Can Anthony Rizzo Break the Cubs Curse?

There are high hopes at Wrigley for the 23-year-old slugger.

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Rizzo pitching for his Florida high school in 2006

Photograph: Courtesy of the Rizzo Family
 

Pitching for his Florida high school in 2006

It started with fatigue. As a boy, Rizzo could play a soccer game in the morning, go Rollerblading, toss a football, and then play baseball until twilight. Now, at 18, he felt the exhaustion in his bones after barely a couple of hours.

At first he put it down to the long days working out in spring training. “You’re on your feet for a long time, doing the same thing,” Rizzo says.

He also had trouble urinating. The information disconcerted his mother, but “he just said he felt run down,” says Laurie, who was distracted by her mother’s battle with breast cancer.

Fatigue notwithstanding, Rizzo got off to a strong start in the Red Sox minor-league system. He continued on a tear when the team’s farm club went on a road trip to Greenville, South Carolina, in April 2008.

But other odd things began to happen. In the space of a few days, Rizzo gained 15 pounds without changing his eating habits. “Then I started noticing my legs were really swollen,” he recalls. “From my hip down, everything was swollen. My toes. My legs. I didn’t want to say anything because I was doing so well.”

John, who was in Greenville to watch his son, had no idea. “The only thing I saw wrong was he sort of had a little limp,” he says. “But he always played so hard—I thought it was no big deal.”

Then one of Rizzo’s teammates called, asking, “Did you see Anthony’s ankles?” When he got his first look, John was shocked. “His ankles looked like they were water balloons.”

The team’s front office flew Rizzo to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to have specialists take a look. They initially thought he had a kidney infection. After a series of tests, they knew differently.

Rizzo’s mother was at his bedside in the hospital when he got the news. “The doctor said I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” says Rizzo, “but I didn’t really understand. He said it’s a form of cancer. Once the word ‘cancer’ came out, things got real emotional.”

“I could hear his voice cracking” over the phone, Rizzo’s father recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got cancer—not Hodgkin’s, not lymphoma—I got cancer. Am I going to die?’ ”

The family was stunned. “Hearing that was like somebody puts cinder blocks on your feet,” John says. “My mom passed away from cancer when I was in eighth grade. It was a two-year moaning hell. When you hear a loved one has it, your son, you want to just fall to the ground.”

Doctors explained that Rizzo had two tumors, one on either side of his pelvis. The good news was that the cancer had been caught early. The success rate for treating it was 97 percent.

“Can I play baseball?” Rizzo asked.

Sorry, the doctors said, not right now. He would have to undergo a six-month chemotherapy regimen. Then they would see.

He turned to his mother, who reassured him: “I don’t know why this is happening. It doesn’t make sense. But I do know that everything happens for a reason. And I know that one day down the road you are going to be able to help people.”

Rizzo was deeply grateful for one thing: The Red Sox had provided the best doctors and facilities. They introduced him to Jon Lester, a Red Sox pitcher who, two years after being diagnosed with virtually the same type of cancer as Rizzo’s, won the final game of the World Series. They even transferred his treatment to Florida so that he could stay with his parents.

“We were glad to do it,” Epstein says. “We were so devastated. He was such a young kid. He had just turned 18 at the time—first time living away from home, getting things off on the right foot. And then you have this happen. You couldn’t help but put yourself in the shoes of his parents and put yourself in his shoes.

“We wanted to make every resource available to him so he could beat it. We also wanted to treat him like family.”

Says Laurie: “They couldn’t have been any better to us. They had our backs the whole way.”

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