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In appreciation of Anthony Rizzo

It will be weird to see him in a different set of pinstripes.

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This is an article I certainly didn’t expect to have to write for several more years. Of all the Cubs’ “core” players, the guys who won the 2016 World Series and contended in many other recent seasons, Anthony Rizzo was the one I figured would never play a game in another uniform other than the one in blue pinstripes.

But here we are, and Rizzo moves on to another ballclub whose home uniform bears pinstripes.

Thus now is the time for me to sum up what Rizzo has meant to the Chicago Cubs family, all of us as fans, and me personally as someone who’s followed this team for more than half a century.

And I’m going to start with Rizzo’s emotional speech at the World Series rally in November 2016.

Rizzo had turned 27 just a couple of months before that. He was born in Florida, was drafted by the Red Sox, survived non-Hodgkins lymphoma, then he was traded to the Padres, and eventually came to the Cubs in another deal in January 2012.

Just a kid, really, knowing nothing about Chicago or the Cubs fanbase or team culture when he came to the Cubs. But in that two and a half minutes, he showed all of us that he got it. He understood what the World Series victory meant to every single one of us who had waited our entire lives for it. In his remarks he included every single person who had ever worn a Cubs uniform, singled out Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, living Cubs Hall of Famers who never made it to the Series, and thanked Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, Cubs Hall of Famers who didn’t live to see that moment.

That — THAT — brought me to tears. Back then, and again now when I watched it preparing this article.

That’s who Anthony Rizzo was to the Chicago Cubs, the heart and soul of the organization, the face of the franchise. That’s why this trade is so hard on all of us. On him, too:

After learning the news and speaking to his teammates, Rizzo walked around Wrigley Field with his family. He and his wife, Emily, stopped for photos in front of the ivy-covered wall in center field and let their dog, Kevin, run around the outfield. And then the longtime Cubs first baseman took the time to speak with a small group of reporters before leaving.

What was going through his mind as he walked the outfield?

“A lot. Some good memories here,” Rizzo said. “My whole life, I grew up here. All good things come to an end. It’s going to be a tough second half here, which a lot of us here aren’t used to in a long time. To be able to go to another historic franchise like the Yankees, it’s unbelievable.”

Incidentally, the trade that brought Rizzo to the Cubs in 2012 was not universally hailed at the time. Rizzo had hit .141/.281/.242 with just one home run in 49 games for the Padres in 2011 and Andrew Cashner, who went to San Diego in the deal, was seen as a possible solid rotation piece or closer going forward. Cashner had an okay career, nothing special, and last pitched in 2019 with the Red Sox, his sixth team. Meanwhile, Rizzo is one of the greatest and most beloved players in Cubs franchise history.

Now, let’s look at a few highlights of the portions of 10 seasons (2012-21) that Rizzo spent on the North Side of Chicago, 1,308 games in a Cubs uniform. That total ranks 19th in franchise history.

Here’s his first career walkoff homer, a two-run shot in the 10th inning off Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals, July 29, 2012 [VIDEO].

That 2012 team wasn’t very good — as you know, they lost 101 games — but those are always fun.

By 2014, Rizzo was establishing himself as one of the best players in MLB. He finished 10th in NL MVP voting in 2013, and on one particular July afternoon in Cincinnati in 2014, Rizzo made a statement as a team leader:

Right there was when the Chicago Cubs became Rizzo’s team. At that time none of us had any idea the Cubs would return to contention the following year, win 97 games, then become World Series champions the year after that. But we certainly did know, on that July afternoon in Cincinnati, that the Cubs had an emotional leader.

(Incidentally, that game, won by the Cubs 6-4 in 12 innings, was also Kyle Hendricks’ MLB debut.)

The 2015 Cubs roared into contention in the second half, led by Rizzo, NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, Jon Lester and others, and Rizzo had himself some more fun. Here’s the first of a couple of “tarp catches” he made in foul territory at Wrigley Field, August 13, 2015:

Rizzo did that a couple more times and Reynolds Wrap, who had (and still does have) an ad covering the tarp, said they’d temporarily re-name it “Rizzo Wrap” if the Cubs won the World Series. They kept their promise — here’s my article from June 2017 describing how it happened.

And I still have a couple of rolls of Rizzo Wrap in my house.

Of course, the 2016 season filled all our dreams and it was appropriate that Rizzo caught the ball for the out that sealed the World Series victory.

Like you, I can never watch that clip enough. It will live forever in our hearts and souls.

Here’s another bit of fun from Rizzo in 2016, an inside-the-park homer in Cincinnati [VIDEO].

On July 26, 2018, the Cubs trailed the Diamondbacks 6-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. With one out, David Bote hit a two-run homer to tie the game and two pitches later, Rizzo won it:

The 2018 season didn’t end well, as you know, and after that Rizzo’s production began to decline, a bit. He had a 4.3 bWAR season in 2019, winning his fourth Gold Glove, but in 2020 he didn’t hit well and his 2021 season had a few high points, but overall his numbers weren’t what they had been. 2020 and 2021 combined, just about one full normal season’s worth of playing time: 150 games, .238/.344/.433 (125-for-526), 25 home runs, 64 RBI, 2.5 bWAR. I wonder if the pressure of not having a contract extension with the Cubs, something he clearly wanted, might have affected his performance. Also, Rizzo’s back issues flared up several times over those two seasons, causing him to miss some playing time.

Here is Rizzo’s final Cubs home run (for now), hit Tuesday night against the Reds [VIDEO].

That was Rizzo’s 242nd homer as a Cub, which put him one ahead of Aramis Ramirez for sixth on the franchise list.

And I say “for now” because it is entirely possible Rizzo will re-sign with the Cubs next offseason. Both Cubs management and Rizzo understand what he means to the franchise and perhaps they can come to an agreement on dollars and years to have him return. You can see the emotion in his face in this clip, recorded after Thursday’s game [VIDEO].

It’s not always right to make comparisons among players from different eras, but to me, Anthony Rizzo played with the passion of Ron Santo and the dedication of Ernie Banks. He was the “Mr. Cub” of his era, not to take anything away from the moniker that rightly belongs to Banks. Rizzo won’t be a Hall of Famer, but he is absolutely one of the greatest players in Chicago Cubs history and beloved by everyone connected with the franchise. To Yankee fans: You’ll soon find out why Cubs fans love him so much. Rizzo will have to switch from his Cubs-iconic No. 44 in New York, as that number is retired by the Yankees for Reggie Jackson. (Here’s a list of Yankees retired numbers, if you’re interested.)

Interestingly, Rizzo’s first series as a Yankee will be in his hometown, as the Yankees play the Marlins this weekend in Miami. And the Yankees will be in Chicago August 14 and 15 to play the White Sox, and I’d expect a contingent of Cubs fans to go to those games to see him.

We will miss you, Anthony Rizzo, and hold out a small hope that you’ll be back. All the best to you and your family going forward.

And thanks for the memories. Really, thanks for everything, Anthony, just for being who you are and being one of the biggest parts of helping lead the Cubs to end the World Series drought, something several previous generations of Cubs couldn’t do. Flags do indeed fly forever.

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SITE NOTE: In the recap to Thursday’s game I had noted a trade deadline thread would post at 8:30 a.m. CT. I’m moving that to 9 a.m. CT.