“My feet were fat and it was just gross,” says 25-year-old Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “I didn’t want to say anything because I was playing so well.”
Rizzo is talking about his 2008 minor league campaign, when, in addition to the swelling in his legs and feet, he began experiencing extreme fatigue throughout his body. At first, he chalked both up to playing baseball every day – after all, the year before he’d been drafted by the Red Sox, received a $325,000 signing bonus and was tearing up the South Atlantic League at the time. Turns out, needed a bit more than just a few days off.
Rizzo was eventually diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in white blood cells called lymphocytes.
“It just sucked. I was going into this whole thing blind. I mean, I thought chemotherapy was a kind of cancer, not a treatment,” Rizzo says. Yet he attacked it with the same tenacity he would a fat 3-1 fastball. “The doctors educated me and my parents on what I’d be going through and then it was like, ‘OK, let’s fucking do this’ and that was it. I didn’t feel sorry for myself.”
These days, Rizzo speaks about the cancer as just another bump in the road – a detour on the way to becoming one of the best young players in Major League Baseball. He’s as comfortable discussing his treatment as he is going to the beach, which, as a native Floridian, is pretty comfortable (he likes sitting by the pool, too). The thing that gets him going is talking about the 2015 Cubs, and how they’re going to meet the expectations placed on them: Namely, ending a 107-year championship drought.
Rizzo expects to win and win a lot. He has all the perfect answers for how the Cubs will pull this off and not end up as cellar dwellers once again. They need to “come together as one,” since the season will be a “long road,” and “it’s all about the team, not the individual.”
“I have no expectations for myself. I need to take care of myself and be ready every day,” Rizzo says. “The thing I need to do is push guys to a level they’ve never been before and shoot for unrealistic goals.”
Many wise baseball minds already believe Rizzo and his guys have a good chance at meeting – if not exceeding – those “unrealistic goals” in 2015. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein turned a once-barren farm system into a model operation ripe with talent, some of whom (like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez) debuted last season. Young stars Addison Russell and Kris Bryant won’t start the season with the big league club, but they’re expected to contribute soon. On top of that, Epstein also went out and signed Jon Lester in the offseason, giving the Cubs a legitimate ace and bolstering a rotation that already featured Jake Arrieta. The pieces seem to be in place for Rizzo and the Cubs to make some noise, and the young first baseman is prepared to lead.
“It’s more about being a good teammate everyday. As long as we win I don’t care what I do,” he says. “I just try and give my past experience to the younger guys, and give them stories in the hopes that it sinks in with them. The more you experience in this league and life, the more you can make your own self-evaluation.”
That mentality was instilled in Rizzo from a young age; his older brother, John, played football at Florida Atlantic University, and his parents still follow the younger Rizzo around to his games (“We like to joke that if I don’t get any hits, I won’t get dinner,” he says.) He grew up playing pretty much every sport he could get into, dabbling in hockey, soccer, basketball, football and baseball. In high school, he played football and baseball, but a sophomore-year leg injury forced him to become a mere one-sport star.
“After messing up my leg, I thought maybe I should just focus on baseball,” he laughs. “Because, it turned out I was actually pretty good at it.”
That’s an understatement. In 2013, his first full season with Chicago, he hit 23 home runs and drove in 80. Last year, he clubbed 32 homers and raised his batting average by more than 50 points. Now, he eats, sleeps and breathes baseball; he doesn’t have any pets, rarely watches TV (“Homeland is probably my favorite show,” he says) and refrains from most off-field distractions.
“Honestly, I like to do nothing,” he says, exhaling after some brief pondering. “I guess I really can’t stop playing games on my phone. Right now it’s all about Crossy Road, which is like Frogger. I only started a week ago but I can’t put my phone down. I wish I could just sit in the dugout with it.”
It’s debatable if the Cubs’ new manager, Joe Maddon, would have a problem with that. After nine revelatory seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon developed a rep for being a player friendly (and open-minded) coach. But make no mistake about it; he’s a guy who was hired to win and change the culture of the club, which is a far cry from the revolving door of managers Rizzo has dealt with in his tenure with the Cubs so far.
“He let’s the players just be ourselves, and that’s how you find success in this league,” Rizzo says. “Don’t try and hit home runs if you’re not a home-run guy, you have to be true to yourself. That’s what he preaches.”
Maddon’s sense of perspective has definitely resonated with Rizzo; since beating cancer, he started the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which raises money for pediatric cancer research and helps families with mounting medical bills. He also regularly visits children’s hospitals and meets with young patients – staying grounded is the easy part. Now it’s on to reversing the fortunes of a franchise, uplifting the spirits of a city and conquering a century-long curse…all of which, to hear him tell it, should be a breeze.
“Our biggest obstacle is ourselves,” Rizzo says. “Any team could beat any team on a given night, but if we take care of ourselves and prepare every day, we will win. The only person that can stop you from going forward is yourself.”