For nearly a decade, Anthony Rizzo has been the heart and the soul of the Chicago Cubs, riding with the team through good times and bad, championship years and 100-loss years, but on Thursday, it has apparently come to an end, as the first baseman was reportedly traded to the New York Yankees.
The return for Rizzo was a decent one by rental-player standards, with two top-13 prospects coming back to the Cubs from the Yankees. Plenty will be made in the coming days and weeks about Alexander Vizcaino and Kevin Alcantara, or about the fact the Cubs agreed to pay Rizzo’s remaining salary to boost their trade haul, but what will be more difficult for Cubs fans to come to grips with is how to move past the sadness of seeing the first baseman go, and to embrace the incredible legacy that he left behind in Chicago.
The story has been told approximately six million times, but on the day that truly marks the end of an era, it bears repeating just one more time. Rizzo was acquired by the Cubs as one of the first moves of the new Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime in 2012, a baby-faced kid who had already beaten cancer, struggled in his first big league call-up and been part of multiple MLB franchises.
As was to be expected for the fans of a team that ended up losing 101 games in that 2012 season, Rizzo’s arrival was the talk of the fanbase. Never mind that he’d hit just one home run in 153 plate appearances with the Padres. Never mind that he’d batted just .141 there.
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What mattered is that Rizzo was the opening salvo, the first inkling of what could possibly be brewing on the North Side, as the ballpark he called home fundamentally changed, and the teammates that surrounded him followed suit.
First came Anthony. Then came Kyle. Then came Jake and Javier. Then came Jon Lester, Kris Bryant, Joe Maddon and Addison Russell. Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler and David Ross and Miguel Montero and more all were brought in, and the team, an afterthought in 2012 and not much better in the next two seasons, suddenly had new life.
At the center of all of it was Rizzo, whose infectious personality, prodigious power and slick glove made him one of the most popular athletes in the city.
Then, in the blink of an eye, he caught a throw from Bryant, and after 108 years of frustration, heartache and devastation, an entire city erupted, celebrating the coming of a World Series championship that many feared they’d die before they would ever witness.
In the flurry of activity that followed, Rizzo was riding high. He was there, suggestively dancing on “Saturday Night Live.” He was there in filming television ads for the Cubs, donating millions to cancer charities and his incredible foundation, and in general being the type of ambassador that a team would love to have, under any circumstances.
Even as the years went by, and the Cubs tried and failed to get to the heights that they had once climbed to, Rizzo continued to produce, driving in 100 or so runs and clubbing nearly 30 home runs every season like clockwork.
Yes, the first baseman’s back has been balky this season, and yes there’s been a pall cast over the season after he failed to reach a contract extension with the team during spring training, but through it all, Rizzo has been the consummate professional, the ultimate Cub, and that is yet another reason the trade that will send him to the Bronx is ultimately so painful.
Needless to say, we shouldn’t talk about Rizzo like he’s going to be gone from the lives of Cubs fans forever. Undoubtedly he’ll make his way back to the franchise in some way in the future, signing autographs at Sloan Park before spring training games, attending Cubs Convention, and perhaps even seeing his number 44 hoisted to the top of one of the foul poles at Wrigley Field in a retirement ceremony.
Before we get to that point in the (hopefully not-too-near) future, it seems appropriate to pause and to reflect, to think about not only what the Cubs accomplished while Rizzo was wearing the blue pinstripes, but to think about how he embodied what it meant to be a great player, and an even better ambassador for the game, and for his team.