Any baseball fan knows the well-publicized story behind the Chicago Cubs’ World Series drought. Not short on heartbreak, the 107-year dry spell has been brutal for the more tenured members of the Chicago sports community. But the times are changing. Led by a seemingly impeccable blend of constantly-improving young talent and experienced veterans, the Cubs have set out to put an end to the agony, once and for all. They have amassed the best record in baseball with 59 wins and 39 losses, while maintaining a firm grip on the National League Central lead. Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon, and Co. have assembled a roster more than capable of making a World Series run; all that’s left is to execute.
One of the aforementioned youngsters is Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo, along with fellow corner infielder Kris Bryant, are leading the charge towards potentially the most important October in franchise history. But even if the Cubs are fortunate enough to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in late-October, that will not be the most important day in Rizzo’s young life. That honor belongs to September 2, 2008.
Flashback to 2008. An 18-year-old Anthony Rizzo is tearing up the minors after being drafted by the Boston Red Sox. He’s living any high schooler’s dream, playing the sport he loves for a living, seemingly fast-tracked to a spot on one of the best teams in the major leagues. But after an extended road trip with the Greenville Drive, the Class A affiliate of the Red Sox, extreme swelling in Rizzo’s legs caused him to gain 15 pounds in the span of a few days. He considered hiding it from the Red Sox organization, but when the swelling became so bad that he could barely squeeze his ankles into his cleats, he knew the risks of hiding his condition were too great and alerted the training staff.
In April of 2008 at the age of 18, Rizzo was officially diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His promising baseball career was left hanging in the balance, but that was the least of his worries; he was in a fight for his life. Though Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic portion of one’s immune system, is one of the more treatable forms of cancer, the five-year survival rate is still only about 90%. As you can imagine, Rizzo was scared to death.
“I didn’t know anything about cancer. I thought “chemo” was a kind of cancer, not a treatment. It caught everyone — especially me — by surprise.”
But Rizzo found a friend in the Red Sox organization that understood exactly what he was going through. Theo Epstein, former Boston Red Sox President of Baseball Operations, put Rizzo in touch with starting pitcher Jon Lester. Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, but was able to beat the disease by staying active and remaining positive. Lester served as one of Rizzo’s major supporters while the first baseman underwent brutal chemotherapy treatments, urging him to stay positive. Lester reminded Rizzo, “go out and do things that you enjoy and make you happy.” Rizzo and Lester became good friends during his six-month battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and whether by design or just a stroke of good fortune, Epstein, Rizzo, and Lester all now find themselves a part of the Chicago Cubs organization.
“There are things that teammates or peers can say to one another that a doctor or a GM or manager can’t say. To be able to process it as someone who had been through it, and pass on some really helpful words to a younger person to go through it. For them to be teammates here is great. They share that special connection. It felt like a privilege to be there and watch those two help each other out.”
– Theo Epstein, Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations
With the help and support of Jon Lester, his close-knit family, and especially his grandmother who was also undergoing cancer treatments, Rizzo battled back against the disease, undergoing months of chemotherapy treatments that left him exhausted and in pain. But on September 2, 2008, Rizzo’s mother received the call that every mother of a child fighting cancer desperately wants to hear: Her son had achieved remission.
“My mother went crazy. We celebrated right there on the plane. After everything I’d been through — and after everything we’d been through as a family — I was cancer-free.”
Rizzo and his family were free. Free from the burdens, both mental and physical, that erupted from his fight with lymphoma. Free to pursue the career that he seemed destined to pursue.
But as Rizzo pursued a career in baseball, he made sure to leave as large an impact on other men, women, and children battling cancer as he possibly could. In 2012 he created the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, a non-profit organization “benefiting cancer research and the families fighting the disease.” In addition to his charity work, Rizzo is extremely active in Chicago’s hospitals, visiting people suffering through cancer treatments and offering his story along with some positive encouragement to the patients the way Jon Lester did for him.
These aren’t publicity stunts, either; the visits are just special moments between a survivor and future survivors of the disease. Rizzo draws inspiration from these meetings just as the patients do, doing his best to hit home runs for those who ask, and recognizing them by performing their celebration of choice.
“When my son asked, Rizzo said, ‘I’ll do my best.’ To not only hit the home runs, but to remember to do that [touch his lips and point], that’s what was so touching.”
– Donna Kasallis, mother of cancer-fighter Mike Kasallis
Anthony Rizzo provides as large a spark on the baseball field as he does in the lives of people fighting cancer across the country. His electric bat has helped the Cubs post the third-most runs scored per game while hitting predominantly in the three hole. Though Rizzo has achieved considerable success at the major league level in past seasons, even finishing fourth in the National League MVP voting in 2015, this season has been even more special.
After getting off to a slow start during April and May, Rizzo has been tearing the cover off the ball ever since to the tune of a .378 average and eight home runs during June, and a .309 average and five home runs so far this July. It’s reached the point that every time the Wrigley faithful hear Rizzo’s monthly walk-up song of choice, they expect nothing less than a double to the right field gap or a blast into the reaaaally cheap seats.
One of Rizzo’s most valuable qualities is an ability to hit for extreme power while still maintaining a sparkling batting average. Typically, power hitters of Rizzo’s quality are prone to an elevated strikeout rate, but Rizzo maintains a remarkably low K% of 16%. By making more contact and striking out less, Rizzo gives himself additional opportunities for hits to fall rather than making an automatic out by whiffing at strike three. This high level of contact has raised his batting average to just under .300.
Rizzo achieves this low-strikeout/high-power approach with a powerful, yet remarkably controlled swing. His strength allows him to hit home runs without having to swing out of his shoes or utilize a more vertical swing plane.
Rizzo has proven himself to be one of the game’s most complete hitters. With no clear cut National League MVP frontrunner after just under 100 games, let me make the case for Anthony Rizzo. He is one-half of the MLB’s best dynamic duo and the leader for the best team in the major leagues. He is a capable defender who consistently shows massive amounts of hustle to track down balls he has no business catching. But most importantly, his batting statistics are hard to argue with. He is among the top tier in almost every batting statistic imaginable, doing so without the inflated BABIP numbers of other top tier National League hitters.
If these numbers don’t put him into the National League MVP discussion, what more does he have to do?
Not only is Anthony Rizzo one of the best players in the MLB, he is one of the best people in the major leagues. Between his philanthropic efforts for Chicago’s hospitals and his on- and off-field hijinks, Rizzo is a joy to be around. With Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant stealing the on-field spotlight during his breakout sophomore season, Rizzo has managed to fly relatively under the radar despite posting his best numbers to date. But for a humble, understated guy on a team filled with superstars this isn’t such a bad situation; he lets his Marucci bat do all the talking. And it just won’t shut up.