By Randy Richardson
Could this finally be the year?
No, not the year that the Chicago Cubs break their 108-year World Series drought – though that doesn’t seem like such an outlandish possibility this year and would certainly be most welcome.
But rather the year that the team’s star first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, finally wins the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given annually to the Major League Baseball (MLB) player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution this his team.”
On Tuesday, MLB announced that 30 players, one from each team, had been nominated for the philanthropic award, which has been given out annually since 1971 and since 1973 has been named in the memory of the Pittsburgh Pirate great who died in a plane crash delivering relief supplies to the victims of the Nicaragua earthquake.
Rizzo, 27, was the Cubs’ nominee for the fourth consecutive year, dating back to 2013, his second year on the team.
So far, he’s 0-for-3.
He’s due. Overdue, really.
This, the Year of the Cubs, seems like it should be the year. The Cubs are the team with the league’s best record. The team with the player who will likely win the National League Most Valuable Player Award, Kris Bryant (unless teammate Rizzo manages to upset him). And the team with three strong candidates for the Cy Young Award – the incumbent, Jake Arrieta, and his two challengers, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.
Rizzo is unquestionably the team’s leader on the field. With the exception of reliever Travis Wood, Rizzo has the longest tenure of any Cub. And he has taken it upon himself to lead the way for all those who have come on board. He plays hard, always hustles and never gives up – even if it means climbing up on a brick wall to make a catch in foul territory.
“I think the whole leadership thing in baseball gets overrated,” Lester said to Sports Illustrated in a recent Rizzo profile for the magazine. “What I’ve seen over two years is that he’s a leader because he goes out and plays hard every single day. He almost never takes a day off. Never takes at bats off. Believe me, he’s so important to us that everybody notices that. That’s leadership.”
Then there’s Rizzo’s off-the-field leadership, which is truly something special.
To understand Rizzo is to understand what he has survived. No one knows that better than his teammate, Lester, who met Rizzo on May 16, 2008, soon after Rizzo, then a minor league prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was Cubs president Theo Epstein, then the Red Sox’s general manager, who arranged the meeting.
“Even though it’s not our family, it really is a family when you’re in an organization, and so our hearts are going out to him,” Epstein said in a 2015 MLB Network mini-documentary about the Cubs’ young slugger. “We were panicking a little bit and then when Anthony showed up, he was almost like the calming influence. It was remarkable. We’d just been through it a few years earlier with Jon Lester. Here’s someone who had just got through what Anthony’s now going through and had beat it and was back thriving.”
Lester recalled: “(Epstein) kind of pulled me aside and said we got this 18-year-old kid who was just diagnosed with cancer and he just wants to talk to you.”
For Epstein, it seemed the right move at the right time. “You couldn’t get a better person for (Rizzo) to talk to, so he could feel like he wasn’t the only one and feel like there’s a roadmap back,” Epstein said.
“You could tell he was weak,” said Lester. “You could tell he was just trying to hold himself together. You’re just trying to be as positive as you can for an 18-year-old kid who has all his hopes and dreams ripped away in a 20-minute conversation with a doctor…We ended up sitting in there for almost an hour if not longer and just talked – talked about his fears, my fears, what I went through.”
Just last week, Rizzo marked the eight-year anniversary of the day he received the news that his cancer was in remission.
He has never forgotten that day and has been paying it forward ever since. In 2012, soon after he joined the Cubs, he started the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to raise money for cancer research and to provide support to children and their families battling the disease. Since its inception, the foundation has made a huge impact by raising nearly $2 million for pediatric cancer research and support.
But maybe as much or even more than the foundation, it is Rizzo himself that is making the impact. He has become a familiar face at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, where he makes monthly visits to those in the pediatric oncology floor, bringing Cubs souvenirs to patients and their families, as well as signing autographs and taking photos.
Back in 2004, a fan diagnosed with leukemia asked Rizzo to hit a home run for him. Rizzo did the fan one better, hitting two homers in a game against the Padres and making a special gesture to the fan both times as he crossed home plate.
Just last month, Rizzo responded to the Facebook page of 22-month-old Iowan Parker Hopkins, which documented the youngster’s battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Rizzo wrote a letter to the family detailing his own battle with the disease and chipped in financial support as well, as his foundation donated $2,500 to the family.
Only two Cubs have won the Roberto Clemente Award, Rick Sutcliffe in 1987 and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Rizzo deserves to be the third.
“All the baseball stuff is great, but I like what he’s done, what he’s grown into as a man and a person,” Lester told MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat. “A lot of guys that age don’t think about that stuff. For him to put in that effort and time is pretty special. He’s definitely a good guy to have in Chicago to keep raising awareness.”
You – the fans – can help to make it happen. Beginning today, MLB’s recognition of the 15h annual Roberto Clemente Day, fans are encouraged to participate in the new process of selecting the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award by posting any nominee’s voting hashtags to MLB’s official social media accounts, @MLB on Twitter and Facebook.com/Cubs.
Rizzo’s hashtag is #VoteRizzo. Voting continues to Oct. 2.
In Chicago tradition, vote early and vote often!
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation