Rizzo’s Living The Dream
2016 World Series Champions
By Cara Jay
An exclusive interview with Anthony Rizzo about his heroic story of family and faith that motivated him to overcome tragedy and achieve what no man has done in 108 years: Make the last out to win the World Series for the Chicago Cubs
There must be some kind of spectacular karma in the water flowing in Parkland, Florida, that creates baseball heroes. Pinch me, am I dreaming? It seems like just yesterday, in the fall of 2006, when I was driving on Pine Island Road, windows down, belting out Taylor Swift songs along with a couple of happy-go-lucky guys from the headlining Stoneman Douglas Eagles baseball team – Joey Hage and – yes – Anthony Rizzo. These rugged senior-year athletes – both of whom would go on to play professional baseball – sang their hearts out and knew every single word of the girly songs.
Fast-forward to November 2016. When you drive down that same stretch of road in Parkland, you’ll see a sign congratulating the high school team for winning another national baseball championship – AND you’ll gasp at the larger-than-life banner that reads: Parkland, Home of World Series Champion and Chicago Cubs First Baseman Anthony Rizzo!
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. But then again, it didn’t ‘just happen.’ Anthony Rizzo earned every moment of his success – and spent plenty of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears doing it with the support of his family, friends and faith.
Once Upon A Time
You see, like in a fairytale, Anthony was drafted right out of high school at the age of 17 to play in the minor leagues of the Boston Red Sox organization. His family, friends, coaches, teammates and fellow Parklanders couldn’t have been more excited about this humble-hero’s bright future. But like in every fairytale, there comes tragedy.
In the spring of 2008, Laurie and John Rizzo drove up to Greenville, South Carolina, to see their son play Single A baseball. Anthony’s batting average was astounding and kept the attention of then Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. Anthony made his parents proud with hit after hit. But inside, Anthony knew something was wrong. In just a matter of days, the young athlete had gained 15 pounds of water weight in his legs. He remained silent, not wanting to complain when his batting performance was lightning good. On April 27, Laurie and John got the call every parent dreads: Anthony was seriously ill. Epstein promised to get his upcoming star the best care available.
Anthony flew to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Anthony’s baseball career came to a screeching halt. Epstein called on Red Sox Pitcher Jon Lester, who had had overcome the same cancer, to meet with Anthony. The two bonded like brothers – and after six months of chemo – on September 2, 2008, Miami oncologist Izidore Lossos told Anthony the cancer was in remission. And on November 18, Dr. Lossos delivered the best news yet, “Anthony, you will lead a normal life.”
The fairytale continued. Epstein traded Rizzo to the San Diego Padres, but told the budding star that some day he’d call him back. In 2012, the call came. Epstein, now president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, told Rizzo he was bringing him to the Windy City. Renowned Coach Joe Maddon came on board in November 2014, and a month later, with some reciprocal encouragement from Anthony, Jon Lester came to play for Chicago, too. The dynamic dream team took shape. They set their sights on what most Americans thought impossible: For the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series, something the organization hadn’t achieved since 1908. To do it, they’d have to end the legendary “Curse of the Billy Goat.”
With the long drought of winless playoff seasons that followed, Chicagoans grew to believe the curse might be true. But fans’ love for the Cubbies never dwindled. And neither did Rizzo’s. He told teammates he dreamed of catching the ball to make the last out to win the Cubs the National League pennant. And on October 22, 2016, he did. Superstitious or not, it’s hard not to notice the timing coincidence: The historic achievement happened on the very anniversary of Billy Sianis’ death.
Was the curse broken? Rizzo said yes. He dreamed even bigger of catching the ball to make the last out to win the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. On November 2, 2016 – having previously been down by 3 games in the Series – the Cubs rallied and made it to game 7. Leading by 1 in the bottom of the 10th inning and with two outs, Cleveland Indian Jose Ramirez came up to bat. The hit silenced the crowd for a split second, but the Cub’s Kris Bryant dove to snatch the ball near third base and rocket-propelled it to Rizzo at first. Rizzo caught the ball, beating Ramirez to the bag – and as the late great Chicago baseball announcer Harry Caray would have exclaimed: “H-O-L-Y COW! CUBS WIN, CUBS WIN, CUBS WIN!”
As a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs (my parents grew up in Chicago), I couldn’t have been more excited to talk again with my high school pal Anthony Rizzo and tell him firsthand how proud I am – along with the rest of the world – of his against-all-oddshistoric success.
Cara Jay: Anthony, back in high school, did you ever think you would get to where you are today?
Anthony Rizzo: I always say, ‘yeah I thought I could do it,’ but so did every other teenager. I think it started hitting me my junior and senior year in high school when scouts started talking to me. And when I got drafted and saw the other competition, I was like, ‘man I can make it to the big leagues?’
CJ: Being drafted right out of high school to the Boston Red Sox, you were so young. What were the circumstances when you found out you were sick?
Rizzo: I was playing well, but at night my legs were swelling up. I was tired and couldn’t understand why. It was my first time playing so many games, so I just though it was from that. And two or three weeks later, I started getting tests, and about a month later we found out what it was.
CJ: Were you terrified? Did you think your career was over?
Rizzo: I thought it was just a kidney infection because those were the symptoms. I thought I was going to get a couple of antibiotics and I’d be good. But when they were doing a kidney biopsy, I remember the doctor stopped and pulled the nurse over and I was thinking ‘this probably can’t be good.’
CJ: Were you alone when you got the diagnosis?
Rizzo: My parents were up there with me; they insisted. I was like, ‘what are you guys coming up for?’ But they came up, and once the doctor came in, it was like the whole world stopped.
CJ: When did Jon Lester come into the picture and how did he help you?
