Rizzo smiling and 'feeling great' in return from concussion

February 26th, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- pounded his glove at first base and scanned the faces in the crowd, an ocean of spectators enjoying their afternoon in the Florida sunshine. He tossed a warmup baseball into the seats, pointed his index finger at a young boy, and grinned brightly.

Man, it felt good to be back out on the field. Carefree moments like this were difficult for Rizzo to imagine late last season, when he spent most of the second half battling the cascading fogginess of a concussion sustained in a May 28 collision on the basepaths.

“I’ve been feeling great, physically and mentally,” Rizzo said Monday. “To get out there in the game, it was just like being a little kid again. I just feel appreciation; it's another step in the right direction of putting everything behind me. The more you play and it’s a non-issue, it’s kind of like all injuries -- until you take the training wheels off and go full speed, that’s when you know.”

Sunday’s Grapefruit League contest against the Blue Jays marked Rizzo’s first game action since Aug. 1, when the 34-year-old was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.

Though Rizzo initially passed Major League Baseball’s concussion protocols following his May 28 collision with the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., he endured lingering effects, including what he likened to a persistent hangover.

“Something was off, and I felt it,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t affecting my daily life, but it was affecting my well-being. It was hard to admit that, because you don’t look for excuses as a baseball player. If you do, you’re usually not in the game. I’m happy I spoke to the training staff and they got me the advanced testing, and took all the right precautions. It was a relief that I wasn’t actually crazy.”

The explanation of a concussion made sense, considering the significant dropoff in Rizzo’s performance. Through May 28, he was one of the Yanks’ most productive hitters, slashing .304/.376/.505 with eight doubles, 11 homers and 32 RBIs in 53 games.

Rizzo’s numbers cratered after the incident. He slashed just .172/.271/.225 with six doubles, one homer and nine RBIs in 46 games before his season ended in August.

At the time, Rizzo mentioned seeing pitches down the middle that he should have crushed; upon review in the video room, the pitches weren’t close to where he’d thought they were. Baseline testing showed that Rizzo’s reaction time was significantly slower than average.

“The best way I can explain it is, if you have a couple of drinks the night before … that’s kind of how it was every day,” Rizzo said. “But throughout the season, you do get tired. We went out to Seattle after [the injury], and it was like a perfect storm, the first long stretch of the year going into June. You’re going to be a little sluggish. I slept a little longer than I normally do and wasn’t feeling very refreshed. I’m just happy it’s over.”

Rizzo said that he was close to returning at the end of the 2023 season, but given the Yankees’ fading postseason hopes, there was little reason to risk aggravating his symptoms.

“I think I probably could have, but with where we were in the standings, the doctors didn’t want to have a setback that took me into the offseason,” Rizzo said. “I was staying ready, I was working out. I could have kept playing through it; obviously I wasn’t very good, but as a competitor, you want to keep playing through everything. That’s how I was brought up.”

Having aced his most recent checkup in November, Rizzo said he was told not to be concerned about the possibility of symptoms returning. General manager Brian Cashman said he no longer considers Rizzo’s situation an ongoing issue, noting, “The doctors have told us he’s 100 percent cleared.”

“I can only rely on the experts in the field,” Cashman said. “It’s certainly a more difficult injury to navigate. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of what the doctors tell us and what the players can convey. I can tell you that he feels great.”

The first spring lineups put forth by manager Aaron Boone telegraphed the organization’s confidence. Rizzo has found his name in the cleanup spot, ready to hit behind the likes of Juan Soto and Aaron Judge in what Rizzo expects to be a high-octane offense.

“It’s going to be a fun lineup to be a part of,” Rizzo said. “With the personalities we have in this lineup, they’re very complementary of each other. Guys are feeding off each other; feeding their intel on everybody. It’s just on us to do it every day and stay healthy.”