Cubs: Rizzo will have to handle the great expectations

Cubs: Rizzo will have to handle the great expectations
May 16, 2013, 6:00 pm
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Anyone else remember when Derrick Rose was the feel-good story? You know, the kid from Englewood who grew up to be MVP and seemed destined to get his own statue outside the United Center?

No, Anthony Rizzo isn’t in the same galaxy as the Bulls star with the surgically repaired knee and $260 million adidas shoe deal. But if “D-Rose” can feel the backlash, what about the guy Cubs teammates call “Rizz?”

Yes, that’s coming, but in the whirlwind after announcing his new contract, Rizzo looked forward to getting back to normal. That means going to work on Friday at Wrigley Field against Sports Illustrated cover boy Matt Harvey – “The Dark Knight of Gotham” – and the New York Mets.

This seven-year, $41 million contract – which could run nine seasons through 2021 and be worth some $70 million – appears to have loosened up someone who at different points was supposed to be the first baseman of the future for the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres.

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“It’s been crazy,” Rizzo said. “A lot of interviews, a lot of being pulled different ways. But I’ve gotten a lot of support from friends, family, coaches, all congratulating me. I’m very thankful.”

Rizzo went with the “Wall Street” look for Monday’s press conference, slicking back his hair and wearing a white button-down dress shirt and gray patterned pants (and borrowing a black belt from teammate Ryan Sweeney). That drew some comments while clowning around on the MLB Network, with host Kevin Millar asking about general manager Jed Hoyer’s “man-crush” on him.

At the age of 23, Rizzo’s already at the phase where he gets requests from the national media, controls the music during batting practice and shoots the puck at a Blackhawks game. He will be a feature attraction at Cubs Convention and with their next television deal.

If it seemed a bit much that a player would start his own charitable foundation before spending a full season in the big leagues, well, people have been blown away by Rizzo’s visits to children’s hospitals, how he interacts with kids fighting cancer. His own experience beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a Red Sox prospect has given him a sense of maturity and perspective.

“We’re big role models in this city,” Rizzo said. “We put on one of the best uniforms in sports and it’s an honor and a responsibility at the same time. You have to carry yourself – not only on the field – but off the field and be an ultimate pro.”

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Rizzo works for an organization that at times can be completely tone-deaf, within a media market that sees everything as black-and-white, on a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century. He will be the face of the franchise.

Troy Tulowitzki remembered seeing himself in advertising campaigns after signing a long-term deal with the Colorado Rockies at the age of 23. That contract became part of the framework for an extension that locked up the All-Star shortstop through 2020 and guaranteed him almost $160 million.

“It’s a learning process,” Tulowitzki said. “The biggest thing you can do is watch and learn from some of the veterans on your team. For me at the time, it was the Matt Hollidays, the Todd Heltons, guys like that who have been put in the same spot. You see how they go about their work. You see how when your team’s going bad they push guys every single day.”

In the clubhouse, Rizzo gravitated toward David DeJesus, a steady veteran who talked to him about developing a routine. Last year ex-Cub Jeff Baker remembered inviting Rizzo to go golfing in Scottsdale, Ariz., during an off-day in spring training – and getting peppered with deep questions about how to stick in the big leagues and make adjustments.

“I’m going to go out and be myself,” Rizzo said. “There’s guys in that clubhouse that have been playing this game way longer than I have and I respect every one of them, head-to-toe.

[RELATED: Tulowitzki sees risks/rewards in Rizzo deal]

“If they’re going to tell me to do something, I’m going to respect it, because they’ve done it (before). My definition of being a leader is just going out (and) playing hard and doing the right thing and being a good teammate, getting along with everyone.

“If you get along with everyone, everyone respects you when you do say something.”

There will be tired questions about “stepping up and being a leader,” when in reality there’s a winning-cures-everything dynamic inside clubhouses. But it would also be wrong to assume that playing inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl is the same as working in St. Louis or Milwaukee.

“It’s exciting for this organization to have a class-act guy like 'Rizz' around here for a long time,” pitcher Jeff Samardzija said, “a young guy that does it the right way (and) has fun.

“There’s something to be said (for that), especially in an organization like this, in a homey-feeling place like Wrigley with tight quarters and everything (else). You got to have a close-knit group of guys that love playing with each other, love spending time with each other.”

Clearly, the Cubs executives who’ve known Rizzo since he was a teenager in South Florida believe he’ll be able to handle the great expectations. Otherwise, Hoyer, team president Theo Epstein and scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod wouldn’t have made this kind of commitment to the player they drafted for the Red Sox in 2007.

After Wednesday night’s 6-3 win over the Rockies, Rizzo stood in front of his locker and listened to a question about what’s been the difference at the plate lately (.919 OPS in May).

“Maybe the contract,” he said with a smile.

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