Yankees Magazine: New York or Nowhere
Having inked a new deal to remain in pinstripes, Anthony Rizzo ensured that his Bronx tale isn’t done being written
There is a scene in the 1997 film "Donnie Brasco" in which an FBI technician played by Paul Giamatti is reviewing audio of mobster conversations and rather innocently says to the film’s protagonist, the overly entrenched and overworked undercover agent Joseph D. Pistone, “Hey, can I ask you something? What’s fuggetaboutit?” Johnny Depp, playing the role of Pistone, lies on a couch, exhausted, cooling his aching forehead with a can of Budweiser as he attempts to explain the saying’s myriad -- and seemingly contradictory -- meanings. Depending on its deployment and timbre, fuggetaboutit can be used to agree with someone wholeheartedly, or to disagree just as forcefully. It can punctuate a statement about something undeniably great -- “Those peppers, fuggetaboutit!” -- but it can also refute something unequivocally ludicrous.
“And sometimes,” Depp says simply, “it just means … forget about it.”
Like Giamatti’s character, Anthony Rizzo might have felt his head spinning in the weeks immediately following the Yankees’ ALCS loss to Houston last October. After coming up short in his bid to return to the World Series for the first time since winning it all with the Cubs in 2016, the 33-year-old first baseman suddenly found himself dealing with the business side of baseball that he had rarely had to contend with during his first 12 big league seasons. Two days after Houston defeated Philadelphia in the 2022 championship, Rizzo elected to opt out of the remaining year of his two-year pact with the Yankees. Three days later, on Nov. 10, the Yankees extended one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offers -- the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players -- to both Rizzo and Aaron Judge. If either player signed with another club, the Yanks would receive a compensation pick that, since the team exceeded the luxury-tax salary threshold in 2022, wouldn’t come until after the fourth round of the 2023 Draft.
While Judge’s camp remained quiet for the time being, there were rumors that Rizzo could be on the move -- to Houston, of all places. On Nov. 14, The Athletic senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal reported that the Astros “have Anthony Rizzo as their No. 1 free-agent target at first base.”
Rizzo would later confirm as much, saying that he was flattered to have teams reach out and tell him how highly they thought of him, how much they respected his game and the way he goes about his business, and how they would have loved to see him join their ranks.
But when it really came down to it for Rizzo and his wife, Emily, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. They have roots in the Northeast. There’s a pastry shop on Ridge Road in Lyndhurst, N.J. -- where Rizzo’s parents, John and Laurie, grew up -- that serves an Italian ice flavor called “Anthony Rizzo.” Although he, himself, grew up in Parkland, Fla., Rizzo frequently spent his summers visiting family in North Jersey, attending games at Yankee Stadium, including David Cone’s perfecto in 1999. Freddy "Sez," the Bleacher Creatures, Bob Sheppard -- Rizzo has long understood what those names mean. So after hardly any deliberation, he signed a new two-year deal to stay with the Yankees through 2024, with a club option for '25.
“The main reason I wanted to come back is because I love being a Yankee,” he said simply. “Emily and I really love it here. We love the city, we love the energy, we love Yankee Stadium. We love going to Yankee Stadium and playing at that park every day. So that was really the most important thing.”
In other words, fuggetaboutit.
The Yankees have a long and proud history of superb Italian Americans who have worn the pinstripes. During the first half of the 20th century, all-time greats such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti and the iconic Joe DiMaggio rose from the sandlots of San Francisco to become multi-time world champions in New York. The Bombers have an equally impressive lineage of first basemen, beginning with stalwarts from the franchise's early years such as Hal Chase and Wally Pipp, followed by the legendary Lou Gehrig up through Don Mattingly, and more recently, Mark Teixeira.
But a dinner feast consisting of Yankees first basemen of Italian descent would be a rather small affair, with the likes of Joe Pepitone (who passed away Monday) and Jason Giambi inviting Rizzo to sit with them as they uncork a bottle of Chianti. (Teixeira, who is half Italian, would surely be welcomed, too.)
Ten years ago, Rizzo’s Italian pride was on full display. In January 2013 -- following a breakout season in which he hit .285 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs after a late June promotion to the Major Leagues -- Rizzo asked for and was granted permission by the Cubs to play for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
“I come from a very strong Italian background, and to represent the whole country is a pretty cool experience,” he said at the time.
Placed in Pool D alongside the United States, Canada and Mexico, Italy was expected to finish fourth, meaning Rizzo would play just a couple of games before returning to Cubs camp to finish preparing for his first full big league season. Ever the optimist, Rizzo had no intention of bowing out of the tournament early.
