No cape necessary; Rizzo earns first Clemente Award

Earlier this week Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo was in the news but not for baseball. No, the Dodgers had made sure of that by knocking out the Cubs decisively the previous week in the National League Championship Series. That series had not been a good one for Rizzo. In 17 at bats, he’d collected one hit (a single) and one walk for a .059 BA.

So if not baseball for what was Rizzo in the news? Was he caught taking out his frustrations in a bar fight on TMZ?

No, he was in the news for a kind gesture he made to a pediatric cancer patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Twelve-year-old Abby Schrage had a signed Rizzo photo hanging on the window of her room in the intensive care unit. She’s battling brain cancer and that photo of Rizzo, a former cancer patient, was her beacon of hope. And it was missing.

When he heard Abby’s story, Rizzo sprung to action. He sent Abby a signed jersey and a new photo to hang in her hospital room. He also gifted her family with tickets to the Cubs 2018 home opener.

No cape necessary. These kinds of stories are old hat for the 28-year-old star baseball player.

That’s why Rizzo was the Cubs’ nominee this year for 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.”

It marked the fifth straight year, dating back to 2013, Rizzo’s second year on the Cubs, the team had nominated him 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.

Entering 2017, Rizzo was 0-for-4.

As of yesterday, Rizzo is 1-for-5. MLB announced that he is this year’s winner of the prestigious award, selected out of the 30 individual team nominees. The best .200 hitter you’ll ever find.

If you know anything about Rizzo, he’s best when he’s down in the count. He chokes up on the bat and battles every pitch. How he is at the plate is how he is in life in general.

Rizzo is unquestionably the team’s leader on the field. He 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,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said to Sports Illustrated in a 2016 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 month, Rizzo marked the nine-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.

Last year, 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 familydetailing his own battle with the disease and chipped in financial support as well, as his foundation donated $2,500 to the family.

Rizzo is only the third Cub to have won the Roberto Clemente Award, following Rick Sutcliffe in 1987 and Sammy Sosa in 1998.

Third seems about right for Rizzo. That’s always been his place in the batting order.

“To win this is amazing,” Rizzo said during the awards ceremony announcement. “That’s the impact we want to make. A lot of organizations do amazing work, and we want to impact families directly. And this foundation, that’s what the staple is.

“It’s insane over the last few years how many people have come up to me and said how we’ve helped someone’s friend of a friend of a friend, and it gets back to me. To touch lives like that, it’s something you can’t explain.”

No cape necessary.

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation. He is presently working on a book about celebrity Cubs fans with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate.