All eyes are on Anthony Rizzo in possibly his last year as a Cubon March 28, 2021 at 1:00 pm

So much was wrong with the Cubs on July 10, 2014.

They were 14 games under .500, losers of six in a row and trying to avoid being swept in the fifth and final game of a miserable series in Cincinnati. They bore the hopeless stench of sellers, too, having just traded away starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and their sub-3.00 ERAs. They might as well have been wearing “Kick me” signs on their backs instead of names and numbers.

Not that every last thing was terrible. For one, a modestly regarded pitcher by the name of Kyle Hendricks threw six innings that day in his major-league debut, and who knew where that might lead him? For another, 24-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo would learn — after a 12-inning victory — that he had made his first All-Star roster.

But in the ninth inning, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman toyed with the Cubs, terrorizing batter Nate Schierholtz with dangerous fastballs up and in and chirping at the visitors’ dugout after an inning-ending strikeout.

The Reds’ chatter continued as Rizzo warmed up his fellow infielders before the bottom of the frame, and that’s when he snapped. He walked toward the home dugout, threw down his glove and dared them to come out, which, of course, they all did.

If there was a moment when Rizzo became a leader of the Cubs, that was it.

“It was very meaningful,” said then-outfielder Chris Coghlan, “because back then we just got kicked around a lot. We were just kind of nice guys who maybe — who knows? — were going to be good in a couple of years. That was the reputation we had with other teams.

“What Rizz did that day was stand up as a leader — which you don’t often see from guys with superstar skill sets — and let it be known that things were changing right now.”

Driving home in his rented BMW from the Cubs’ spring-training facility in Mesa, Arizona, on the next-to-last day of February, Rizzo, now 31, reflected on a day that seemed like ages ago.

“I was just standing up for my guys, my teammates,” he said. “To this day, it’s what matters most in this game. You hear so many baseball legends and guys who only played for a few years talking all about, ‘How was this guy as a teammate?’ Not, ‘Wow, he had a really good swing,’ or, ‘He could throw the slider down and away whenever he wanted.’ When you get back with the guys out of the game now, it’s all talk about how guys were as teammates. That’s how you want to be known.”

Isn’t 2021 the perfect opportunity, then, for Rizzo to do it again? To stand up for a team that — let’s face it — is widely considered to have seen better days? A lot of people out there are taking the Cubs more lightly than they have since at least the first half of 2015, but, hey, what the hell do they know, anyway?

It kind of feels as though if the guy teammate Jason Heyward calls “Superman” won’t throw down the gauntlet, it won’t even matter if anyone else does.

So, Rizzo?

“No,” he said.

Come again?

“There are reasons to have doubt, in my opinion. We haven’t played to our potential, and we’ve had early exits the last few years. I don’t think we’ve won a playoff game.”

That’s true — not since the 2017 National League Championship Series loss to the Dodgers.

“But we have a lot to prove, and that’s good,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. We have a lot to prove climbing the mountain. We don’t feel like we’re on top of that now and we can’t get any higher, and it’s a good feeling when you start climbing the mountain again. Being positive is great, but there’s a lot of work and a lot of the basics that you have to get back to to be a great team.”

Rizzo isn’t spoiling for a fight. He just wants to get after it on the field and have some fun. On a team with many key players in free-agent walk years — Kris Bryant and Javy Baez, newcomers Joc Pederson, Jake Arrieta and Zach Davies, plus Rizzo, too — fun might be just what the doctor ordered.

A FEW DAYS BEFORE LEAVING for the desert, Rizzo attended a nephew’s T-ball practice in Florida. Try to imagine such a star taking in that kind of nascent baseball scene. Something about it hit Rizzo like a ton of fluffy, delightful bricks, and he walked away from the field smiling.

“It’s just the perspective of what we get to do for a living, you know?” he said. “It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the business, and I’m guilty of it, you know what I mean? I want to make as much money as I can, be paid for my value as much as I can, more than anyone. But that’s the business side of it.”

At bat, Rizzo crowds the plate and dares pitchers to hit him. In the field, he charges toward the batter’s box with abandon on expected bunts, putting himself at unimaginable risk. Sounds fun, right? But it is, which to him is the whole point. And sometimes it all just has away of bringing that smile to his face that Cubs fans never tire of seeing.

“The easiest part is playing,” he said. “You put in all this work, train in the offseason, spring training, at-bats every day, cage work, and then you get on the field and it’s time to shine. It sounds so simple to put it that way, but that’s what we’re doing.

“When you start taking it too seriously, when it starts to get out of hand and you stop having fun, that’s when, for me, it gets too much. I like to have fun and laugh and make everybody happy. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work. But it’s a game that we’ve played forever, and that’s what you’ve got to keep as much as you can. That is the joy of the game, playing it like a little kid.”

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer anticipates challenges with the players in walk years — “dealing with guys and their anxieties, things like that,” he puts it — and that’s probably wise. It’s high on the list of loose ends for manager David Ross to attempt to wrangle, up there with hitters’ overall decision-making at the plate, which Hoyer says has “degraded over the past three or four years,” and the team’s inability to find offensive success against hard-throwing pitchers.

