How Anthony Rizzo became Cubs’ core player of the decade

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How Anthony Rizzo became Cubs’ core player of the decade originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

“Slap a ‘C’ on his chest! Take that!”

For years my friend David Kaplan said some version of that every time the subject of Anthony Rizzo came up in conversation.

And every time, my pushback was some version of the same thing: He’s not the “captain” or “leader” the way you think he is.

He’s the face of the Cubs and a competitor; he cares; he’s an exceptional player; he’s a team guy; he’s accountable; and he has the kind of personality and nature that can help many around him stay loose in pressure moments.

But the edge and red-ass, hard-truths demeanor of the classic player with the “C” on his chest?

That ain’t Rizzo.

Unless that “C” stands for culture. Because in close to a decade with the Cubs, that might be what Rizzo came to embody as much as anything during the rise and eventual fall of the core that was built around him.

A perfect fit with manager Joe Maddon’s work-smarter-not-harder, embrace-the-target culture during the team’s pre-COVID golden era (2015-19), Rizzo was at least a little bit of everything the Cubs represented during that stretch: swagger, party-room celebrations, hard-nosed play on the field, good-natured rapport with fans and media off of it and the embrace of Maddon’s annual American Legion Week (late arrivals and no batting practice).

And with a nod to all that talent, success and child-like spirit Rizzo brought to the Cubs we look back on the 10-year anniversary of his acquisition in a Jan. 6 trade from the Padres and six defining moments for him in Chicago since:

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Rizzo vs. the Reds, July 10, 2014

Overshadowing the debut of Kyle Hendricks was one of the seminal moments in the Cubs’ rise to competitiveness when a fed-up Rizzo finally responded to several innings of increasing tensions between the last-place Cubs and division-contending Reds by dropping his glove and stalking toward the Reds’ animated dugout along the first-base line.

Rizzo was stopped before he could get to loudest-mouth Mat Latos or any of the other Reds in in the dugout, and nobody was injured in the bench-clearing incident it sparked.

But the fight in Rizzo that day set the tone for a team on the brink of turning a corner into 2015 and would come to define a lot of what he and the Cubs showed over the next five-plus years.

“Just trying to be a good teammate, trying to stick up for my teammates,” Rizzo said that day.

The Final Out, Nov. 2, 2016

In contrast to the look on Rizzo’s face that day in Cincinnati was the sheer joy he showed two years, four months and 250 miles away in Cleveland when he caught the throw from Bryzzo pal Kris Bryant for the final out of a championship that ended a 108-year drought/curse.

The 101-loss season his first year in Chicago, watching friends get traded during three seasons of a tanking rebuild, the frustrating sweep at the hands of the Mets in the NLCS in 2015 — all of it washed away in the moment more than a century in the making.

He and the Cubs reached the top of the baseball world at the same time. Rizzo hit .360 with a 1.084 OPS during that seven-game series, the culmination of a third straight All-Star season that also included one of his four Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and a fourth-place MVP finish. It was a high point during a four-year career peak (2014-17) during which Rizzo hit .282 with a .910 OPS, more than 30 homers each season and during which the Cubs reached the NLCS three times.

“We’re in the books! We’re in history forever! This team is brothers forever no matter what!” Rizzo shouted into the TV cameras over the celebration on a cold, wet field after that final out in Cleveland in 2016.

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The Limp and the Homer, Sept. 19, 2019

Four days after suffering what appeared to be a season-ending ankle injury, Rizzo was using a medical scooter to keep weight off the ankle as he made his way between the trainer’s room and clubhouse before the game — then shocked the Wrigley faithful and everybody in the press box by taking his position to start the game as the Cubs opened a critical series against the first-place Cardinals.

Shades of Willis Reed in 1970 and Kirk Gibson in 1988, Rizzo even delivered a tying home run in the third inning to a deafening ovation.

Eventually, the Cubs lost the game and would go on to miss the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, with Maddon getting fired at the end of the season. But not for lack of desire.

“I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves,” Rizzo said on a night teammate Javy Báez also returned from a broken thumb in a pinch-running role.

“It’s just mind over matter really.”

The Vax Facts, June 11, 2021

Rizzo’s leadership persona took its biggest hit when the face of the franchise became the highest-profile player in the majors to acknowledge he wasn’t vaccinated — especially significant, if not surprising, in the context of his role in 2020 rallying teammates to abide by stricter-than-mandated protocols to help the Cubs become the only team without a player testing positive for COVID-19 that year.

Rizzo quickly became a symbol (along with teammate Jason Heyward in subsequent days) for one of the least vaccinated teams in the majors.

Rizzo, who contracted COVID after being traded to the Yankees, called the decision personal and mentioned “taking some more time to see the data” on vaccines before possibly re-evaluating.

His role as a veteran leader made the decision especially hard, “big time,” he said.

“Obviously, there’s people that are going to hate me and think I’m disgusting, and there’s going to be people that side with me.”

Part of his response to the pregame flap: A 14-pitch at-bat that resulted in a tying home run in the sixth inning of a game the Cubs would win on the way to a sweep of the Cardinals.

A Trade for a Decade, Jan. 6, 2012

Trading Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop was without a doubt the best and most significant trade Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made during their regime. But the four-player deal that landed Rizzo and sent pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Padres isn’t far behind.

A cancer survivor who was diagnosed and underwent treatments as a minor-leaguer in Epstein’s and Hoyer’s Red Sox organization years earlier, Rizzo was so well regarded by the brass that Hoyer — after becoming the Padres general manager in 2010 — demanded him in the trade for Adrian Gonzalez.

Hoyer and Epstein then got the chance to trade for him one more time, and Rizzo debuted for the Cubs a few months later in 2012, playing well enough to record three game-winning RBIs in his first five games and become an immediate fan favorite and top hope for the rebuild. He eventually signed a seven-year, $41 million deal in 2013 before logging a full year in the big leagues, outperforming the contract to earn contract options and bonuses that raised the value to nine years, $73 million.

That first week of 2012 also included a trade that sent mercurial All-Star pitcher Carlos Zambrano — who had “retired” in anger a few months earlier and been suspended by the team — to Miami, making that week an overall dawn of a new direction under the new regime.

A Trade for the Heartstrings, July 29, 2021

Four months after turning down a lowball extension offer of four years, $70 million, Rizzo became the first of the Big Three championship-core players to be traded at the deadline — going to the Yankees for a pair of young prospects on an emotional day for him and many teammates.

Within 20 hours, Bryant and Báez would be gone, too, as an historic flurry of moves gutted the roster of All-Stars from the 2016 championship and brought an unceremonious end to an era, an end to a six-year run with the same core that in some ways was the greatest in Cubs history.

“This city will be ingrained in my heart the rest of my life,” said Rizzo about an hour after the trade — just about the time the Cubs’ bus left Wrigley Field without him for the next road trip. And just before the dozens of remaining fans outside the ballpark got the chance to cheer him loudly one final time before he, too, left Wrigleyville.

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