Yankees Mag: Anthony Rizzo is Still the One

2 years ago

There’s just something about Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. The sky could be blue or gray; rain, or even snow, could be falling. The temperature could be in the low 30s or high 60s. But regardless of the weather, the opening of a new season always seems to be as special and as memorable of an experience for the players on the field as it is for the fans in the seats.

The Yankees have won plenty of their Opening Day games, and, naturally, they’ve lost their fair share, as well. When the Yankees win their opener, there’s usually a player whose heroics stand out. But unlike most of the regular-season home runs or impressive pitching performances that follow the season’s first game, the big moments that shape a curtain-raising afternoon are remembered for a long time. Sometimes forever.

The 2022 season began eight days after the date selected on the original schedule. The first seven games were set to be played in two Texas cities but were moved to dates later in the season as a result of Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, which took until mid-March to finalize. Then, a day before the Yankees were scheduled to host the Boston Red Sox, a dismal weather forecast compelled officials to move Opening Day back 24 hours.

Finally, on a picture-perfect day in the Bronx, Yankees fans got their first taste of baseball in 2022, but things seemed to sour very quickly. In the top of the first inning, Gerrit Cole surrendered three runs to the archrival Red Sox before recording the first out of the frame. By the time the ace could get out of the inning, the crowd’s roar had quieted, with many fearing that it could be a long day for the home team.

Then, with one out in the bottom of the first, Aaron Judge singled for the team’s first hit of the season, bringing Anthony Rizzo to the plate with one out. The first baseman, who was originally drafted by the Red Sox out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2007, joined the Yankees after a trade deadline deal with the Cubs on July 29, 2021.

Playing in his first Opening Day in pinstripes, Rizzo took the first offering from Nathan Eovaldi for a ball. When the right-hander came back with an 87 mph splitter, the left-handed Rizzo crushed the baseball, sending it an estimated 414 feet. It soared over the right-field wall, over the first section of seats and into the bleachers.

Rizzo took a second to watch the baseball disappear into the scrum of reenergized fans. He dropped his bat and took off for first base, as the crowd quickly reached a frenzied state.

Just like that, the Yankees were back in the game, now trailing just 3-2.

“That felt good,” said Rizzo, who had previously hit three Opening Day home runs with the Cubs. “When you give up three runs early, it’s all about how you respond. It was a nice response for us.”

“That really helped everyone on our team settle down,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the game. “Obviously, we had a rough top of the first inning, but to get two back there, now it was a ballgame right away. It definitely injected life into our team. It helped us settle in; it allowed guys to contribute without feeling nearly as much pressure. That’s what a big hit like that does for a team in a game that you really want to win.”

When he returned to the mound for the second inning, Cole was clearly rejuvenated. He retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced before exiting the game after the fourth inning. Plenty of other Yankees took advantage of the momentum shift, and, although Boston pulled ahead a few more times, the Yankees won the game on a walk-off single from Josh Donaldson in the 11th inning.

“It was a great answer in the first, especially after the three-spot,” Cole said of the Rizzo blast. “It was a good feeling. I was like, ‘Hey, we’re here to play. We’re going to take this as long as we need to. We are going to feed off each other.’ It’s one of those moments where you can take advantage of it.”

Rizzo has made a career out of providing such moments for his teammates — and it wouldn’t be long before he did so again.

The next day, the Yankees found themselves in a hole similar to the one they had dug out of on Opening Day. Luis Severino gave up two runs in the second inning, while Boston starter Nick Pivetta put up zeros in the first three frames, allowing just one hit.

After surrendering a leadoff single in the top of the fourth, Severino was pulled from the game, bringing rookie Ron Marinaccio to the mound for his first big-league appearance. Marinaccio missed the strike zone with his first five pitches, no doubt dealing with nerves. Before things got any worse on the scoreboard — or in the pitcher’s head — Rizzo asked for time out and jogged to the mound.

