While it would be easy to say that Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo’s performance Monday night was a great one in the context of a single game, the reality is that it was actually the culmination of five years of trials, tribulations, and ultimately rebirth on the North Side.
It is that reality that makes Monday’s game, a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers that came after the team raised their 2016 World Series title banner. That banner, which was hoisted by the players themselves in a ceremony honoring the 1907 and 1908 championship teams, is a symbol of the five-year rebuilding process that transformed the Cubs into a contender after many years of being an after-thought on the baseball landscape.
Naturally, as the flag fluttered above the bleachers and the Cubs ground out a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, a question hung in the air along with the clouds and cold of the evening: which cog in the machinery of the Cubs is the most important?
There are, of course, a million different answers to this question. One could easily point the finger toward Theo Epstein, who oversees the whole baseball operation, made all of the hires and trades and signings necessary for Monday night to be possible. One could single out Joe Maddon, who established the clubhouse culture and pulled all the right levers both in game situations and in maximizing the abilities of the players he leads.
If your attention turns toward the dugout instead, the reigning National League MVP is a tremendous option, as Kris Bryant represents one of the most versatile and powerful threats of any player currently wearing a big league uniform.
All three of those men are great options, and there are many more like them, but the one player that is likely the biggest and most vital cog in the whole outfit was also the one that took center stage in just about every situation on Monday night: Anthony Vincent Rizzo.
Rizzo, who slugged 32 home runs for the Cubs a season ago, has been here virtually since the beginning of the Epstein/Hoyer rebuilding project, as he was acquired in one of the first trades that the new regime made.
He struggled through three years of terrible baseball, where the Cubs lost hundreds of games and caused fans to question their sanity in continuing to consume what was a substandard (by design, of course) product on the field.
Amid all of that losing, however, Rizzo established himself as the centerpiece, as the heartbeat of the Cubs’ organization. His infectious enthusiasm was present even in those dark days of the rebuild, but more importantly he demonstrated the kind of heart and leadership that fans rarely see in a player so young.
His angry outburst in a 2014 game against the Cincinnati Reds has rightfully become the stuff of legend. Undaunted by the number of red jerseys in front of him, Rizzo angrily challenged the entire Reds squad to a fight in a meaningless game, and while it may not have been the smartest idea for his own well-being, it showed something else about him:
It showed that he cared about being a Chicago Cub.
That, perhaps more than any other characteristic, is what makes Rizzo the key ingredient in what has become a recipe for success. The first baseman is talented on the field, charitable and giving off of it, and he has the wonderful knack of being all things to all people, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
Need a player who can help sell your vision of the future with his prodigious power and his magnetic personality? Rizzo is your guy. Need a player who can share his powerful personal story of overcoming cancer to help those sick and affected with the insidious disease feel like there’s hope? Rizzo can cover that base.
That really is the theme here. Rizzo, able to be all things to all people, always seems to be in the middle of everything, and in a day and age where executives often have to pick different guys to be the “character guy,” or the leader, or the best player on the field, he manages to fill all of those roles, and in doing so he has became the face of one of the best teams to ever take the field in the Windy City.
On Monday, it became abundantly clear that Rizzo is the straw that stirs the drink on the north side. There he was leading the team into the right field bleachers, and he was one of the first players to help hoist the championship banner. There he was leading the team back onto the field, carrying the World Series trophies that generations of Cubs fans thought would forever be out of their grasp.
There he was, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied game, smacking a single to score the game-winning run, and there he was, in the middle of the madcap celebration that followed as the team raucously celebrated their first home win of their title defense.