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Rizzo's rise rooted in staying grounded

Rizzo's rise rooted in staying grounded

Rizzo's rise rooted in staying grounded
CHICAGO -- When Anthony Rizzo was 3 years old, his father, John, used to practice his chip shots in the house. Anthony would try to catch the golf balls, and John would test his son by hitting them faster and faster.

"He'd say, 'Dad, hit me balls, hit me balls,'" John Rizzo said, sitting in the stands at Wrigley Field before a recent Cubs game, watching his son take batting practice. "That's when I knew he could catch anything. He had a good eye."

"When I was younger, I did everything," Anthony said. "It was crazy in a good way."

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Everything included playing ice hockey, and Anthony was good enough, his father said, to consider that as a career. But Anthony, who once caught and pitched in the same youth baseball game, shakes his head when asked about other sports.

"I always wanted to play baseball -- from when I was little until all the way up," Anthony said.

He's all the way up to 22 years of age, and what's crazy is his impact on the Cubs. The first baseman has hit .356 with four home runs, four doubles and 10 RBIs in 15 games since he was inserted into the No. 3 spot. The Cubs are 11-4 with Rizzo in the lineup.

Anthony Rizzo is very low key. He hit his first Cubs home run on June 30 off the Astros' J.A. Happ and pointed to the stands where his parents were sitting. That's about as demonstrative as he'll get. Usually, his dad says, Anthony will simply nod his head.

"When he hit his first home run, he had to be 5 or 6 years old, and he went running and jumping around the bases," John Rizzo said. "I yelled at him after that. [I told him to be] humble. 'If you ever hit a home run again, it's a humbling thing. You don't show off, you just walk around the bases real nice, and maybe tip your hat.' Ever since then, he's been nice about the home run.

"He's a good kid," John said. "It's all him. You can learn so much from your parents. My other son is a really good kid, too."

Anthony's older brother, John, 25, was an offensive lineman and played Division I football. He had a scholarship offer to play at Rutgers, which would've meant tons of family in the stands. John and Laurie Rizzo are both from New Jersey, moving to Florida in 1985. But young John's grandfather was ill, and the boy wanted to be stay nearby, so he picked Florida Atlantic.

"We're a real close family," dad said.

That strong bond helped them get through difficult times in April 2008. The Red Sox drafted Rizzo in the sixth round in '07. The next year, he was assigned to Class A Greenville, beginning what should have been his first full season of Minor League baseball. He played only 21 games.

"I was with him in Greenville, and he didn't tell me what was going on, that his ankles were swelling up," John Rizzo said. "For a couple weeks, he was stuffing his feet into his socks and they looked like giant sausages. He wanted to play."

Anthony was diagnosed with limited stage classical Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that originates from white blood cells.

"I didn't try to hide it," Anthony said. "I was hitting .360 in April, so I was like, 'I don't want to stop.' I was doing good. One of the guys finally said, 'That's not normal.'"

John got a call the day after he left Greenville.

"The Red Sox flew him to Boston, and he went to Boston General [Hospital] and all the doctors took care of him," John said. "The Red Sox were really good. Theo [Epstein] was like a parent. They were so supportive."

Epstein, now the Cubs' president of baseball operations, was then the Red Sox's general manager. He had traded Rizzo to the Padres and then-GM Jed Hoyer for Adrian Gonzalez in 2010. Hoyer joined the Cubs with Epstein, and Rizzo soon after, acquired for Andrew Cashner on Jan. 6.

During that Boston trip, John Rizzo remembers meeting Terry Francona, then the Red Sox's manager. Francona asked Anthony how he liked Fenway Park, and of course, the teen thought the old ballpark was great.

"Then Francona says, 'Wait until you see Wrigley,'" John said, "and he started raving about Wrigley Field. And now we're here."

But in April '08, the Rizzos weren't sure if Anthony would make it to Fenway or Wrigley or even back to baseball. Just 18, he had to undergo chemotherapy.

"He would never tell us how much it hurt," John Rizzo said. "He'd always tell us, 'Don't worry about it, it's fine, it's fine.' But the chemo was killing him. He went through it pretty well. He always had a great attitude."

Going 0-for-4 is pretty insignificant compared to battling cancer.

John credits lessons from both his parents and from his wife's family for shaping their son's attitude. The end result is a grounded young man who has made the family proud. They've switched allegiances and T-shirts as Anthony has switched teams. John said his son often talks about how much he appreciates how much time Cubs manager Dale Sveum will spend with him, talking about baseball, hitting, everything.

The Rizzos have come a long way since those days in the living room playing games. When John watches batting practice now, he remembers when Anthony was 8 years old, and they would haul a machine on a wagon to a field near their Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home to work on hitting. The days in the hospital seem long ago.

After the Cubs played a recent game against the Mets, John, Laurie, Anthony and some friends got on the No. 7 subway train from Citi Field and headed for dinner in Little Italy. Anthony had gone 2-for-4 that day in the Cubs' win, but you wouldn't have known it. He was more interested in joking around with one of the kids in the group.

"He's very caring," John Rizzo said proudly of his son. "He'll worry way more about us than himself."

"Overcoming cancer was incredibly impressive," Hoyer said, "but I think it's a mistake if you just allude to his makeup that he overcame cancer. He's a very strong person, I think he's a leader and he's someone who can help put this organization and our team on the right path as far as our culture. He's a very impressive individual."

His family already knows that.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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