MESA, Ariz. – There might be a dozen cool reasons for a big-league player to wear his old high school cap in a game to honor his alma mater.
There might be none worse than the reason Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo wears his Saturday when he plays his first game of the spring.
A mass shooting that left 17 dead, many in hallways Rizzo walked as a student barely a decade ago, leaves him struggling at times to sleep at night more than a week after spending time with hospitalized survivors and families of victims who didn’t.
Teammate Jason Heyward says he can’t imagine what that would be like. Teammate Ben Zobrist calls Rizzo “a special guy, obviously.” Teammate Kris Bryant calls him “a role model” for teammates – and everyone else watching the things he does when he’s not playing baseball.
“It’s just being a good person,” Rizzo said. “It’s just being there when people need it. It’s how I was raised.”
If Rizzo, 28, wasn’t the face of the franchise before he returned home to Parkland, Fla., in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, he certainly became that when his emotional speech during a candlelight vigil for the victims was broadcast on every national news network in the hours and days that followed.
“I definitely have no idea how he maintained his emotion and delivered such a great message,” manager Joe Maddon said.
How and when Rizzo is able to flip the switch back to major-league focus on baseball could be a process that needs some of the next month to play out.
“Of course it’s going to be difficult,” said Maddon, who said he believes the routine of the game will take care of itself on the field. “But impactfully as a human being, I think the hours before and the hours after, they’re the ones that have to be dealt with. And especially when you’re alone. That’s when your mind really takes off and a lot of times irrational. Whatever he needs – we’ve already talked to him about that.”
In fact, Maddon said the strength he expects Rizzo to draw from the pain and shock of it all might in some twisted way add to the veteran tone and influence he already brings to the clubhouse.
“What he just did, he’ll never be the same,” Maddon said. “And some of it in a good way, in this horrible situation, just personally [through] the growth. … I mean, the maturity level – what he just did, a lot of us can’t do that.”
It wasn’t a surprise to a front office that drafted him in Boston in 2007, was with him during a year of treatment and recovery for Hodgkin’s lymphoma soon after, and that trusted enough in Rizzo’s personality and mettle to trade for him in Chicago to become a cornerstone for a major rebuild.
Rizzo, now a 10-year cancer survivor who pours a lot of his resources and effort away from the field into raising money for research and working with pediatric patients, doesn’t look at the longer term effects of the past week as dramatically as Maddon does.
“I don’t think it’s going to really change me that much,” Rizzo said. “When times get tough, that’s when your true character shows. Obviously in Parkland it’s the toughest times ever, probably the toughest time that will ever occur there. And you can either run from it or you can attack it, run at it. There’s no shying [away] from it. Obviously, a lot of lives were lost, but you can just be there for those people.
“That’s Life 101 in my opinion.”
A moment of silence is scheduled before Saturday’s game. All the Rangers and Cubs players are expected to wear the Stoneman Douglas High School caps during the game.
One of them might be wearing it a little heavier, maybe a little prouder, than the others. And he figures to carry the moment for a lot longer.
But if any 20-something player in the league is equipped to handle it and channel it, that might be Rizzo.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Rizzo said. “It’s not ‘woe is me,’ but I have a good perspective on this life that we live, and baseball’s not all of it. So it’s not going to bring me down that much or bring me up that much.”
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