PARKLAND, Fla. -- Anthony Rizzo didn't need wrapping paper or a fancy bow for the present he gave high school teacher Ronit Reoven. The Cubs' first baseman has given her hope.
On July 5, Reoven gave birth to her second son, Rhuel. Three months later on Oct. 15, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Rizzo knows too well what that can do to a person. He was diagnosed with limited state classical Hodgkins Lymphoma in late April 2008, his first full season in the Minor Leagues with the Red Sox.
Rizzo's high school coach, Frank Pisani, still remembers when he got the news about his star player. Rizzo was a standout at Stoneman Douglas High School, batting .468 with 11 home runs in his senior year. The Red Sox had selected Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, and in '08, he was playing for Class A Greenville.
"Every day, I'd go onto the computer and check his stats from the previous day's game," Pisani said, "but he hadn't played in two or three games. I called him and said, 'Anthony, why aren't you in the lineup?' He said, 'Are you sitting down?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm sitting down.' He said, 'I have cancer.' It blew me away -- everybody was devastated.
"If anybody could handle it, it was Anthony. He's always had a positive attitude and battled it head on. Obviously, he's beat it and he's doing much better."
Which is the message Rizzo's giving to Reoven, 41. Rizzo found out about her plight when he spoke to 700 students at an assembly at the high school. She teaches social studies, advanced placement psychology and geography. It's impossible to prepare for cancer, and Reoven had questions and aches and issues, which Rizzo is trying to help her cope with.
"Here he is, a baseball celebrity, and he's busy with his schedule, and to take the time to do this and be in touch with me and other people and help out is amazing," Reoven said. "He takes a lot of time out of his schedule to do this and be strong for others and give them information and help them. I think it's wonderful."
Rizzo took a big step in his battle by hosting his first "Walk Off for Cancer" 5-kilometer walk in his hometown of Parkland, Fla., on Dec. 9. Nearly 1,000 people took part in the walk at Pine Trails Park, and they raised more than $80,000. Parkland Mayor Michael Udine issued a proclamation, declaring it "Anthony Rizzo Day."
Reoven was there, and even though she couldn't finish the walk, she felt like a winner. She's got Rizzo on her side, sending text messages with encouragement. There's no better gift at the holidays.
"It was a couple months of 'yay,'" Reoven said of the timing of the birth of her son followed by her diagnosis. "Then, boom, you're knocked down. It was a shock for me and my family. I'm so used to being independent and doing things on my own, and now, you need help with this, you need help with that.
"You have good days and bad days, and sometimes you're strong and sometimes you feel [terrible].
"[Rizzo] said, 'You're going to have those days, and you're going to have days when you don't want to get out of bed, but you have to be strong and know it's one more day and you're closer to the end.' He is definitely a source of strength to me."
Pisani, 35, isn't surprised.
"When Anthony played high school ball, he was like an extension of the coaching staff," Pisani said. "He was such a great kid, a role model for all the younger kids. It was tremendous having him on the team."
There are plenty of stories about Rizzo's athletic feats. One of his Little League coaches recalled the first time Rizzo took batting practice. Rizzo's father, John, told the outfielders shagging to back up. The other coach suggested they come in. Rizzo hit the first ball over the fence. Needless to say, the outfielders played deep.
"His senior year, we had a couple pitchers go down with injuries and Anthony actually volunteered to pitch and did a tremendous job," Pisani said. "He was our workhorse. He did it on the mound, he did it at the plate. It's unbelievable to be able to coach a player like Anthony."
There was a time when Rizzo hit a home run at Stoneman Douglas, and the ball cleared the batter's eye in center field. Pisani said the ball was still rising as it went over the fence. Opposing teams didn't want to face Rizzo. There was one game when he was intentionally walked five times.
"He's changed his stance quite a bit since high school," said Pisani, who continues to keep track of the Cubs' first baseman. "Obviously, the competition is a lot better in the Major Leagues. The fastballs in high school baseball were nothing for Anthony. He was like a man among boys in high school baseball."
Rizzo, 23, will spend the holidays with his family in Florida. Reoven, her husband, Rhied, and their 4-year-old son, Roman, will, too. If they need anything, Rizzo will be there. He downplays his involvement.
"It's the least I could do to try to help," he said.
"It means a lot that he was interested," Reoven said. "He doesn't realize what a difference he makes."
It's the holiday spirit, Rizzo-style.