“Our goal is San Francisco,” he told reporters, referring to the final four slated to take place at the Giants’ home ballpark. “Anything is possible.”
That dream was in peril right out of the gate. In its March 7 debut at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., Italy entered the ninth inning trailing Mexico, 5-4. Giants closer Sergio Romo -- fresh off a dominant 2012 World Series performance in which he recorded three saves across three perfect outings against Detroit -- quickly recorded the first out as Mexico’s fans reached a fever pitch. But Italy’s leadoff man, Nick Punto, quieted the boisterous crowd with a double, and Chris Denorfia then singled on the 10th pitch of his at-bat to put runners at the corners for Rizzo.
Standing in the left-handed batter’s box in his blue No. 44 jersey with “Italia” scripted across the front, Rizzo smacked a pitch from the right-handed Romo deep to the opposite field. Edgar Gonzalez -- the brother of five-time All-Star Adrián -- retreated, battling the desert sun, and got a glove on the ball, but it popped out for a two-run double, and Italy hung on for an improbable 6-5 victory.
“It couldn’t have been a better game, the way it ended, how much fun everyone had,” Rizzo said afterward. “My dad talked to one of my cousins who lives in Italy, and everyone is going crazy there now.”
Italy would thump Canada, 14-4, the following day to shockingly advance out of the first round, but a pair of one-run losses to the Dominican Republic, the eventual champion, and runner-up Puerto Rico ended the team’s run.
Rizzo, though, was just getting started.
A decade later, Rizzo might have more big hits to his credit than Frank Sinatra. He made his first Opening Day roster in 2013, and he blasted the first pitch he saw from Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett over the wall at PNC Park to kickstart a 3-1 win. The following season, he returned to the Cubs’ lineup on Sept. 15 after missing 18 games due to a lower back strain and promptly blasted a ninth-inning homer at Wrigley Field for a 1-0 win over the Reds. In 2015, getting his first taste of the postseason, Rizzo homered off the same St. Louis pitcher, Kevin Siegrist, for a second straight game -- a first in postseason history -- to break a 4-4 sixth-inning tie and help Chicago advance to the National League Championship Series.
Those moments helped prepare him for his greatest triumph, when the Curse of the Billy Goat was lifted and Rizzo cemented himself as a bona fide sports legend in the Windy City. After contributing hits during crucial three-run rallies that led to victories in Games 5 and 6 of the 2016 World Series, Rizzo found himself on the precipice of ending the Cubbies’ 108-year championship drought. A wild back-and-forth Game 7 in Cleveland ensued, with the first baseman drawing a 10th-inning intentional walk and coming around to score the Cubs’ final run in an 8-7 victory that concluded with third baseman Kris Bryant throwing across the diamond to Rizzo, touching off a celebration in Chicago more than a century in the making. (Rizzo had the wherewithal to stick the ball in his back pocket and later hand-delivered it to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.)
Few Chicagoans can forget the image of Rizzo and his teammates lingering in the visitors’ clubhouse at Progressive Field well into the night, basking in the euphoria of what they had just accomplished. It is a feeling that drives Rizzo still as he works toward bringing a similar celebration to New York. Winning a World Series with the Yankees is his goal, but when he reflects on the journey that allowed him to reach this point, Rizzo says he feels grateful not just for having won it all with Chicago, but also for the experiences he had as a young Cub, when playing for a last-place team in each of his first two full seasons allowed him to work out some of the kinks in his game.
“In this game, opportunities are not easy to come by,” Rizzo said this past November. “I feel like when you come up on winning teams, it’s hard to really get that full opportunity to develop in the big leagues. I was very fortunate, I guess, to say that I was on bad Cubs teams, so I was able to run myself out there against lefties for a full year and take my lumps -- I think I hit under .200 for a year or two off lefties -- then figuring that out. So for it to come full circle and be on one of the teams that I grew up rooting for is pretty special.”
His time with the Cubs also provided Rizzo with the chance to test himself under the white-hot spotlight of a major media market. He came to understand that when you’re a star player in a place such as Chicago or New York or Boston -- the Red Sox drafted him in the sixth round in 2007 out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, then included him in a December 2010 trade for Adrián González -- just performing on the field isn’t enough … which is fine by him.
“There’s a lot of other things that come with it, and I enjoy doing those things,” Rizzo said. “I enjoy taking responsibility, to stand up to talk to the media, good, bad or indifferent. I think that really teaches you a lot about this game of baseball, and it teaches you valuable lessons in your own life. You know, everyone loves you when you’re good. Your coaches, the media, your friends -- everyone thinks you’re the greatest thing on Earth. But when things go bad, that’s when you really find out who you are.”
