MESA, Ariz. – The education of Anthony Rizzo may have accelerated at the World Baseball Classic.
Cubs executives have long described Rizzo as mature beyond his years. He has perspective after overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a Red Sox prospect, an experience that led him to start his own charitable foundation. He has already been traded twice, which made him quickly understand that this is a business.
Though polite, accountable and available to the media, Rizzo has a kind of detachment after dealing with three very different markets (Boston, San Diego, Chicago) and being hyped as the next big thing in three separate organizations.
It’s easy to forget that Rizzo is only 23 and has never been in an Opening Day lineup before. But there are some things you can’t learn in the Cactus League or on a 101-loss team.
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Rizzo returned to HoHoKam Stadium on Saturday after a Cinderella run in the WBC. His blue Team Italy bag – with the green, white and red flag on the sides – sat in the middle of the clubhouse, near a stack of Air Jordan boxes next to his locker as he spoke with a few Nike reps and looked at batting gloves.
Rizzo was glad to be back with his teammates – the ones who didn’t make the trip to Las Vegas – and ready to apply those lessons.
“You had to really slow the game down as much as possible, every single pitch, every inning,” Rizzo said. “Especially as the game (goes) on, your at-bats mean more. It’s really about slowing the game down and focusing. It’s something that I wouldn’t be able to get here.
“Even in the regular season, if you win or lose a game in the later innings, you know you can still play tomorrow, where this was kind of like a playoff atmosphere. You lose and you’re done.”
Italy had advanced to the second round after beating Mexico and Canada in Arizona. Rizzo, who grew up in South Florida, got to play in front of his family and friends at Marlins Park as the Italians nearly shocked the world before absorbing one-run losses to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
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“It was unexplainable,” Rizzo said. “We all had a great time. There were no egos. Everyone did what they were asked to and we had fun with it.”
It looked like Rizzo still had a bit of a chip on his shoulder in the first inning of Saturday’s 8-3 win over the Royals. He raised his arms in a you-gotta-be-kidding-me manner and had a few words for home-plate umpire Mark Ripperger after watching Bruce Chen’s breaking ball sail across the outer edge for a called strike three.
In Rizzo, the Cubs already have a No. 3 hitter, a plus defender at first base and a glue guy in the clubhouse.
Four years from now, the Cubs could have a state-of-the-art complex in Arizona, a renovated Wrigley Field and a new television deal fueling a team that will have much higher expectations.
Rizzo is a centerpiece to those plans and by then should be in his prime (and perhaps in the middle of a big contract extension). He doesn’t know if he’d play for the Italians again or lean toward Team USA.
“That’s a long way out,” Rizzo said. “It was a great experience this time. If the opportunity arises in 2017, I’m sure whatever decision will be made will be just as fun.”
Rizzo has a few Italia jerseys to keep as souvenirs. He also made sure to get his batting helmet signed by all his teammates.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Rizzo said. “Everyone I talked to was so excited. No one expected us to do well and we got guys pulling for Italy over USA. (We) were the underdogs (and) we gave everyone a run for their money.”
A group of Cubs pledged to donate $500 each to Rizzo’s foundation if Italy won just one game in the WBC.
Have you gotten your money yet?
“No, I haven’t,” Rizzo said. “I definitely said some things (to remind them). But I’m sure I’ll get it sooner or later. I didn’t forget about that.”
Rizzo – who can trace his family’s roots back to Sicily – hasn’t traveled to Italy yet. But he now has some good tour guides if he ever visits the homeland. But now the entire focus is on getting ready for April 1.
“I love being here,” Rizzo said. “I love all the guys here, too. (But) the whole experience was a lot of fun. It’s something that I think I’ll be able to look back down the road and have a great memory.”