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Photograph: Blair Bunting
The swing is loose and easy yet rattlesnake quick, and when the bat makes contact, the little white ball leaps away like a spooked cat. It soars into the blue sea of an Arizona sky, producing admiring murmurs from the handful of players awaiting their turns. The ball bangs off the chainlink fence some 400 feet away and drops onto the still-dewy grass of the outfield, where the ball chasers have just watched the shot sail over their heads as if it were a cruise missile.
It is only spring training, just the second day at that. Many of the players have not even reported yet. The 23-year-old standing at the plate, however, is taking nothing for granted—not his career, not the long, screaming liners he is blasting into the outfield during this early workout session, not the mere fact that he can stand here, healthy and alive, playing for the very people who had helped him through the darkest chapter of his young life.
He had been 18 when the mysterious fatigue hit. When his feet swelled so badly he had to stuff them into his spikes. When IV bags, not rosin bags, became his reality. When he was no longer an invincible teenager. Then, just when that ordeal had cleared the fence, came the hype. Anthony Rizzo, the next [name your Hall of Famer], the media wrote. Anthony Rizzo, the savior. When he finally got the call to the bigs, he started off hot but soon strained against lofty expectations. The loose and easy swing with the vicious quickness turned into an uppercut hack that pitchers quickly discovered they could beat with a good fastball. He flopped. And the media, and the fans, pounced.
Rizzo faced the hype again when he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in January 2012. This time, he was referred to as the “cornerstone,” the “face of the franchise,” the Chosen One—handpicked by none other than Theo Epstein, the new Cubs president who had done the impossible in Boston and brought that long-suffering franchise and city not one but two World Series championships.
Epstein’s task? Simply to pick the exact right players to break a century-plus of futility and a goat curse that makes Boston’s so-called hex look like a short run of bad luck. Among Epstein’s first choices: Anthony Rizzo.
A couple of years ago, carrying all that weight might have crushed the young athlete. “Very few people are programmed to live up to the tonnage of hype that has been heaped on Rizzo, whose debut . . . spawned odes normally reserved for Grecian urns,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey at the time.
But as he steps out of the batter’s box on this cool Mesa morning, Rizzo looks anything but daunted. Instead, he jokes with his teammates, giving and taking a playful jab on the shoulder, looking as relaxed and happy as a kid playing toss with his buddies. The serenity is no act. It is the key to a door that has slammed on him more than once.
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The Mesa Complex where Rizzo and the rest of the Cubs prepare for the season doesn’t resemble a field of dreams. Fitch Park is a collection of diamonds and brick buildings that rise inauspiciously out of a landscape of modest ranch houses. For most of the year, it’s a place to walk the dog or have a picnic. On a slightly cool, achingly clear day in January, however, it is a baseball lover’s paradise. Balls thump mitts. The echoes of bats against rawhide crack like rifle shots. Young players in Cubbie blue play catch, run drills, shag fly balls. They even chat with fans—friendly banter, not press-conference-speak.
For at spring training—at least during the first few days—baseball players are not remote, larger-than-life figures. There are no wary-eyed ushers and security guards protecting them, scowling back potential interlopers who look like they might be trying to get too close. While there’s some separation between the fans and the players, it’s often only a waist-high chainlink fence, even a length of rope. Everyone from the manager on down seems friendlier, almost neighborly.
Anthony Rizzo more than most. A broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted six-foot-three and 240 pounds, he cuts a prototypical slugger’s figure from a distance. Closer in, he looks like an overgrown kid: boyishly handsome, with an expressive face, a leading man’s smile, and a mop of brown curly hair. For one of the biggest stars on the team, he has an aw-shucks air that most anyone will tell you is as sincere as a Lou Gehrig speech.
In an age of Lance Armstrongs and Alex Rodriguezes and Sammy Sosas, the image of the sports hero as good guy has been tainted unto destroyed. In Rizzo’s case, judging by the ballparks full of testimonials (and the time I spent with him at spring training), it’s hard to believe he is anything but a good guy.
“Obviously, he’s mature beyond his years,” especially given all he’s been through, says Epstein, who brought him to the Cubs. “I have never seen a young player gain such universal respect from his veteran peers. They can see right through younger guys, and they know if they are scared or if they are full of shit. They see that this kid is the real deal. He’s not just saying that he is here to help the team, he actually is.”
The roots of his maturity, people like Epstein—and Rizzo himself—will tell you, are the family he grew up in and the fires he had to walk through. For a sure-thing prospect, his path to stardom has been filled with enough trials and tribulations to fill an Old Testament chapter.
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