Yankees will richly benefit from Anthony Rizzo’s leadership and character

Anthony Rizzo has been on a tear since joining the New York Yankees.|Art or Photo Credit: AP

The aggressiveness of the New York Yankees at Major League Baseball’s trading deadline was not surprising given their deep commitment to always fielding a championship-caliber ball club. However, the most ardent of fans was thoroughly impressed with how the franchise addressed specific needs. A jolt of energy and confidence has been injected into the Yankees’ clubhouse thanks to the newest additions beginning with first baseman Anthony Rizzo. His baseball intelligence, outstanding defensive skills and jovial personality have defined a successful career amid his eleventh Major League season. Rizzo’s tremendous depth as a ball player goes well beyond a slick fielding glove or a solid hitter who regularly demonstrates exhibitions of power.

Rizzo is a survivor in every sense of the word who plays with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation. He takes tremendous pride in building meaningful relationships with teammates, coaches, fans and those who need help. An aura of youthful exuberance and candor always seems to surround Rizzo even in moments of great stress. During FOX’s Game 7 coverage of the 2016 World Series, former Chicago Cubs catcher and current manager, David Ross, was wearing a microphone and an exchange between him and Rizzo spoke volumes about both men. As Rizzo approached the veteran on the top step of the dugout, he professed being an emotional wreck due to the enormity of the ball game while Ross was encouraging him to breathe and refocus.

In retrospect, Rizzo has faced far greater adversities in life than the pressures of a World Series which would eventually break a 108-year championship drought for the Cubs. A sixth-round draft selection by the Boston Red Sox in 2007 out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Rizzo had just started his promising Minor League career in 2008 as he was devastated with a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis at 18-years-old. As he endured a grueling six months of chemotherapy, Rizzo confronted life or death moments with the realization that cancer isn’t an individual battle, but one an entire family goes through together.

As a cancer survivor, Rizzo has made a concerted effort to be of service to others while raising awareness. The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation was founded in 2012 and has been deeply involved in providing financial and emotional support to patients and families battling pediatric cancer. In May 2017, the foundation established two endowed funds totaling $3.5 million at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Additional donations have been made to the hospital in the ensuing years. As a token of profound gratitude, the hospital’s 18th floor waiting room was renamed after the foundation.

Rizzo’s extraordinary generosity goes well beyond the city of Chicago and into his home state of Florida. In December 2019, the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida received a $1 million gift from the foundation in the form of two endowments. Rizzo is gearing up for another active offseason of philanthropic work in which he will host the 10th annual Walk-Off for Cancer in Parkland, Florida this November. A man defined by humility and benevolence; Major League Baseball presented Rizzo with the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award in 2017 for his tireless work.

It has become a common occurrence to see Rizzo visiting sick children in hospitals and consoling families who are confronting the enormous burdens that accompany pediatric cancer. However, his greatest outpouring of love might have occurred hours after the horrific mass shooting at his alma mater on February 14, 2018, in which 17 people were killed and another 17 were wounded in another despicable act of gun violence. Rizzo left Spring Training in Arizona and returned home to Parkland, Florida to comfort the grieving because Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is deeply woven into his heart and soul.

A day after the unspeakable tragedy, Rizzo attended a candlelight vigil consumed with unimaginable pain and suffering. However, he found the composure necessary to inspire and support an emotionally distraught community through a few words. Rizzo expressed the importance of alleviating pain by taking care of each other. His message was simple, yet effective: love, compassion and kindness.

The Class of 2007 graduate eloquently summarized the deplorable cycle of gun violence destroying the United States. At first, Rizzo said we are horrified by gun violence inflicted upon children. The next response is anger because there is nothing anyone can do about it. Finally, we sadly become immune and move on until it happens again and maybe it occurs in our town, movie theaters, churches, schools or nightclubs. Rizzo might have been acquainted with only some of the students, but he cared so deeply about everyone who was a part of this special school community.

Rizzo announced his presence with authority and played a prominent role in the Yankees sweeping the Miami Marlins in his first three-game-series with the ball club. According to the YES Network, Rizzo is only the seventh Yankee to have a run batted in and team win in his first three games with the ball club. This feat was last accomplished by Hideki Matsui during the 2003 season. Over 13 plate appearances in Miami, Rizzo hit an eye popping 1.915 on-base plus slugging (OPS) with two home runs and five runs scored.

YES Network analyst Paul O’Neill has been effusive in his praise of Rizzo. His enthusiasm is evident thanks to how Rizzo approaches his at-bats and situational hitting. O’Neill has noticed Rizzo’s ability to handle outside pitches and how he stands on top of home plate. Most importantly, Rizzo has impressed O’Neill with how he can make hard contact going to the opposite field without trying to do too much with the pitch thrown to him.

Rizzo’s presence in the dugout also had an immediate impact on his new teammates. There were far more smiles and expressions of happiness because of direct contact with Rizzo. The Yankees have struggled all season in terms of offensive production at first base and consistency from a solid left-handed hitter. Thanks to Rizzo’s arrival, it feels as if manager Aaron Boone can fill out a far more balanced and effective lineup card.

One cannot view Rizzo as the quintessential rental ball player whose stay in the Bronx might only last for a few months. He also should not be taken for granted as another All-Star caliber ball player in a galaxy of stars in the Yankees universe. Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon once called Rizzo “the rock on the field.” Upon trading Rizzo to the Yankees, the Cubs’ Twitter account called the four-time National League Gold Glove Award winner the heart and soul of the greatest Cubs team of all time.

In an era where analytics and Statcast technology occasionally overshadow a ball player’s intangibles, Anthony Rizzo is providing the Yankees with exactly what they need at a critical point in the season: leadership, character and experience. Even as Rizzo has immediately provided stability to the Yankees’ lineup, his greatest attributes will likely be demonstrated in one-on-one exchanges with teammates through words of encouragement. Life has taught Rizzo many valuable lessons and one of them is never to quit in the face of adversity.