MIAMI -- If the Chicago Cubs sent Anthony Rizzo to the World Baseball Classic with any misgivings that he might return with an injury or some bad habits at the plate, they need not have worried. The Cubs' top prospect and Team Italy's starting first baseman is loving the experience and winning raves from the veteran Italian players and coaches for his skill on the field and his comportment away from it.
Rizzo is also pocketing some pleasant memories and neat souvenirs. During the first round of the tournament, he exchanged caps with Mexico's Luis Cruz, Canada's Joey Votto and Ryan Braun of Team USA. Rizzo also enjoyed a classic family bonding moment when his father, John, accompanied the Italian squad on a charter flight. John met Team Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza, sat up near the front of the plane and watched some TV, and has since entrusted Anthony with getting a couple of signed copies of Piazza's autobiography, "Long Shot.''
It's only natural for Rizzo to be impressed hanging around Piazza, one of the greatest offensive catchers in history, or fellow Team Italy coach Frank Catalanotto, who batted .291 and accumulated 1,113 hits over 14 major league seasons. But the feeling is clearly mutual. Rizzo is winning points with the Italian staff for reasons other than the fact his great-grandparents hailed from Sicily.
"Some guys on this team might be sick and tired of hearing me say it, but this kid is going to be a superstar,'' Catalanotto said. "I've told Piazza that a bunch of times already. It's not only his baseball skills, but his whole makeup. When I was 23 years old and in the big leagues, I was scared and nervous as could be. I didn't want to step out of line with the guys in the clubhouse or make mistakes on the field. But he doesn't seem like he has that in him. He's one of the leaders on this team.''
Team Italy, which plays Puerto Rico at Marlins Park at 7:08 p.m. ET Wednesday, has been a heartwarming success story thanks to the inspirational managing of Marco Mazzieri, the power-hitting exploits of Minnesota Twins minor leaguer Chris Colabello, and the contributions of Nick Punto, Chris Denorfia and other resourceful veterans. For those who might be wondering, the word "sconnesso'' means "scrappy'' in Italian.
Rizzo, a physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is the one Grade A prospect on the Italian roster. The Cubs summoned him from Triple-A Iowa in late June of last season, and Rizzo hit .285 with 15 homers and an .805 OPS in 87 games to make an instant impression at Wrigley.
Rizzo is relaxed in the batter's box, with loose hands and a quiet approach, until he uncoils and things suddenly get very noisy. Piazza watched some video before seeing Rizzo in person. Upon his first glimpse, he thought of a former San Francisco Giants first baseman and career .303 hitter.
"I've always felt left-handers had prettier swings than right-handers,'' Piazza said. "He has sort of a classic left-handed swing like a Will Clark. It's just a beautiful, very picturesque swing.
"I've basically been hands-off with him. I've just tried to get him to relax and believe he has power to all fields, which he does. He asked me, 'How did you have such great power to right?' And I told him, 'There's a fence out there, too. You don't always have to pull the ball to hit a home run or be productive. Open up the field a little bit.'''
Piazza and Catalanotto look for subtle indications to gauge Rizzo's grasp of the game, and they're finding them in abundance. During one early WBC game, the opposing infield was playing back with a runner on third base and less than two outs. Rizzo hit a ground ball to shortstop to score the run, and received a high-five from Piazza upon his return to the dugout.
"Just pick up the RBI in that situation,'' Piazza told him. "That's what hitters do.''
Late in Team Italy's first-round win over Mexico, Rizzo fell behind 0-2 in the count to closer Sergio Romo, then flicked the bat and hit a fly ball to the left-field warning track. It bounced off Edgar Gonzalez's glove for a pivotal two-base hit.
The Italian coaches like Rizzo because he's so immersed in the mental chess game. If he gets a hit off an inside fastball, he's already anticipating the possibility of seeing an extra breaking ball or two in his next plate appearance. The wheels are always turning.
During Italy's 5-4 loss to the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, Rizzo experienced a couple of teachable moments. In his third plate appearance, he stepped to the plate with runners at the corners and a chance to do some damage. Dominican manager Tony Pena brought in Juan Cedeno, a lefty who has been kicking around the minors since 2002, and Cedeno teased Rizzo with junk before striking him out on an 86 mph breaking ball at least 6 inches off the plate. It was a classic case of a savvy pitcher preying on a young player's overanxiousness in a big spot.
Although Rizzo went hitless in three at-bats on the day, he still found a way to contribute, starting a sweet 3-6-3 double play on Carlos Santana and snagging a hot shot by Jose Reyes an inning later for an out.
The Cubs have made it clear they're willing to run Rizzo out there at first base this season and let him take his lumps as he learns to hit left-handers in the majors. In his first 130 big league at-bats versus lefties, Rizzo has five home runs, a .200 batting average and a .604 OPS. But he finds the thought of being a platoon player abhorrent.
"My goal is to play all 162,'' Rizzo said. "It doesn't matter to me if it's a righty or a lefty or they want to bring in a specialist to face me. I'm going to take my same approach and stick with it.''
Rizzo's ability to roll with the ups and downs is part nature, part nurture. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008, but beat the disease through chemotherapy and has since started a foundation to raise money for cancer research. On a far less daunting note, Rizzo is already with his third professional organization. The Red Sox selected him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft before Padres general manager Jed Hoyer brought him to San Diego in a trade. Hoyer then joined the Cubs as their GM and he and team president Theo Epstein proceeded to team up to make Rizzo a Cub in a deal with the Padres in January 2012.
For now, Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro are the future of a Chicago organization with limited hope for optimism in the present. The Cubs finished fifth in the NL Central with a 61-101 record last season, and the signs point toward another challenging year in conjunction with the Epstein-Hoyer rebuilding project.
But Rizzo's new Team Italy pals think he's the right guy to help lead the franchise out of the baseball wilderness.
"I love the way he carries himself,'' Catalanotto said. "He's young, but very confident about himself. He walks around with an air about him, but he seems so chill and doesn't let any situation rattle him.''
Those same lessons apply on the back fields of Mesa or on the big international stage at the WBC. As Rizzo's excellent Classic adventure nears an end, he is ready to return to camp and show the Cubs what he's learned.