who are older than you and have been there and done it and tell you something more than once—and you hear from different sources all the time—it’s usually right. I try to take all that information and process it, and try to pass it along now.”

And the veterans learn from Rizzo too. On the road, Rizzo, Ross and strength coach Tim Buss have a daily routine in which they go to a gym to work out and then grab breakfast. Who started it?

“I’m jumping on his program,” Ross said. “That’s the kind of example he sets. He’s fun to be around. He’s easy to talk to. He asks good baseball questions. I enjoy talking baseball with him—and we talk about everything. He genuinely wants to learn and make himself better for the betterment of the group, not just himself. That’s fun for me. It’s fun for me to be a part of and talk about and give some of the lessons I’ve learned over my career.”

Give Rizzo’s parents, John and Laurie, credit for the player’s positive, life-affirming attitude.
“You’ve got to have fun,” Rizzo said. “That comes from my parents, living it up. We play a game of baseball, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re going to make this as fun as we can possibly make it. We only have a short window to play this game. Everyone in here has fun, and that’s what the game is all about. It’s just like when we were kids.”

That youthful enthusiasm has likely helped Rizzo relate to rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell in a way some of his older teammates, like the 38-year-old Ross, cannot.

“That’s what you need to do as a leader is relate to all of your teammates,” Ross said. “[Rizzo] does a very good job of that. He can be silly, fun and young, and he also can be mature and professional.”

Rizzo makes an effort to reach out to everyone on the team. This offseason, he called Starlin Castro a few times to check up on the shortstop when he was in the Dominican Republic. On off days during the season, Rizzo and Castro often eat together. And if something needs to be said to one of the Latin players, Rizzo will do that too.

“He’s not afraid to say anything to anybody,” Castro said. “I tell him, ‘If you see me do something wrong, tell me.’ I’ll do the same thing.

“When he’s a little bit struggling at the plate, he’ll tell me, ‘I can’t hit right now.’ In San Diego, he went 0-for-4 in the last game [of a late-May series], and he said, ‘Man, I can’t hit right now.’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me that. You’re the best hitter here.’ I said, ‘If you tell me that again, I’ll get mad at you.’ We wake up every day with one goal—to come here and have fun and help the team. We know that together we can do some special things with this team.”

Rizzo and Castro dismiss the idea that their importance to the club is somehow based on the contract extensions they both received in 2013.

“It’s more the comfort. I feel this is my home,” Rizzo said. “It feels good. It feels good to be part of something where you feel they’re committed to me, and I’m committed to the team and the city.”

Learning on the fly

Years ago, when Lester was coming up with the Red Sox, he would shadow older players and talk to them about preparation. That’s where he learned about the ups and downs of the game.

“Then, when you get put in situations where you’re depended on, whether it’s leading or performance or whatever, you know who you are as a man, you know who you are as a baseball player,” Lester said. “It makes those things easier.”

During his first few years in Chicago, Rizzo didn’t have many proven veteran players to lean on. Now, the first baseman finds young players looking to him as a leader on an upstart Cubs team.

“[Rizzo and Castro] didn’t have anybody [to guide them], and, at the same time, there’s a lot of expectations,” Lester said. “I definitely wouldn’t want to have been in their shoes, but saying that, they’ve done a great job. Riz has done a great job of commanding the respect, commanding everybody’s attention as far as what he does on a day-to-day basis.”

Lester first met Rizzo shortly after the first baseman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. Rizzo, the Red Sox’s sixth-round pick in 2007, was playing for Single-A Greenville at the time and was in Boston to be examined. But Lester said that meeting didn’t give him a clear impression of who the youngster really was.

“Just the little I’ve seen and the little I saw back then, there’s a huge jump,” Lester said of Rizzo’s growth as a player and as a person. “It was one of those deals where you either swim or you sink. I know we’re talking about Riz, but I go back to [Castro] too, because they are kind of in the same boat. There was no, ‘Help me, help me.’ It was, ‘I’ve got to figure this out, or I’m going to go home.’

“Riz has done a great job, and to see where he’s at now as far as being the central figure in this clubhouse, that’s a lot for a 25-year-old. He’s done a great job with it, and he continues to do a great job with it.”

While even the veteran players view Rizzo as a leader, he laughs at the idea that Ross could have anything to learn from him.

“Anything he learns from me, it’s one-fifth of what I’m learning from him,” Rizzo said. “I constantly ask him stuff and pick his brain. He holds me responsible for the infield, and I take that responsibility. It’s little things that no one notices, like turning routine double plays.”

Maddon has said some of the Cubs’ mistakes are a product of youth. Look at the infield—Rizzo, Russell, Castro and Bryant are all 25 years old or younger. But no Cubs player, Rizzo included, is willing to use that as an excuse.

“The cool thing about our game is when we’re not playing, we can talk about age, but when you get on the field, nobody really cares,” Lester said. “It’s all about performance. It’s all about numbers. You look at Mike Trout. He’s 21, 22, and back-to-back runner-up [Most Valuable Player] and then wins an MVP. Age doesn’t define you as a player.

“I think Riz has learned a lot over the last couple years playing here. You can see it. It’s fun to see guys mature on their own. As they mature, they get plans and they believe in their plan, whether it works or not. They’ll still have that plan the next time. It’s not a superstition. It’s not all these weird baseball quirks. It’s his plan and what he wants to do and what he thinks is right.”

Settling in

Rizzo does have a daily routine. He’s not eating chicken before every contest à la Wade Boggs, but he will work out in the morning prior to night games. He calls the sessions “therapeutic” and said they help him “get the blood flowing.” He also plays a little game at first base during batting practice with coach Mike Borzello that helps him work on his throws. And Wrigley Field fans know Rizzo always ducks into the batting cage less than two hours before game time so he can take some late swings.

Those things help him stay on track for the physical part of the game, but what Lester and others really praise is his mental maturity.

“You can see his confidence,” Lester said. “Obviously, when you have Addison and [Bryant] coming up and a lot of hype on this team, now he gets to be one of those guys who gets to go play. It doesn’t seem like he has the everyday pressure like Kris and Addy do. I think that’s nice for him, and he gets a little break.”

Rizzo is still learning, which means he has plenty of room to grow. For example, watch when Maddon goes to the mound to make a pitching change. Rizzo does.

“When Joe comes out—and I’ve noticed this—he’s so calm,” Rizzo said. “He comes out, [it’s] no big deal, even if we’re in a tough jam. He comes out, says we’re going to do this and this and get the win. It’s comforting to see how he handles it.”

There was an early-May game in St. Louis in which Ross was catching. In the late innings, the Busch Stadium fans were roaring and the music was blaring, and Rizzo noticed Ross happily bouncing and bobbing to the tune.

“That made me feel loose, and I tried to feed that to Addy,” Rizzo said.

If there is one thing the Cubs don’t always agree on, it’s music. Rizzo seems to favor house music before games, and he’s involved in creating the batting practice mix. But he’ll also put on some mellow Motown hits on Sunday mornings.

“I’m a fan of all music,” Lester said. “I like [Rizzo’s picks] occasionally, and we’ll leave it at that. He’ll say the same thing about mine. He’s not the biggest country fan. Every once in a while, he’ll listen to some.”

Remember, Rizzo is still young and learning. He can only get better.

—Carrie Muskat/MLB.com

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