Rizzo talks power of puppy love, preparations for '23

February 19th, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. -- There were a multitude of reasons why believed that the Yankees needed to keep Aaron Judge, from his celebrated leadership in the clubhouse to the remarkable on-field performance that earned him the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

So when the waters of free agency grew murky in December and Judge appeared headed for the West Coast, Rizzo played his ace card. The first baseman tapped out a series of texts that tugged at Judge’s heartstrings, sending photos of Rizzo’s dachshund, Kevin, playing with Judge’s dog, Penny.

“It’s funny that became such a big story,” Rizzo said on Sunday. “I mean, it’s true, I did send pictures to kind of guilt him a little bit, but ultimately I was rooting for him to make the decision that was going to make him and [Judge’s wife] Sam happy.”

Thanks in part to that four-legged assist, which Judge detailed for a national audience on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Kevin and Penny can enjoy a few more canine play dates as Judge and Rizzo continue their friendship in pinstripes.

Rizzo re-signed with the Yankees in November, agreeing to a two-year deal with $40 million guaranteed. That move would come to be overshadowed later in the offseason by larger pacts for Judge (nine years, $360 million) and left-hander Carlos Rodón (six years, $162 million), but first, there were some hairy moments.

“I was texting with one of the guys [in December] and he said, ‘I think he’s gone,’” Rizzo said of Judge. “I’m like, ‘What?’ It had been a few days since we exchanged texts or calls. I didn’t see any of the reports that people were talking about, so I just called Aaron and talked to him. The next 24 to 48 hours, it all went down.”

The Yankees believed retaining Rizzo was crucial to their offseason plan, coming off a season in which the 33-year-old batted .224/.338/.480 (131 OPS+) with 32 home runs and 75 RBIs in 130 games.

“It became a priority right away,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I think everyone has seen Anthony come in and become a leader on this team, having success playing here. He’s become entrenched with his teammates and with the organization. The left-handed piece, the defender that he is, the leader that he is – he’s such a glue player for us.”

Though Rizzo gauged the marketplace, he said that he and his wife, Emily, identified returning to the Yankees as their first choice. Rizzo especially loved walking his dog in Central Park in the morning, then playing under the lights in the Bronx at night.

“I definitely wanted to come back here,” Rizzo said. “We love the whole atmosphere in the city, outside the field, then showing up to Yankee Stadium every day -- it’s top-notch.”

Keeping Rizzo on the field is among Boone’s concerns for the new season. Rizzo has dealt with recurring back issues in his career; last season, Rizzo sought relief with an epidural injection that preceded severe migraines, extending a stint on the injured list. Boone said that Rizzo’s back “is always something that’s on the back burner,” but can be addressed by a diligent exercise program.

“Anyone who’s had back pain, it kind of comes out of nowhere. You just do everything you can,” Rizzo said. “This offseason, I really focused on recovery and feeling good the next day. I’d be crazy to sit here and say I won’t have a back issue this year because every year it seems like a little something pops up, but I definitely feel confident with my daily preparation.”

Rizzo also has a reason for confidence with Major League Baseball’s rule changes eliminating extreme shifts, which could help boost his numbers this coming season. Certainly, he will not miss seeing an extra fielder on the right side of the field; he speculated that the change could add 10 to 15 points to his batting average.

“I really hope this isn’t the year I start hitting the ball to the shortstop on the ground,” Rizzo said. “I think all left-handed hitters, especially young left-handed hitters, will be introduced to the three-four hole that’s been gone for about seven or eight years. Those type of hits where it’s the first inning and you can get a rollover into the hole, they can go a long way throughout the game of just being relaxed.”