Rizzo, Italy enjoy support of Cubs in Cinderella WBC run

Rizzo, Italy enjoy support of Cubs in Cinderella WBC run

March 10, 2013, 12:45 am
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PHOENIX -- The Cubs expected to have Anthony Rizzo back from the World Baseball Classic as early as Sunday. That's why manager Dale Sveum and a few other members of the club pledged $500 to Rizzo's charity if his underdog Italy squad won just a single game.

Team Italy won twice, and when Canada beat Mexico Saturday afternoon, they punched an improbable ticket to Miami for the next round of the WBC.

"I'm excited for everyone to pay up," Rizzo laughed after Italy's 6-2 loss to Team USA Saturday night at Chase Field. "I texted them to make sure they got out their checkbooks."

Few expected Italy to make any noise in Group D of the World Baseball Classic. The baseball version of the Azzurri had only won two of its six previous WBC contests, and against baseball's traditional power countries the games weren't particularly close.

[RELATED: Sveum prepared to pay up after Italy's win]

So when Rizzo signed on to play for Italy -- his great-grandfather was born in Sicily -- he didn't expect to be away from Cubs camp for long.

"I’m sure I’ll (only) be gone a short time," Rizzo said on Monday.

That Italy was playing only a few miles away from Mesa made things easier to stomach for all parties involved, too. But with Italy shocking the tournament and moving on to Miami, Rizzo won't make his return to Cubs camp until Thursday at the earliest.

Regardless of how long Rizzo's away from spring training, though, he says the Cubs haven't expressed any apprehension about his involvement in the WBC.

[MORE: Baez, Soler's time in MLB camp nearing an end]

"We've spoken. They're very supportive of this, all the guys, all the teammates, Dale (Sveum) and the management," Rizzo said. "They're excited. They're very excited for what's going on here. They all know we're the underdogs, I'm getting a lot of texts from them saying hey, good luck, and they're really pulling for us."

2013 will be Rizzo's first full season as a major leaguer, a year after he hit 15 home runs with a .282/.342/.463 slash line in 87 games. He was 1-3 on Saturday and went 3-11 with 3 RBIs, 2 walks and 2 runs scored in WBC pool play. His two-run double in the ninth against Mexico on Thursday served as the game-winning hit in Italy's stunning 6-5 comeback win.

It's tough to replicate the intensity of WBC at-bats in Cactus League games, and Rizzo sees his involvement as a positive when he steps onto the field as the Cubs' Opening Day first baseman April 1.

"It's competitive right off the bat. It's win or go home, basically," Rizzo explained. "And it's only March 9, which is the beauty of it. Talking to all the players, the umpires -- just the pressure of every pitch, every out, every run, every hit, every defensive play, it mounts. As the games go on the more the pressure comes, and the more you have to slow the game down. It's helpful for everyone."

Only eight of Rizzo's mates were actually born in Italy, including Saturday starter Luca Panerati, who baffled U.S. hitters with a steady diet of slow junk for three innings. While most of Italy's roster is comprised of U.S. citizens with Italian ancestry, the team's success meant plenty to those players born in the country they're representing.

"Just coming in on Monday and practicing with them and seeing how excited they were, I didn't really know what I was in for," Rizzo said. "And just seeing how happy and appreciative (they were), us winning and some of the true Italians not playing (previously) and getting in today was awesome.

"And it means the world to all of us. It's awesome. We're having a lot of fun and the clubhouse is really loose and fun and the way we should be."

For the nation of Italy, the WBC is hardly the World Cup, nor is it UEFA's European Championship -- in other words, baseball's not soccer. Finding anything mentioning the WBC on the website of La Repubblica, Rome's primary newspaper, meant sifting through loads of stories about Mario Balotelli and Serie A soccer. In fact, the lone article about Italy's WBC run on the site was buried all the way at the bottom of the page.

The growth of baseball in non-traditional markets such as Italy won't skyrocket overnight. But perhaps a run like the one Italy's on in the WBC will help bring more attention to the game in the soccer-crazed nation.

That's something Rizzo is proud to be a part of.

"Any time you can promote this game of baseball, it's such a beautiful game in so many different ways," Rizzo said. "To be able to play in front of the world, there's going to be so many viewers here, in Puerto Rico, in Japan, all the different sections. I think it's a great tournament, and it should be fun."