'It starts with Rizz': Energy driving Cubs' roll

August 15th, 2020

CHICAGO -- The players in the Cubs' dugout began clapping their hands when 's walk-up song blared through Wrigley Field on Thursday night. Some slapped the railing to the heavy beat. Kyle Schwarber spun in a circle. Others pumped fists in the air.

Earlier this season in Cincinnati, they created the signature thumping on their own in the visitors' dugout, shouting the repetitive notes to Martin Solveig's "Intoxicated" to hype Rizzo up. The group has been rowdy all season, reacting loudly to long at-bats, big hits and critical pitches.

"It starts with Rizz, for sure," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said.

The Cubs head into Friday with a Major League-best 13-3 record. It is the franchise's best start since having the same ledger back in 1907, when the Cubs won the first in back-to-back World Series (before that 108-year drought). Stellar starting pitching, sound defense and an unrelenting lineup has powered the early push.

The Cubs' players will also credit something else. They will point to the accountability behind the scenes in this strange 2020 season, and to the energy they have generated in each game. A culture reset under rookie manager David Ross has been followed with an altered mind-set, forced by circumstances.

"We create our own weather," Rizzo said. "Whether it's 30 degrees or 100 degrees, it's however we look at it."

Part of that mentality does stem from the dugout's first step. Before Summer Camp, when asked about the legitimacy of a 60-game schedule, Ross laughed and replied with the made-for-tees line, "If they're passing out a trophy, I want it." So far, his players have embraced that make-the-most-of-this mantra.

Even before this season was altered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, Rizzo and the Cubs' core group was planning on savoring this campaign. There is a group of players due to hit free agency after '20, and then a set of core stars in line for free agency after '21 (Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Schwarber and Rizzo) and '22 (Willson Contreras).

The way Rizzo sees it, they have no choice but to make the most of each moment.

"I'm not going to shy away from it -- this could be our last year together," Rizzo said. "Who knows what's going to happen? This could be our last run with all our core guys. This could be my last year here. Who knows? So, I'm enjoying every second of it."

During the '16 season, when the Cubs' core was young and on the rise, there were a group of veterans to lead the way. Jon Lester is still with the team from that group, but that drought-ending roster also included Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler and, of course, Ross.

Before manager Joe Maddon and the Cubs parted ways after last season, Rizzo had conversations with him and the team's front-office leadership about the clubhouse culture. Rizzo just as easily could have looked around the locker room to realize that he and the core players were now the veteran leadership.

"There's the transition period," Rizzo said. "I think it's just realizing that being more mindful of what you say and how you say it and how you deliver your message is really big for everyone. Even for me. Even the way Rossy delivers messages sometimes. I've learned a lot from him.

"And it's just being mindful and not running from being the leader."

For Rizzo, that means striking the balance between being three-fourths competitor and one-fourth clown.

Last September, when Rizzo severely injured an ankle in the heat of a playoff push, he rolled into Wrigley Field with a medical scooter featuring a basket, horn and tassels on the handlebars. He then defied the odds, putting in the rehab work behind the scenes to return to the field far sooner than anyone thought possible.

During Summer Camp, Rizzo was sidelined for roughly two weeks with a back issue. While unable to play, he wandered Wrigley Field, sitting in the bleachers to cheer on his teammates. On Opening Day, he pulled a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer out of his back pocket and offered it to Milwaukee's Orlando Arcia at first base.

"He's a big teddy bear, man," Ross said. "He's one of the best competitors I've been around, but he's got that loving, infectious personality. Like I've said, he wants everybody to have a good time. He's really embraced this environment and the team concept."

Last weekend, the Cubs held a scrimmage at Wrigley Field after their games against the Cardinals were postponed. At one point, Rizzo donned two gold chains to get some laughs. Tony Two Chains was born, and then made an appearance on Wednesday in Cleveland.

Rizzo homered and had the jewelry bouncing from shoulder to shoulder during his home run trot.

"It's fun, whether it's the chains or us clapping," Ross said. "There's work involved, but there's also fun. I think that's a sign of a good team that's going to do some good things."

Rizzo has helped lead the way.

"He's the face of this franchise -- one of the faces of this city," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. "He leads by example when it comes to work ethic. ... But as far as him being himself and keeping things light, that's Tony being Tony."