Those bad times have been relatively rare, and the smash hits that Rizzo was known for before the trade to New York in July 2021 have kept on coming. In his first game with the Yankees, he broke up a scoreless tie with a 449-foot moonshot into the upper deck at Miami’s loanDepot park, sparking a 3-1 victory over the Marlins. The following season, on June 16, 2022, his first walk-off homer in pinstripes capped a 6-0 homestand (with sweeps of the Cubs and Rays) that pushed the Yankees to 31 games over .500 (47-16) and gave them a 10-game lead in the AL East. Last October, in his Yankee Stadium postseason debut, Rizzo smacked a two-run sixth-inning homer that knocked Guardians starter Cal Quantrill out of the game and gave the Yankees some breathing room in a 4-1 series-opening victory.
“To be in the big market, to be under the bright lights, to have that 24/7 scrutiny," he said, "is just one of the many things I love about this game.”
It’s no secret -- in fact, for many, it’s a point of pride -- that Italians tend to talk with their hands. One of the most commonly used signs is the upturned “finger purse.” Typically meant to convey something along the lines of “What do you want?” the “pinched fingers” gesture is so ubiquitous that it attained emoji status in 2020.
“It’s often an involuntary gesture -- something we can’t help doing, like blinking or producing the world’s best gelato,” Rome-based reporter Silvia Marchetti once wrote for a CNN article titled “Italian hand gestures everyone should know.” That Rizzo adopted it as his salute to the fans in Section 203 during first-inning roll call has only further endeared him to the Bronx faithful.
Speaking their language has compelled plenty of dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fans to purchase Rizzo’s No. 48 shirsey from the team store, as has the fact that Rizzo is one tough paisano. After getting hit by 23 pitches in 2022 -- 15 more than the next closest Yankee, Josh Donaldson -- Rizzo currently ranks ninth on Major League Baseball’s all-time list with 201. With four more HBPs in '23, Rizzo will surpass Chase Utley as the most-plunked left-handed batter the game has ever seen.
It takes a special kind of ballplayer to deploy such a bruising strategy.
“My first goal when I go to the plate is to get a hit. My second goal is to get hit,” former Yankees designated hitter and beanball wizard Don Baylor once told People magazine. “When the ball is inside, I don’t back away. Common sense says back away, but I guess common sense isn’t that common. I just stiffen up and take the blow.”
It might require a few extra hours in the ice tub over the course of a season, but it sure helps the old on-base percentage. Rizzo -- who has led the Majors in getting hit by pitches three times over the course of his career, including a career-high 30 times in 2015 -- enters 2023 with a career OBP (.366) more than 100 points higher than his career batting average (.265).
Those plunkings can frustrate an opposing pitcher or key a rally, but they are hardly the only career milestone Rizzo has in his sights. He enters his 13th season needing just 24 base hits to reach 1,500, 17 homers to reach 300 and 111 RBIs away from 1,000 -- round numbers that will further underscore just how valuable he has been throughout his career.
Beyond the box scores and the backs of baseball cards, Rizzo brings an intangible value to the Yankees that is hard to quantify but plain to see. He’s a leader on par with any other in the league, a trusted friend that everyone who has played alongside is proud to call a teammate. When Judge -- who surprised no one by turning down his qualifying offer -- spoke about the conversations he had with Hal Steinbrenner while hammering out a nine-year deal to return to the Bronx, the reigning AL MVP and now 16th captain in team history said it was important to hear from the Yankees' managing general partner that they’re on the same page in terms of winning -- and that Rizzo is an integral component to that.
“We want to get back to where the Yankees belong, which is holding up that trophy,” Judge said. “Hal spoke to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m all in. [We’ll do] whatever we need to do to fill some holes, fill some gaps on this team.’ I think going out there and bringing back Rizzo, who’s also a big leader in this clubhouse and a big part of this team, was a great first start.”
And so, the Yankees kick off the 2023 season with the same goal they had 100 years ago, when they flung open the doors to Yankee Stadium for the first time and went on to win their first championship: be the last team standing. There has been only one World Series parade up the Canyon of Heroes since 2000 -- hardly a drought by Chicago standards, but an eternity for New Yorkers. It’ll take more than any one player -- even a superstar such as Judge -- to make it happen. The Yanks will need contributions from the entire 26-man roster and beyond, and a little luck wouldn’t hurt either. But to try and accomplish that goal without Rizzo at first base had he signed elsewhere?