Rizzo quickly becoming an all-time favorite Cub

First baseman hosts annual Laugh-off for Cancer event

January 12th, 2018

CHICAGO -- When the Cubs acquired from the Padres, it may not have been front-page news in Chicago newspapers. Borderline call at the time.

Rizzo for was seen as significant largely because it was one of the first trades that Theo Epstein made after taking charge in Chicago. It's almost impossible to picture Rizzo and Epstein without each other these days, as few deals in the team's history have worked out better than the one on Jan. 6, 2012.

The Ernie Banks purchase from the Kansas City Monarchs? OK. The Ryne Sandberg trade? Maybe. But that's pretty much the short list of moves the Cubs have made that were as wise as adding Rizzo.

It's not just his play on the field, either. That point was clear to everyone attending the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation Laugh-off for Cancer on Thursday night.

"Not very many people can dig a ball out of the dirt and then save a kid's life,'' said comedian Brad Morris, who warmed up the crowd. "That's not easy to do.''

Rizzo, who was 18 when his life was threatened by cancer, is open about the battle he faced. He told his story often in his early years at Wrigley Field. His family's foundation found its stride while he was establishing himself as a foundation piece in the Cubs' rebuild under Epstein.

Chicagoans fell in love with Rizzo before his run of three consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game, before he led the Cubs to a seriously overdue World Series championship in 2016, as well as two other trips to the NLCS.

He's won a Gold Glove Award -- Platinum Glove, actually -- and a Silver Slugger Award, and hasn't ranked lower than 13th in MVP voting since 2014. But he's beloved not for his statistics, but because he is one of the most generous, giving ambassadors in baseball.

Rizzo was a deserving winner of the 2017 Roberto Clemente Award for the work his foundation does to help fund research and treatment of pediatric cancer. If you think he's going to slack off now, you don't know Rizzo. His spirit is indomitable, his commitment rock solid.

Rizzo, a Florida native, says it has become easier to juggle baseball and philanthropy as he's gotten more experience with both. The motivation to help others who face the demon he and his family stared down after he received his diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008 is as strong as ever.

"The goal is to win the Roberto Clemente Award again, be a two-time winner,'' said Rizzo, 28. "Just keep raising money. Hopefully we can install the 'Hope 44' program in all hospitals throughout Chicago, [and] in Florida, trying to spread it as much as we can.''

Rizzo's face is well known around Lurie Children's Hospital, where he touches hundreds of lives with visits that are rarely publicized. But he was on stage -- literally -- at his annual event, which, like Joe Maddon's "Thanksmas'' event, is an unofficial kickoff to Cubs Convention.

Jeff Garlin, the Cubs fan who stars on "Curb Your Enthusiasm,'' was scheduled to host the event, but had to cancel. In a moment that fits the history of Garlin and Chicago's improv comedians, it was announced Garlin will donate all the proceeds from an upcoming show in Chicago to the Rizzo Family Foundation, as a way to of being there without really being there. Nice.

Former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster filled in for Garlin, which should surprise no one who has seen Dempster's work on MLB Network or elsewhere. The guy can make you laugh. So can Rizzo, which is why this event is so perfect for him.

Rizzo's sheepish grin has become become well known to baseball fans. He's a must-follow on social media for his playful posts, including two recent ones.

The first showed him in a tuxedo alongside his fiancee, Emily Vakos, making their Instagram followers wonder if they had eloped. The other was a tweet that appeared to show him in the water behind a pool of sharks, but he admits both were hoaxes.

"I got fake married,'' Rizzo said. "I almost got eaten by a great white [shark] in the Bahamas, where there are no great whites. It's been nice.''

Rizzo can even make reporters smile, and that's not easy to do. But, by all accounts, he saves his best work for when he's among his teammates, whether in the clubhouse or after arriving at a hotel in the middle of the night.

Rizzo says he gets as good as he gives.

"If you're sensitive in this sport, you have to pick something else, especially in our clubhouse,'' Rizzo said. "We go at each other on a daily basis, on a nightly basis. If it's 5 in the morning and there's a funny joke, there's a text being sent.''

Under Maddon, the Cubs have established a history of strong finishes in August and September. It helps that Rizzo, and their teammates maintain a sense of humor.

"It's a long season and the better guys you have on your team, the shorter the season becomes,'' Rizzo said."The roller-coaster ride is a lot more fun with your hands up than clenching onto the seats all the time.''

He's right, and naturally he said it perfectly.