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Can Anthony Rizzo Break the Cubs Curse?

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

(page 7 of 8)

Photograph: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Rizzo with his teammates at Wrigley Field last July after his walk-off tenth-inning homer against the Cardinals.

Meanwhile, thirteen hundred miles northwest, the Cubs had pulled off a deal that thrilled Chicago. They announced that they had landed Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, the most sought-after front-office boss in the league.

Having broken the so-called curse of the Bambino and brought Beantown two World Series victories, Epstein now turned his sights on a team with its own legendary curse and long history of frustration. One of the first steps he took was to reassemble the front office he had in Boston. Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were moving to Chicago.

At his first Wrigley press conference, in October 2011, Epstein told a mob of reporters that his goal would be the same as it had been in Boston: to build a perennial contender by stockpiling young talent through the farm system and trades. Speculation immediately centered on one of the game’s biggest stars and one of the hottest free agents on the market, a player who would cost a franchise an exorbitant, perhaps crippling, amount but would certainly make a bold splash: Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder.

The new Cubs president, however, went another way. He called the Padres. Would they consider parting with Anthony Rizzo? He hardly needed to ask. If San Diego hadn’t exactly given up on Rizzo, they harbored enough doubts that they were eager to unload him.

It was a gamble. But Epstein, Hoyer, and McLeod agreed that it was one worth taking. Rizzo was exactly the type of player they wanted: one who had enormous potential both as a player and as a clubhouse leader. “We knew him so well,” Epstein says. “We went through the cancer ordeal with him and saw him play in the minor leagues for the Red Sox. We knew his family, what kind of person he was. It was easy to bet on the person, his character. We thought, If he can make adjustments and restore his swing path, he could be great.”

When Rizzo got the call, he was elated. Grateful as he was to San Diego for the chance they gave him, he needed a fresh start. “They said, ‘We believe in you,’ ” recalls Rizzo. “That meant everything.”

To Rizzo’s father, it was the fulfillment of Laurie’s promise that everything happens for a reason. “It’s like all of this was planned,” John says. “Anthony does bad in San Diego, then Jed goes to the Cubs, Theo goes to the Cubs—they both know how good he is. . . . San Diego turned out to be a great training ground for him. It was more than just baseball. It was like, ‘OK, you’re going to learn humility, and now we’re going to send you to the Cubs, where you’re going to take off.’ ”

When the deal was closed last June, Epstein sealed it with a fitting reminder: “I told you I would trade for you someday.”

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One of the first things the front-office triumvirate told Rizzo was to forget about his struggles in San Diego. “They named a few guys who started off badly in their careers and who went on to be Hall of Fame guys,” Rizzo says. “I’m not saying I’m going to be that by any means, but the reassurance was great to hear.”

As in San Diego, Rizzo started off in Triple-A. And as with the Padres, he tore the league up. In an almost identical set of circumstances, fans began to clamor for Rizzo to be promoted to the majors.

If there was hype in advance of Rizzo’s call-up in San Diego, there was near frenzy in Chicago. “Prospect Rizzo’s Imminent Arrival All the Talk at Wrigley,” blared one Chicago Sun-Times headline. “A baseball uniform, not a cape and an S-emblazoned Spandex suit, will be handed to Anthony Rizzo on Tuesday at Wrigley Field,” the longtime Sun-Times beat writer Toni Ginnetti quipped. “There’s nothing this 22-year-old phenom can’t do, if you believe what you’ve been hearing and reading. Rumor has it Rizzo flew in from Des Moines without a plane for his Cubs debut,” one columnist added.

Once again, Rizzo faced crushing pressure—and the question that had dogged him in San Diego: Could he handle it?

This time he was ready. It helped that veteran teammate David DeJesus took Rizzo under his wing. “I’ve been around guys who were in the same boat as him, with all the hype,” DeJesus told me after practice in Mesa one afternoon. “I wanted him to know that I was the guy who didn’t care about that. I just wanted him to learn how to respect the game. And everything that I’ve seen so far, he’s humble. He was humbled coming here. But being able to take that experience and learn from it and build on it—there’s nothing more valuable. And he has.”

On a humid day last July, in the tenth inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, things did go right. The ball sailed from Rizzo’s bat into the stands with room to spare. It was his first walk-off (game-winning) home run—against archrival St. Louis, no less. Watching at home, hisparents “went crazy,” Laurie says. When Rizzo called later, “he was on cloud nine.”

As Rizzo rounded the bases, his father noticed something he doesn’t often see: his son flashing a smile. His teammates, who had poured out of the dugout, waited at home plate. Rizzo took a couple of big steps, then leaped. He hung there for a moment, almost as if he didn’t want to come down.

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