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Photograph: Courtesy of the Rizzo Family
The younger of two boys, Anthony (Ant, his father calls him) was born on August 8, 1989, to Laurie and John Rizzo, a bartender and a security firm manager from the blue-collar town of Lyndhurst, New Jersey. When they moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shortly before Anthony was born, they brought their accents (dead ringers for Tony and Carmela Sopranos’), their sense of humor (“My dad is the funniest person I know,” Anthony says), and their old-fashioned dedication to that all-American notion of the big, tight-knit family. Both John Jr. and Anthony were sports crazy from the start. “Even as a baby, Anthony loved to have the ball rolled to him,” Laurie recalls. “The boys grew up in a neighborhood that was all kids, and all the parents were friends, and they just played and played outside every day.”
And sometimes inside. John recalls chipping golf balls in the living room directly at three-year-old Anthony, who waited with an oversize mitt engulfing his hand. “Here’s this kid just turning three saying, ‘Daddy, hit me balls, hit me balls,’ ” he recalls, chuckling. “I said, ‘Ant, you gotta catch it. If I hit you with a golf ball, Mommy’s going to kill me.’ So I’d start chipping golf balls, and he’s catching them. And I’m getting pissed off that he’s catching every one!”
John suggested a “lightning round,” placing ten balls in a row and whacking them, one by one. “He’s [still] catching every one. I’m saying, ‘This kid’s got it.’ ”
His father wasn’t the only person who thought so. In the boys’ T-ball league, which John coached (among other sports), other kids jokingly asked for young Rizzo’s autograph. “A friend of mine who owned a trading card company came down here to visit,” says John. “He sees Anthony play, and he sits him down at the kitchen table and has him sign a napkin saying, ‘I, Anthony, give you the rights to all my signatures.’ ”
Basketball. Football. Roller hockey. Ice hockey. Stickball. The boys played them all. In Rizzo’s sophomore year of high school, he began to focus solely on baseball.
By his senior year, scouts came calling. One of them was Laz Gutierrez of the Boston Red Sox. Gutierrez brought the 17-year-old to the attention of Epstein, then the Sox’s general manager. Rizzo was “big and strong and physical,” recalls Jason McLeod, one of Epstein’s front-office attendants at the time. “He hit to left-center for power. That was something we were looking for.”
Even more impressive, McLeod says, was Rizzo as a person. “We took him to the Dominican Republic to see our facility there. It was really touching” to see how he handled the poverty he came across. “He was saying, ‘We’ve got to help these kids.’ He wanted to understand who they were and where they came from. And so we drafted him.”
When Rizzo’s family got the news, “we screamed,” his mother recalls.
The Red Sox drafted Rizzo in the sixth round but wound up giving him third-round money. “I told his agent, ‘The kid’s worth a million,’ ” John says. “The agent said, ‘Don’t overprice yourself.’ ”
Rizzo was assigned to the Sox farm system. He immediately rewarded the team’s faith in him. “He was having a very good month [in April 2008], batting .360, .370,” says McLeod. “And that’s when he started feeling a little different.”
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