Cancer survivor's foundation donated more than $4M to hospitals this year
By Carrie Muskat
Anthony Rizzo never forgot how difficult it was for his parents to deal with the news that their son had cancer, and that sparked the Cubs first baseman's efforts to help other families cope with the horrible disease.
In 2012, he created the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, and on Friday, Rizzo received baseball's top humanitarian honor when he was named the recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award.
"To win this is amazing," Rizzo said. "That's the impact we want to make. A lot of organizations do amazing work, and we want to impact families directly. And this foundation, that's what the staple is.
"It's insane over the last few years how many people have come up to me and said how we've helped someone's friend of a friend of a friend, and it gets back to me. To touch lives like that, it's something you can't explain."
Rizzo, who was among 30 individual club nominees, was named as the winner in a ceremony before Houston's 5-3 victory in Game 3 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park. Presenting him the trophy were Commissioner Rob Manfred and Vera Clemente, the wife of the late Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican humanitarian. In the audience were Rizzo's fiancee, Emily, and both of their families, plus members of the Cubs' front office, including Jed Hoyer, the club's executive vice president and general manager.
The award goes to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.
"When we think about our season-long awards, the Roberto Clemente Award is really the most prestigious, because it combines recognition for what the player has done on the field with his work in the community," Manfred said. "It is fitting that this award is named for Roberto Clemente, and I would like to thank Vera, who is here with us today, for continuing to work with us in selecting the winner of the award each year, and for all the great work she does in the community continuing the legacy of her great husband."
In 2008, Rizzo was a Minor League player in the Red Sox organization when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Through treatment, he beat the disease, and he has devoted endless hours to the foundation to help others, hosting a walk-a-thon in his hometown of Parkland, Fla., and fund-raising events in Chicago, such as a "Cook-Off for Cancer" and "Laugh-Off for Cancer."
Rizzo said during the ceremony that he wanted to try to speak "without breaking down here." He said he remembered telling his mother back then that he was "fine" and not to worry about him.
On Aug. 29, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation made a $3.5 million donation to Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, and in September, it pledged another $650,000 to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Health System. The latter funds will be used to create the Hope 44 program to assist families by providing one-on-one counseling and other support to ensure families have the resources they need to care for a child with cancer. The Rizzo Foundation established a Hope 44 program at Lurie's as well.
In case you didn't know, Rizzo wears No. 44.
"Baseball is my passion, I love playing baseball and I want to be the best I can be," Rizzo said. "To be able to reach out and help so many more people on a different level is something I never overlook. Baseball awards are amazing, I work my tail off to be the best I can be, but to be a part of this type of award, I can't even imagine that."
Rizzo, 28, said it was an emotional moment when he was told that he had won the Clemente Award.
"[Clemente] set the bar for all athletes -- especially baseball players -- with all of his charitable work and giving back," Rizzo said.
Manfred praised Rizzo during the ceremony for "his tireless work on behalf of children with cancer. I think probably everyone in this room knows that Anthony is a survivor, himself. Through the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, there has been great work done. They support children's cancer centers both in Florida and in Chicago. They have supported oncology life specialists to help young children deal with the aspects of the disease that are beyond the medical and sponsored camps that children with cancer can go to to have a normal summer kind of experience."
During the Cubs' trip to Pittsburgh in early September, Rizzo visited the Clemente Museum.
"To be a part of this award and all the past winners, it's insane to see where our foundation has come from, and so humbling to be a part of it," he said.
It's also been heartbreaking. On Wednesday, one of the patients Rizzo met when he first started the foundation, Mia, passed away. Rizzo tweeted photos of himself and the girl, saying: "Heartbroken. We lost an incredible girl this morning. Mia you were a warrior until the end. You will be missed but never forgotten."
Heartbroken. We lost an incredible girl this morning. Mia you were a warrior until the end. You will be missed but never forgotten. pic.twitter.com/gaOfRly9Xh
The Rizzo family became close with Mia and her family.
"Every time I saw her, she was a breath of fresh air," Rizzo said. "The last time I saw her was at Wrigley [Field], and she wasn't looking too good, she was in a wheelchair. But I remember her smiling at me. Losing her is tough, because she was close to the foundation.
"Going through this now for five, six years and visiting kids, there's been a lot of positives that we do and help with the families. But when you lose kids who become close to the foundation and are basically a staple of the foundation, it's not easy," Rizzo said. "That's part of doing this. You have lives you're saving, and then you lose some. And when you lose some, it's not easy to deal with."
During the season, Rizzo makes monthly visits to Lurie Hospital. Part of Rizzo's donation in August included upgrading the waiting room there, which included one of his Cubs jerseys framed, which he had patients sign.
"Going to the hospital really keeps you motivated," Rizzo said. "You see the looks on the kids' faces and the families. It's a couple seconds away from reality of what they're going through.
"I keep doing it because I remember when I was sick, and seeing my parents suffer way more than I did. I saw the looks on their faces. I just wanted to make sure they were OK. When I see the kids [at the hospitals], I tell them all the time to be strong for their families."
The concept of honoring Major League players for their philanthropic work was created in 1971 as the Commissioner's Award. But it was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in '73 in honor of the Hall of Famer and 15-time All-Star who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve in '72 while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Vera Clemente, continuing to carry her husband's torch for decades, said in the ceremony that Rizzo "has served as an inspiration to those children who need him the most. God bless you for your work and continued success on and off the field. Congratulations and welcome to the family."
Rizzo received $25,000 for winning the award, and he will donate that money to Puerto Rican hurricane relief efforts in Roberto Clemente's honor.