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Photograph: Courtesy of the Rizzo Family
It was just a little practice game in Fort Myers, Florida, the last Instructional League event of 2008—as far away from the glory, grandeur, and drama of a big-league game as a sandlot field is from Wrigley.
But as Rizzo walked to the plate on that fall day, he could feel the adrenaline. Though he still had a few chemo treatments left, and his doctors weren’t thrilled with the idea of him playing, they had bent to his pleas. From a set of bleachers, his parents looked on nervously. His teammates, his manager, even the opposing team stopped to watch.
What happened next was like something out of a movie, his father recalls. Rizzo stepped to the plate, dug himself in, and waited for the first live pitch he’d seen in four months.
The ball sizzled in from the pitcher, Boof Bonser, a major-leaguer on a rehab assignment. And there it was: the sweet, smooth, relaxed swing with that quick rattlesnake snap. “The first ball he hits to the centerfield fence, almost out of the park,” Rizzo’s father recalls. “It was so emotional, even for the players on the other team, because everyone knew what he’d gone through. You could see a tear coming out of his eye when he was running around the bases.
“I think he got a couple of hits after that, and he did really good in the field,” John continues. “It was probably the best game I ever saw in my life, and it was just a little practice game.”
The next season, moving up a class in the Red Sox minor-league system, Rizzo picked up where he’d left off, belting more than 20 home runs. But the thought of the cancer returning hovered like a shadow. If he got past the first year, the doctors told him, he’d probably be OK. “So I was very paranoid,” Rizzo recalls. “I was always checking my hips to see if there was any swelling.”
The cancer did not return. But Rizzo was dealt a different kind of blow. Epstein, who had become so close to Rizzo’s family, announced that he and his teammate Casey Kelly, a highly regarded pitching prospect and a good friend, were being traded. They were going to San Diego in exchange for the perennial all-star Adrian Gonzalez.
On the one hand, it was flattering—he, Anthony Rizzo, being tapped to fill the shoes of one of the game’s best hitters. But it was daunting to leave the Sox. “It was really hard for me,” Rizzo says. “I had been through so much with the Red Sox. They were all I knew, and it was kind of like family.”
It wasn’t easy for Epstein, either. “Calling Anthony to tell him he was traded was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Epstein says. “I remember I was pretty emotional. I told him one day I would trade back for him. And I said, ‘Tell your parents that I hope they understand and that I still love you and your family.’ ”
Softening the blow was the fact that Jason McLeod and Jed Hoyer, both in the Red Sox front office when Rizzo was there and two of his biggest supporters, had already left to join the Padres.
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