Let’s get one thing straight about Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
He’s not the leader of this team. Or its captain.
At least not as you probably think.
Not that way Mark Messier, intense-and-in-your-face way. Not Kirby Puckett “Jump on, I’m driving the bus” the Game 6 way. Not even Derek Jeter all-business, team spokesman, New York state-of-mind way.
But Rizzo’s style as frontman has been the perfect fit for this team at the moment, during a high-stakes COVID-19 sprint, the Cubs are leading on a three-week mark with a 13-3 record.
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“What is the definition of a leader for you?”
This question, when it comes to Rizzo, has been the subject of almost as much local sports lectures until this season as the kids’ closer situation.
The answer over the years has mostly involved playing 153 games a year with a career .862 OPS, fearless approaches and filling the plate, and at least a dramatic comeback from a “season-ending” ankle injury during a pennant race to homer against the Cardinals.
But no season that the kids have played with Rizzo has ever been built more for what he brings to a clubhouse, between a vicious sense of humor and laughter and what he calls a communication style that is less based on blasting teammates than sending a message “in the right way, in the loving way. “
After a three-month shutdown and long-awaited return to the field under strict test protocols and fanatical conditions, no one has created the humor, and no one has seemed to love the moment more than the team’s ringers for all the dugout “energy” the leader and players keep talking about .
“I think everyone is [raising his leadership efforts], but it starts with Rizz, for sure, ”said teammate Kyle Hendricks. “He has really taken on a lot, being an incredible teammate, the energy he brings every single day, it is definitely on a different level.”
From the hand cleaner in the back pocket of the first runner to reach first base this season, to the “Tony 2 Chainz” bling to Wednesday’s big night at the record in Cleveland – the part of Rizzo’s nature that’s about laughing and trying to lighten the mood for everyone else has never had greater value.
“I don’t know if it’s the circumstances of the year or just a change in his approach,” said first-year manager David Ross, a teammate in 2015-16. “I really want him to just try to have the funniest thing he can possibly be out there on the baseball field at night. He wants success. He will contribute. “
And it’s no coincidence.
After a quick exit from the playoffs in 2018 and the lack of the playoffs last year, Rizzo not only faced the likelihood that the Cubs’ championships were in danger of being broken up into subjects, but also a long look in the mirror at how much he was willing to change to become the kind of leader and influence in the clubhouse he wanted to be.
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He was already a leading face for the franchise, a strong off-field representative and popular personality in the clubhouse – if not the classic, first-to-park, last-to-leave, kick-ass leader.
He may never be the last few things. He said in the spring training that he did not intend to change who he is: “I do not want to meet at. 10 [a.m.] when I usually show up around 2 or 3. It’s pointless to me unless we have something going on. “
But he said Thursday that he took care of the “dialogue” he had with the front office, former manager Joe Maddon and others since the end of last season.
And a season heavy on less-is-more, with limits on how much time players can spend on the ballpark and doing indoor frames and video work, plays into the strengths of his personality and character.
“I keep saying we create our own weather,” Rizzo said of all the noise and cheerleading in the dugout, which is not necessarily new to this team – but recently necessary without fans. “Whether it’s 30 degrees or 100 degrees, that’s how we look at it.”
If Rizzo was as follows earlier in his career, he has clearly shown a shift in recent seasons, no more than this one, with its real world and its sense of borrowing time for the core.
“Anthony Rizzo has matured a lot since we played together, in a great way,” Ross said. Not that he was immature before. But he continues to grow and wants to be the leader he knows he is. And he has these qualities. “
Teammates say they have noticed small differences in Rizzo, even since last year, in a willingness to approach a teammate with something he has noticed, or even take responsibility for an exercise that is not being done right.
Rizzo said it only works “when guys know it’s coming from the right place and coming from the heart,” he said, noting the change in clubhouse cultures since his San Diego debut in 2011. “It’s not,” Call someone out in front of the whole team ‘longer. My first few years it was more of it.
“You’re just learning more and more now, it’s not the right way to do it that much more because guys want to crawl a little more into a hole and lose your confidence.”
If he rises to 31 in a “leader” role, it’s more of a natural order, Rizzo suggested, more the core of players should rise after former veterans John Lackey, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero or even Ross cycled out of the clubhouse as players.
But don’t confuse Rizzo with Jason Heyward as a guy who will suddenly call the next rain delay meeting inspiring a clubhouse to change baseball history. That’s still not necessarily Rizzo’s way.
It’s not like he needs anyone to “hit a ‘C’ on the chest,” as some of our favorite, amplified TV companies like to shout.
“It’s just paying attention,” Rizzo said. “Running from being a leader is the quote-unote quote for the franchise, no matter where you want to say it. It embraces it and makes sure everyone is ok in all aspects, whether it’s our bullpen, whether it’s guys not playing every day – just pick the guys up and make them feel okay. And in return, those are the same things that guys do for me. “
It’s also the chains on Wednesday. And the pocket with hand cleaner in the opener. And whatever he has in store behind the smile tomorrow.
“He does a great job of leading,” Ross said, “and is an example of having fun.”
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