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Photograph: Courtesy of the Rizzo Family
Once again, Rizzo thrived. Playing for the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, he scorched the league’s pitchers, hitting a blistering .452, with six home runs and 24 RBIs in his first 15 games. He did so well that buzz began to build. When was he going to be brought up to the big club?
The buzz turned into hype. The hype became hysteria. “He came up with about as much fanfare as any player I can remember,” recalls McLeod, now senior vice president of scouting and player development for the Cubs.
When the team finally did promote Rizzo, on June 9, 2012, you half expected him to walk “from the airport across the harbor to Petco National Park,” wrote the San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa. “The only question is whether he can handle the hype and expectations.”
At first he did. With a group of 20-plus friends and family watching, Rizzo struck out his first time up but then slammed a triple to dead center—a hit that just missed being a home run—and walked his next two times at bat. After a mere three games, a national sportswriter turned to the team’s manager, Bud Black, and asked of the player, who was barely 21: “He could become the face of the franchise, right?”
Rizzo’s father recalls: “They were treating him like a god. For his next trick he’s going to stop the Iraqi war and have world peace by next year. It was too crazy. It’s tough on the head when you got that kind of stuff going on.”
Sure enough, things fell apart quickly. “You could see his swing changing,” John says. “He started batting real tense. Every once in a while, he’d call me and ask, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”
“I saw a young guy who tried to do too much,” says Epstein, who kept tabs on his protégé from afar. “He got really uphill with his swing, which is what happens when you are trying to hit home runs rather than just hit the ball hard.”
By July 19, six weeks after Rizzo’s debut with the Padres, he was batting a dismal .149. He had struck out in more than a third of his at bats. In his last 25 big-league plate appearances, he’d had only one single.
Three days later, the heralded rookie, the can’t-miss savior, was sent to the minors. Rizzo was stunned. He “walked out of manager Bud Black’s office, a dazed look etched across his face, after learning he was headed back to Triple-A Tucson,” the Union-Tribune’s Don Norcross wrote.
In San Diego, the same people who had canonized him now savaged him. Rizzo tried not to pay attention. But the sarcastic tweets and daily newspaper stories got to him. “All these people were saying I was no good and I stink, and I’m like, They don’t know me,” says Rizzo. “They don’t know the type of person I am.”
It didn’t stop them—and, more ominously, some major-league scouts—from questioning whether Rizzo could make it in the big leagues at all, much less be a star. “There were a lot of veteran scouts watching him who said no,” Epstein concedes.
Rizzo had beaten cancer, but now his career hung in the balance. To this day, he can’t really explain what happened. “I was trying way too hard,” he told me one recent afternoon after practice. “It might sound a little strange, but to try at all in this sport is probably wrong, just like in golf. I was trying to get four hits in one at bat—to prove to everyone that I’m as good as they were saying.”
After the season ended, Rizzo returned to Florida to regroup. He began working on leveling out his “uphill” swing. And his mother reiterated what she had said before: Everything happens for a reason.
He knew she was right. He also knew that he had lost more than his swing. He had started to lose who he was. “I learned that you have to separate baseball from life,” he told me.
He closed his Twitter account. Stopped reading the papers. And in the Florida sunshine, he got to work.
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