CHICAGO – Eight television cameras and 30 reporters packed into an interview room Tuesday waiting for the Cubs’ supposed savior to arrive.
In a season with more downs than ups, it certainly wasn’t business as usual at Wrigley Field as top prospect Anthony Rizzo made his Cubs debut. Lifted after his second at-bat in Monday’s game at Triple-A Iowa, Rizzo received word that he finally was headed to Chicago.
The news delighted his parents, John and Laurie.
“They finally believed me when I called and told them,” Rizzo said. “They thought that I knew something and I was hiding it from everyone. But when I got pulled out [Monday], it was a great feeling.”
Rizzo followed that with another great feeling in his first at-bat with the Cubs. He singled on a hard-hit ball that New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada could not corral.
After driving from Des Moines on Monday night, Rizzo walked on to the field at Wrigley with cameras watching his every move during Tuesday’s early batting practice. While Rizzo expected the fanfare, he’s not worried about the lofty expectations of those outside of the organization, particularly excited Cub fans.
“I’m here to stay,” Rizzo said. “I’m just going to work hard every day, learn, get better [and] go through the ups and down of a baseball player, the nicks and bruises.”
The Cubs aren’t giving him much time to acclimate in his return to the big leagues. Manager Dale Sveum penciled Rizzo into the No. 3 spot against the Mets with Alfonso Soriano and Bryan LaHair hitting behind him. Infielder Adrian Cardenas was optioned to Triple-A Iowa to make room for Rizzo.
“[Sveum] told me I can’t hit 10 home runs today,” Rizzo said. “But I’m hitting third today. That’s a lot of confidence with me coming up here and him putting me in the three hole.
“That’s a really good feeling. I’ve hit that basically my entire life, third or fourth. But I’m just a part of this team now.”
Rizzo, 22, earned his chance to hit in the high-profile No. 3 spot after the prolific numbers he put up in Triple-A. Rizzo’s 23 home runs led the Pacific Coast League while his .342 batting average and 62 RBIs ranked in the top six.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to goof around with it no matter if left-handers are out there,” Sveum said of keeping Rizzo in the No. 3 spot. “I don’t think it’s something you want to tinker with, change day to day over our lineups with left-handers or right-handers. You want to keep certain guys in certain spots, and if that’s what we project as our future, then [there is] no better time than getting it started now.”
The Cubs are hopeful that this stint in the majors goes much better than Rizzo’s first taste of big league ball last year with the San Diego Padres. In 49 games with the Padres, Rizzo hit .141 with one homer and nine RBIs and was often overmatched at the plate.
Rizzo is the first to admit he learned from last year’s unexpected struggles, and he believes he’s made the correct adjustments.
“Last year, I didn’t struggle at all in the minors,” Rizzo said. “Getting called up and trying to do too much, I guess my youth showed.
“At the time, I didn’t think I was trying to do too much, but looking back at it this offseason, getting time to sit down, I thought long and hard about it. I still thought about it even in the minors this year, just about what happened and little things that would happen last year that I would correct right away.”
General manager Jed Hoyer still blames himself for Rizzo’s big league failures. Hoyer, then the Padres’ GM, said he called up Rizzo too soon in hopes he could spark the offense. It’s a mistake he didn’t want to repeat with the Cubs. The adjustments Rizzo made – lowering his hands and shortening his swing – have helped him become more consistent offensively.
“First of all, I think what he’s done this year is more impressive than last year,” Hoyer said. “Hitting in Tuscon and hitting in the western part of the PCL is pretty easy. Tuscon, it was hard to evaluate there, and I think he got away with a little bit more last year. I really like the adjustments he made starting in spring training this year.”
As owners of baseball’s worst record, Rizzo’s call up has renewed Cubs fans’ hopes that the future is finally here. However, Hoyer cautioned that growing pains should be expected.
“I think it’s great to be this excited,” Hoyer said. “I hope it comes with the understanding that there’s going to be ups and downs.
“It’s hard to find players that come up and never struggle. When they do that, they’re usually in the Hall of Fame. So he’s going to have his ups and downs. He’s going to make adjustments. All players do that, and so I love the fact that people are excited.”
Rizzo needs no introduction to his new bosses. Hoyer, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod drafted Rizzo in Boston in the sixth round of the 2007 draft.
Not only did they give Rizzo an opportunity to play baseball professionally, but they supported him in May 2008 after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he successfully defeated.
Rizzo hopes this next battle is just as successful.
“They drafted me when I was young,” Rizzo said. “I was under the radar in high school and they drafted me and believed in me and I worked my way up with the Red Sox and got traded to San Diego obviously and here now.
“They believed in me. A lot of people after last year, after the struggles, could have written me off easily, but the people that know me closely know that’s a fluke and hopefully that will be overcome this time around.”