The size and scope of the walk-year situation is unlike anything predecessor Joe Maddon had to contend with.

“It’s on my radar,” Ross said. “It’s definitely something I’ve talked about. But I really value the quality of the human being we have in that locker room, and the guys are going to go through that. Surely, it’s on everybody’s mind.”

It definitely was on Rizzo’s mind in the months before he left for Mesa. That’s in part a result of the goodbyes he has been forced to say to some people he loved: Maddon, Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber. But the uncertainty of his own future never really unsettled Rizzo. Quite the opposite.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said, “because you worked hard to get to free agency and you’re one year away, and it’s just, ‘Let’s go play and have fun.’ Go out and play and just be Anthony Rizzo, be Kris Bryant, be Javy Baez. Don’t be anyone else. We’re all confident that, by the end, it’ll all speak for itself.”

And if this is the last dance for Rizzo with the Cubs?

“Obviously, this time next year, I could be wearing a totally different uniform,” he said. “But when that time comes, I know I’ll have zero regrets with my time here, and I’ll have so many friendships that will last forever. Some of my best friends live in Chicago and have nothing to do with the Chicago Cubs, that I just met from being in Chicago. I’ll see their kids be raised. We’ll still hang out. And all the interactions in the city? Man.

“There’s still so much to focus on this year. That’s the baseball mentality: next day, next pitch, where you have to be, when you haveto do it. But when that time comes? I’m sure it’ll be emotional because that’s how I am.”

THIS, YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE: Rizzo has never watched a full recording of the Cubs’ celebration in Cleveland after winning the World Series in 2016. He remembers certain details, such as hugging Bryant near the mound — “just two innocent kids just loving the game like nothing else mattered,” he recalled — but he hasn’t seen and re-seen (and then seen again) the videos like so many of us have.

“I mean, I lived it,” he said. “I lived it, and I know I had a great time in the moment. What a great gift, something you’ll never, ever, ever, ever forget. Ever. You’ll tell stories forever about it because of how special it was.”

By this point, does discussing 2016 feel a bit like living in the past? Has he tired at all of the subject?

“No, I don’t get tired of it,” he said. “It was the greatest year of my life.”

What he wouldn’t give to have another one like it, to bring another championship to the North Side, to shed joyful tears at another parade. Many in Chicago and throughout baseball thought the title of five years ago wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — be the last one claimed by Rizzo and company. The goal of following up with No. 2 hasn’t disappeared, but it sure seems more distant these days.

Working out at a gym not long after the Cubs’ curse-busting triumph, Rizzo was approached by an older fellow — a New England Patriots fan.

“Congratulations,” the man said. “But you haven’t done [expletive] until the whole country hates you. That’s when you know you’re really good.”

In other words, it takes more than one. How surprised is Rizzo that it didn’t — or hasn’t yet — happened again?

“First off, it’s not done,” he said. “It could still happen.

“But I’m not shocked. You’re giving your all. There’s really no regrets. The other team is better than us. It’s unfortunate, but we always did everything we could. When you look back and say, ‘Oh, we should have won more,’ no. We put everything we had into it. It’s not like there was anyone ever taking a day off of anything. And when you do that, you just let it all play out.”

And if the Cubs haven’t managed to make the whole country hate them, they’ve at least turned their own fans a little salty. “Wait till next year” left the building when Bryant threw that ball to Rizzo for the final out of Game 7, and it’s never coming back.

“We’ve turned a franchise that was all about losing to expectations of, like, really winning,” Rizzo said. “I know it was always, ‘Wait till next year,’ but that kind of was a laughingstock. We turned that into, ‘We expect you to win, and if you don’t, we’re very pissed off at our team,’ which is something that you want. We have flipped a fan base, and that’s awesome. That’s amazing.”

Before the Cubs took on the Mets — and were swept in four games — in the 2015 NLCS, Rizzo had a great feeling.

“I was absolutely convinced we were winning the World Series,” he said. “I would’ve put my life savings on it because that’s how good that team was.”

He had a similar feeling heading into the 2020 playoffs, even though he, Baez, Bryant and others had struggled during a 60-game regular season to hit. Maybe it was the closeness players shared after months inside a pandemic bubble where breaking health-and-safety protocols and testing positive for COVID-19 were lines no one — and no other big-league team could say this — crossed.

That’s it. That’s exactly what it was.

“We were just so committed to each other,” Rizzo said.

And so when they didn’t win — after the Marlins finished them off in two wild-card games at Wrigley Field — Rizzo found himself not wanting to leave the ballpark, not wanting it all to be over. One player after another met the media on Zoom, already showered and dressed to hit the road. Last to come on was Rizzo, still wearing his blue Cubs undershirt and cap.

“Just numb,” he said then. “This just sucks.”

It did suck. You know what else will? Heck, maybe nothing. Maybe it’llall be too fun. Maybe it’ll all be great. Or maybe it won’t.

“Either way,” Rizzo said after putting the BMW in park and cutting the engine, “I’m really happy to be here.”

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