Rizzo: He was in the major leagues with the Red Sox and I was in the minors. He was lending his advice because he had been through the same cancer before. It was the coolest thing at the moment because, you know, Jon Lester’s talking to me, giving me advice. It was so inspirational for me. He helped me out in just a huge way that he has no idea about. I have somewhat of an idea how cool it is when I talk to kids now about it.
CJ: What do you remember about the day you found out you were in remission?
Rizzo: When I found out I was in remission, it was awesome, it was like ‘We did it!’ And then it was nerve-racking because at every single test after that, I was thinking: did it come back, is it there? Did it [the chemotherapy] work? As time went on, I stopped thinking about it less and less, and now I rarely ever think about it.
CJ: What was your reaction when you got the call about going to play for the Chicago Cubs?
Rizzo: I got traded from Boston to the Padres for a year in 2011 and then early the next year, in January 2012, Theo called and said, “Hey, we’re going to make a trade for you. We’re excited to have you back in our organization. I was pumped about going to the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley Field, Chicago, it’s just historic!
CJ: How is playing for the Cubs different than playing for the other teams?
Rizzo: It’s the history and the tradition and everything that’s happened over the years and what we’ve been building over the past five years. Obviously, we’ve won the World Series. It’s totally a new era of Cubs baseball that no one alive has ever seen. It’s exciting to be a part of it.
CJ: What’s the inside of the Cubs clubhouse like?
Rizzo: It’s awesome; we’re all a family. I’ve been on teams where you have some friends, but a lot of them are just teammates. The joke in baseball is when the season’s over, you can pick your friends, but in season you’ve got 24 other guys and so you’ve got to make it work. But with the Cubs, we’re all friends. We all text and we all have relationships outside of baseball.
CJ: In the last game of the World Series, when the Cleveland Indians tied the score and you went into extra innings, how did you and your teammates come through that?
Rizzo: It definitely helps being friends with everyone. When you’re friends, you’re going to talk and tell them stuff they don’t want to hear sometimes. We all can talk to each other in a certain way to get the best out of each other. When we were down, we just kept saying we were the better team and we should just keep going and keep playing and it’ll all work out.
CJ: What was it like to break the infamous ‘curse of the goat’? Talk to me about that moment you caught the last ball to make the last out and win the 2016 World Series.
Rizzo: It hasn’t really sunk in yet – what we achieved, the magnitude of what we did, because obviously we hadn’t won the World Series for 108 years. In the clubhouse, we knew if we were actually the guys to win the World Series for the Cubs, it would be insane – and it was nothing short of insane! The parade, all the parties, the whole city of Chicago blew up [in a good way!] for about two months and still is blowing up.
CJ: Do you have any favorite plays that stick out for you in the Series?
Rizzo: Hitting the home run off Clayton Kershaw. There are so many things we did as a team; when we look back at it, it will be even more insane than it is now. We’re kind of in shock that we did it. I caught the ball, put it in my pocket, and then ran and hugged Kris Bryant and said, “We did it!” We are world champs!
CJ: Where’s that game-winning ball now?
Rizzo: I gave it to the owner, Mr. Ricketts. It wasn’t hard to give up because I don’t care much about all that memorabilia. It’s for the city of Chicago and the whole history of the Cubs and for the fans.
CJ: Anthony, what’s it like to be an American hero, not just for Parkland, but for the City of Chicago and baseball fans?
Rizzo: I don’t really look at it like that. I look at it as [an opportunity to set a] positive example. I remember when I was younger watching baseball, and all sports, and just seeing guys play. If they’re setting the wrong example and not doing the right thing, then it’s affecting generations. It’s crazy, but in July and August, the dog days of summer, and when we’re tired and dragging, there’s a kid who’s coming to the game that probably got the ticket as a birthday gift or Christmas present and has been excited to come to the baseball game for weeks, months, days. And if you don’t go out there and give it your all, you kind of let him down. So I try to go out there and give it my all every game.
CJ: What’s left on your bucket list after you won the World Series?
Rizzo: Travel, I want to go everywhere, win another World Series in 2017. [If Cub’s history repeats itself, like in 1907 and 1908, they indeed could win back-to-back.]
CJ: What do you love most about Chicago?
Rizzo: The food for sure. The people are just awesome there; they love sports and are just down-to-earth people.
CJ: What’s your favorite Chicago pizza? Do you like Lou Malnati’s? What about Chicago hot dogs? Italian beef?
Rizzo: I like Giordano’s the best. At Lou’s, I just have to have it a certain way. Have you ever had their Caesar salad dressing? It’s the best dressing – I dip my pizza in it. Portillo’s dogs, I love them all the way, …no ketchup, of course. I’m a fan of food in general.
CJ: Tell me about The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation?
Rizzo: Sometimes, the kids don’t even know who I am, just a person wearing a Cubs jersey who plays on real TV, so they get excited about that. Today, I’m cancer free. The day I learned I was in remission, I knew I wanted to be a role model and help cancer patients and their families. In 2016, The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation has donated $1 million to support families battling cancer. We have pledged more than $750,000 to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami and we have 2 patient rooms at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. In baseball season, I invite children to come for batting practice at Wrigley Field and hang out in the dugout. I send letters and videos and talk on the phone with kids to lift their spirits. I appreciate all the love and support and thank everyone for stepping up to the plate to fight cancer.
CJ: What’s the best part of being Anthony Rizzo today?
Rizzo: That I get to work at Wrigley Field, for sure!
Editor’s note: In 2015, Anthony was awarded The Heart & Hustle Award, which is given out annually by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association to a current player who not only excels on the field, but also “best embodies the values, spirits and traditions of baseball.”