“Trust your stuff,” Rizzo told Marinaccio. “You’re in the big leagues for a reason.”

The right-hander took a deep breath — which Rizzo had also reminded him to do — and threw his next pitch over the plate for a strike. He would go on to strike out Boston’s Bobby Dalbec, get Jackie Bradley Jr. to ground into a force out and record the third out of the inning by blowing strike 3 past Christian Vázquez.

“I needed that,” Marinaccio said about the conversation with Rizzo. “I was sure to thank him when we got back to the dugout.”

“I saw Rizzo go over to him just as (pitching coach) Matt Blake was thinking of going out to settle him in,” Boone said. “Rizzo really handled it when he told him to just trust his stuff. Marinaccio really got locked in from there.”

After supplying his team with moral support, Rizzo added some run support. Donaldson led off the bottom of the fourth with a single, and with one out, Rizzo launched a two-run blast that landed a few rows shy of the spot where his Opening Day home run had landed, tying the game.

Again, the Yankees used the momentum-shifting, much-needed home run from Rizzo to catapult themselves to victory, ultimately beating the Red Sox, 4-2.

With a chance to sweep the series, the Yankees again fell behind early. Trailing, 3-1, with two outs in the fourth, Rizzo came through for the third time in as many days, igniting his teammates and the entire Stadium with a two-run single.

Although the Yankees failed to complete the comeback in the Sunday night finale, Boone marveled at his first baseman, whose torrid start continued in the team’s next series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“When you look at what he did in that series, it’s pretty special,” the skipper said. “He just showed how much of a complete player he is. He came up big in clutch moments over and over. He played great defense, and he lifted his teammates, not just with Marinaccio, but throughout the whole weekend. That’s just who he is.”

Weeks before Rizzo was coming through in the clutch under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, the 32-year-old agreed to a new contract with the Yankees and drove from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to join his teammates in Tampa.

As this year’s shortened spring training began to take shape, Rizzo found himself on a back field at the team’s complex accompanied by a few other players, including newly acquired shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The two infielders — who both rooted for the Yankees as kids — had spent barely any time together before this late-morning workout under the blazing Florida sun. But after sending a bunch of baseballs over the metal fence that separates the outfield from Dale Mabry Highway, Rizzo walked over to the third-base dugout and struck up a conversation with the former Ranger.

As the two discussed the trade that brought Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson to the Yankees a few days prior, Rizzo asked the shortstop his age. Kiner-Falefa began to laugh.

“Good timing for that question,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Today’s my 27th birthday. But, you know what, after I got traded here, I told everybody that I didn’t need any presents. This is what I wanted.”

Rizzo smiled at the younger player before echoing a similar sentiment he had shared at a press conference a few days before.

“I’m with you,” Rizzo said. “I know how you feel. I wanted to be here, and I was really hoping this was going to happen. We’ve got a lot in common.”

As their conversation wound down, all of the players in the hitting group except for Rizzo scattered, many of them heading for the clubhouse. Rizzo hung back, excited to discuss his return to the Yankees.

“I love the energy of New York City,” he said in an exclusive Yankees Magazine interview. “The history with this organization is unlike anywhere else, and for me, growing up as a Yankees fan, that plays into how I feel about playing for this team. That plays into the desire to be here. New York is a fun, energetic city, and playing in this market and in so many big games is what I wanted.”

Aside from the desire to play for a contending team that he rooted for, Rizzo and his wife both have ties to the Northeast and have family members who live in close proximity to the Big Apple.

The experience of playing for the Yankees during the last two months of the 2021 season heightened Rizzo’s desire to wear the pinstripes for a more extended tenure. During the time he was in New York last season, Rizzo batted .249 with eight home runs in 49 games even though he dealt with COVID-19 and sat out for 10 days after a productive start. Despite the ups and downs of 2021, Rizzo was steadfast in his belief that the experience would pay dividends this season.

