Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs

Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs
January 17, 2013, 12:39 am
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This time last year, even the Cubs executives who knew Anthony Rizzo better than anyone else couldn't be certain that they were getting a core player for the next decade.

Rizzo doesn't have to worry about getting traded anytime soon. He won't be going to spring training to try to win a job. Who knows what the Cubs would do without him now? He's supposed to be a leader in the clubhouse, but will leave camp because he felt he couldn't pass up this chance.

Rizzo - whose great-grandfather is from Sicily - spoke with the front office and manager Dale Sveum and got their blessing to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

"They're fully supportive," Rizzo said Wednesday. "People say: 'Oh, the risk factor of getting injured.' But it's just like spring training. I play every game as hard as I can, so it's not different from that standpoint. Obviously, I would love to play for USA. That was my first choice, but they got all the 'monsters.'

"Italy's a great opportunity. I come from a very strong Italian background and to represent (the) whole country is a pretty cool experience."

Rizzo said his teammates will include Jason Grilli, Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia. He's also looking forward to working with Mike Piazza, Italy's hitting coach. Provisional rosters for the World Baseball Classic will be unveiled on Thursday.

The Cubs see a major difference between a position player participating in the event and a pitcher being thrown into a competitive situation that early in camp. Rizzo also felt better about his decision knowing that Italy will play its games - versus Mexico, Canada and Team USA (March 7-9) - in the Phoenix area, not far from the Cubs complex.

"It certainly is something he's taken pride in and we support the WBC as a whole," team president Theo Epstein said. "Now if he pulls a miracle and is gone all month, that might be another story.

"I have a lot of faith in him, but they have a tough group."

Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development chief Jason McLeod have a lot invested in their first baseman, the prospect they once drafted for the Boston Red Sox and packaged in the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the San Diego Padres.

Rizzo has accepted the responsibilities that come with being a leader. He has been patient with the media and stuck to the talking points. He didn't let the big-market hype overwhelm him. But he doesn't want to see himself as the face of the franchise.

"I don't look at it like that," Rizzo said. "I have to go out there and produce, and it's got to be that tunnel vision mentality until I actually really do make a name for myself.

"I've done a little bit, but Alfonso Soriano's made a name. He's done it every single year. The superstars in the game have done it. I'm just coming up and I want to continue to work hard every day, (be) myself and just let it go from there."

The Cubs are eager to measure The Rizzo Effect - how his 15 homers and 48 RBI in 87 games last year will translate across an entire season. He wants to win a Gold Glove playing alongside second baseman Darwin Barney and shortstop Starlin Castro. It will be a little easier going into spring training knowing that he won't have to look over his shoulder, but he's vowed to keep the same mentality.

"I still want to go in and prove that I can be elite," Rizzo said.