Commentary

Anthony Rizzo can handle adversity

First-base prospect beat cancer, then tore up Triple-A. Can he help fix the Cubs?

Updated: January 17, 2012, 11:16 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- In the future-value-over-past-performance philosophy of Theo Epstein, Anthony Rizzo would seem to fit the mold perfectly.

At 22, the future is as vast and as promising as it can be for a kid who went 3-for-7 in his first three big-league games, including a 400-foot triple to dead center in his first at-bat. But when the Cubs president of baseball operations acquired Rizzo from the San Diego Padres in a deal that included Cubs right-hander Andrew Cashner last week, he was also putting considerable faith in a young man whose past had already shown Epstein more than he needs to know.

After those first three games, things didn't go quite as well for Rizzo as he proceeded to bat .141 in 128 at-bats. "Pitchers adjusted to him a little bit more quickly than he adjusted back last year," Epstein said.

But Epstein and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer knew Rizzo. And not just as a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who tore up the minor leagues, hitting .452 with six home runs and 24 RBIs in his first 15 games at Triple-A Tucson last year and .365 (with an OPS of 1.159, 16 homers and 63 RBI) in 200 at-bats over 52 games.

"I do like the way he grinds his at-bats," Epstein said of the Cubs' first baseman of the future. "He'll swing and miss and he'll strike out, but he sees the ball really well and knows how to work an at-bat. He's not looking to walk, although he will walk, but he's looking to get the counts where he can look for his pitch instead of the pitcher's pitch, and then drive the ball ..."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziAnthony Rizzo's struggles during his first major-league call-up were nothing compared to fighting cancer.

But Epstein was just as impressed with the off-field virtues of the young man whom he, Hoyer and Cubs scouting director Jason McLeod originally drafted for the Boston Red Sox in 2007.

It was then, barely into his professional career, when he was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkins lymphoma. "It was my first year in the minor leagues and ... I came back from a road trip and I had gained 12 to 15 pounds," recalled Rizzo, just 18 at the time. "They ran tests a couple weeks later and next thing I know, I'm getting chemo."

Boston doctors told Rizzo and his family there was a 97 percent cure rate, which only sounds good if you haven't lived through it. And even an 18-year-old knows when he no longer feels invincible.

"We're all so competitive, we think we can do anything and then it hits you and you don't know what to do," he said. "But you can't just sit there and say 'Why me?' I'm very lucky. Very lucky."

He went through six months of chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free, but said he will never forget the support he received from Epstein, Hoyer and the rest of the Red Sox organization.

"We got to go to a game after the first treatment," Rizzo said, "and Theo took my dad and brother and I to the [Red Sox] lockerroom to talk to Jon Lester. And just all the calls we got weekly and monthly from everyone . . . helping not just me out but my parents because it was harder on them than on me."

Lester had a similar type of cancer and came back to help pitch the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series championship a year after being diagnosed. Shortly after Rizzo was diagnosed, in May of '08, Lester pitched a no-hitter and called the youngster the next day.

Rizzo said he still thinks about what he went through.

"I think that whatever I hit in the big leagues is kind of small in the grand scheme of things," he said. "It kind of keeps things in perspective. It's better for me now that I know I can help little kids and people in the community fighting it right now."

When Epstein talks about liking Rizzo's "makeup," this is some of what he is referring to.

"Off the field, for a 22-year-old kid, he has a lot of leadership abilities," he said. "He's mature beyond his years. He's already overcome adversity in his life with the cancer that he beat. I think that's important because baseball is really all about overcoming adversity. Failure is inherent in this game. So if you're looking for one characteristic in a player, you want to look for how he handles adversity."

And how does Rizzo interpret what Epstein was talking about makeup?

"I think that's just from my parents bringing me up that way, teaching me the ways to do things and how to speak to people," he said. "I try to be honest and respectful to the media and with everyone else. I try to play hard and do things the right way. That's just the type of person I am."

Epstein said he was also impressed with Rizzo's "natural leadership abilities."

"Even in the minor leagues, he put the team first," Epstein said. "He wasn't all about his statistics and because of his imposing size and his character and the fact that he cared about his team and his teammates, he was kind of magnetic. His teammates, even those who were older than him, rallied around him as one of the leaders of the team. Those are some of the characteristics we look for in our players."

If this is rebuilding, Cubs fans should be encouraged. Getting on base and hitting for power is a very good thing, and Rizzo is that kind of player. His average with runners in scoring position (.463) is not too shabby either. But this is the kind of person you want in a clubhouse for a long time. And it is surely not the kind of player who is going to let a bad call-up last season affect him.

"You start to question yourself but that's just the game," he said. "Everyone has a bad span of at-bats and I caught I mine in the big leagues and started trying harder and started thinking way too much about what was going on. But did I ever lose my confidence? I don't think so. I still walked around the same person I am. I tried not to let it affect me really at all.

"I know it's just a game and there are a lot worse things going on."

Yes, there are. Or there were, anyway.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.