Commentary

Start of something good?

Anthony Rizzo gives Cubs fans hope they've hoped for with winning hit in debut

Updated: June 27, 2012, 3:04 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- With runners at the corners, two outs and the game tied, the idea of what Anthony Rizzo can be and the reality of who he actually is intersected on a warm Wrigley Field night.

In the bottom of that fourth inning, Mets pitcher Dillon Gee was pounding him with fastballs up and in, but Rizzo, showing the plate discipline the Theo Epstein regime preaches, waited for his pitch. With his hands low and a practiced shorter approach to the ball, Rizzo laced a 2-2, 85 mph breaking ball up the middle to give the Cubs a one-run lead.

Fans roared, team president Crane Kenney and chairman Tom Ricketts stood and cheered and for a minute it felt like this season actually mattered.

Rizzo, a baby face with a baseball body, did a quick clap as he got to first before hustling, and sliding, into second on the throw to third. A generous scorekeeper gave him a double. Amazingly, the run held up and the Cubs (26-48) won consecutively for the seventh time this season, 5-3 over the New York Mets. This was just the sixth series they've won.

Rizzo said he kept to his minor league routine before the game. But he's not blind. This isn't Iowa.

"To be honest, before the game I was breathing a lot, taking deep breaths," he said after the game. "But once I was in the box, I was feeling really good."

Print up the punny T-shirts, come up with those nicknames (I prefer my creation, The RZO), this kid is here to stay.

"He didn't act like much of a kid today, that's for sure," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "You can't teach no-panic."

The legend was born already in the expectations of a prospect sired in Boston and brought to Chicago by the great oracle Epstein, but here was actual proof he existed. You know how those Pacific Coast League stats go. Frank Rizzo from "The Jerky Boys" could hit .300 in that league.

The go-ahead hit was Rizzo's second of the night. The same scorekeeper, the immortal Bob Rosenberg, changed an E-6 to a hit in the first after pronounced booing from the home crowd. This was Rizzo's night, after all.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
David Banks/US PresswireAnthony Rizzo makes a play at first base in the first inning on Tuesday.

It didn't have the gravitas of Starlin Castro's six-RBI major league debut, but the young slugger gave the paying crowd what it desired: Entertainment with a dash of hope. Yes, it's possible to have both.

A giddy Rizzo drove the 330 or so miles from Des Moines, Iowa, to Chicago on Monday, though he probably could have floated safely on the adorable hopes and dreams of Cubs fans.

As he raked in the minors, the actual Cubs -- the ones who lose 67 percent of the time -- got used to questions about needing a 22-year-old minor leaguer to make them presentable. So, of course, the players zinged him when he got to the clubhouse Tuesday.

Jokes on jokes. Rookie hazing. Rizzo should expect it all season. His level of fraternal abuse will be commensurate with his success.

"We gave him some crap. You have to," outfielder Tony Campana said before the game. "Just to loosen him up. He's cool with it. He can give it back pretty good, too."

The smarter Cubs are angling to bask in Rizzo's reflected glory.

"Reed [Johnson] said he's going to stand by Rizzo so everyone knows he's still in the league," Campana said.

After the game, as reporters surrounded Rizzo's empty locker in wait, reliever Casey Coleman yelled, "Hey, it's Scott Maine's first win!" Joe Mather chimed in, "And Carlos Marmol's 100th save." No one rushed to their lockers. Rizzo will wear that, too.

For a team going nowhere but the gutter this season, #RizzoWatch was not just a social media distraction, but a real-life countdown for fans until it was OK to have hope for something Cub -- besides finding a team desperate enough to take a portion of Alfonso Soriano's contract and Tom Ricketts' getting his public funding for Wrigley Field.

The Rizzo-as-Roy Hobbs jokes were funny, but there is nothing wrong with having outsized expectations for a potentially very good player. That's kind of the point of being a fan.

As Epstein has said, the sooner he's not the face of the Cubs, the better.

But only an idiot would expect Rizzo to carry a team that is going nowhere. This "people expect you to be the savior" talk is a straw-man argument propagated by reporters and cynical fans. Savior of what? Rizzo or not, the Cubs are hurtling toward 100 losses. This isn't Hollywood.

What is acceptable is to have expectations that he won't hit .141, like he did last season in 49 games with the Padres. And no one should expect more out of Rizzo than, well, Rizzo. Decent major league players turn fear into production. The great ones thrive off it.

Rizzo is said to have a star's attitude -- cocky, funny and hungry. The former sixth-round pick made a great impression on the local media, even downplaying the attention by saying it was the same in San Diego. Them's fighting words. No one flips out over a prospect better than us!

While he admitted he tried to do too much his first time around, he's not shying away from living up to his promise today.

"Oh yeah. This is the best," Rizzo said. "Pressure comes with any sport, and being in such a big market, it's even better. You have to perform and that's what it's all about. But in order to perform, you have to prepare every day like it could be your last day -- which it could be any day. Pressure just comes with it."

Sure, there is reason for caution. Rizzo could go the way of Corey Patterson and Hee Seop Choi. But while Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer confusingly called him a "homegrown prospect," he's really a Red Sox prospect, which is a much healthier breed.

This season was a wash for obvious reasons, but next season should be competitive and Rizzo's arrival gives them a low-priced, high-impact weapon to go along with Castro. Hopefully, Brett Jackson can cut down on his strikeouts and join them next year. Then all you need is a third baseman (Josh Vitters?) and a lot of pitching.

But first, Rizzo can have a positive effect on this season.

"You see with everything that's going on today how much pressure is taken off a lot of people," Sveum said. "Unfortunately, it's put on him. ... That's why we like him so much -- we think he can handle a lot, and he's going to be in this lineup for a long time."

After his low times in San Diego, Rizzo worked on consistency in his swing in Iowa, keeping his hands low and staying "short to the ball." It worked, as he put up monster numbers in the PCL for the second straight year. But maybe his failures in San Diego could help, too. He said he learned a lot from failure. Every baseball player has to, of course. It's how they adjust and readjust that makes good players great.

"I think last year is going to be really good for him," Hoyer said. "He struggled in the big leagues, he had to get through that. He had to spend an offseason frustrated because he didn't do what he wanted to do."

Epstein, Hoyer and scouting director Jason McLeod have a history with Rizzo. They drafted him in Boston, Hoyer and McLeod traded for him in San Diego and they all reunited with him in Chicago.

Hoyer feels responsible for what happened to Rizzo last year; he thinks he rushed him. But this time he feels the fans' excitement over Rizzo is valid, with a caveat.

"I think it's great to be this excited," he said. "I hope it comes with the understanding that there's going to be ups and downs. It's hard to find players that come up and never struggle. He's going to make adjustments. All players do that, and so I love the fact that people are excited. To me, it sort of gives, I don't know what the exact right word is, but it gives hope."

Hope has never been a "four-letter word" at Wrigley Field. It never should be. Otherwise, why bother?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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