“It definitely helps as far as just getting acclimated here,” he said. “As soon as you get comfortable with your surroundings in this game, the quicker you are able to be yourself and be relaxed and just play baseball and not worry about everything else. So, to come here this spring and know most of the players as well as the training staff and strength coaches, that has made it a lot easier.

“Getting to learn how everyone operates really gave me an advantage coming into this season.”

Asked to reflect on his 10 seasons in Chicago, Rizzo couldn’t help but smile. The experience of winning a World Series with a team that hadn’t won it all in the previous 108 seasons is a common topic when that chapter of his life comes up. But there were so many other aspects of the decade he spent in the Cubs organization that remain special to him.

“Wrigley Field is one of the oldest ballparks in the game,” he said. “The history there is amazing, just like the old Yankee Stadium. The media attention is similar to that of New York City, and the Cubs fans are really passionate. Their fan base extends worldwide. They appreciate the game of baseball, and they appreciate guys who play the game hard. If you exemplify that every single day, you are usually in a good spot with them.”

Rizzo expected a similar atmosphere when he arrived in New York, and he was right.

“I think playing in Chicago, in that market, has set me up to be able to go full steam ahead here in New York and to know what it takes to play for a front-line organization and to enjoy these moments,” he said. “The second you walk outside in Manhattan or in Chicago, there’s going to be someone who recognizes you. If you are playing hard every day, you’ll be appreciated for that in both cities.”

Rizzo plans on adhering to that approach until his playing days are done.

“The way that I attack every season is that I’m never going to look back and feel like I could have given more,” he said. “I’m trying to run this car into the ground and not have anything left in the tank.”

The first baseman’s all-out efforts and his consistent play have earned him respect throughout the sport. Since his first full season, 2013, Rizzo has hit 25 or more home runs in six separate years, and he has played in at least 140 games eight times. In the abbreviated 2020 season, he took the field in 58 of his team’s 60 games, hitting 11 home runs.

“You want to be so consistent that you’re boring,” said Rizzo, a career .268 hitter with 251 home runs entering 2022. “You want to stack up seasons like that; that’s how you gain respect. You play hard every day, and you take the field 150 times a year. That’s how you gain the respect of colleagues, and that’s what motivates you.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Rizzo has been equally consistent, winning four Gold Glove Awards at first base in Chicago and having already impressed Yankees brass with his ability to make difficult plays. He takes as much pride in his defensive prowess as he does in the big numbers he has put up offensively, and his practice regimen includes a significant amount of time spent on the infield dirt. According to Rizzo, he dedicates time to fielding ground balls and scooping balls out of the dirt up to six days a week during the season.

“Playing first base in general, the feedback that means the most to me comes from the infielders,” he said. “I want our shortstop to be as comfortable as he can be when he’s making a play in the hole, coming up blind and just throwing it. I want him to know that I will be there even if he sails it. I want him to know that I will at least knock the ball down so that he doesn’t get a throwing error. If the infielders throw a ball in the dirt, I want them to know that I will still make the play. I know that every out is important, and making those plays means as much as coming up with a big hit.”

On top of Rizzo’s on-field ability, one intangible that he brings to the Yankees is his championship pedigree. He’s currently one of just three players on the roster who has won a World Series, and for a team primed to again compete for the ultimate prize, his experience matters.

“I’ve been on some really bad teams that have lost 100 games, but being on a championship team is a lot harder and a lot more fun,” Rizzo said. “It’s not easy to win and learn how to win for the first time. The work you put in is the same, whether you are on a bad team or a championship team. You are doing the work either way, but when you’re in the thick of it for the first time as a player after never winning, it’s draining. There’s that emotional toll; when you’re in a pennant race, you pretty much have to win every single night. The games mean more when you are on a winning team. When you’re not on a winning team, you can rattle off eight of 10, but you’re still not going anywhere. Being on a championship-caliber team takes a toll on you in the beginning, but then once you learn how to manage that, it gets easier. 

“It’s really easy to talk about winning the World Series, but doing the things day in and day out that it takes to win a World Series is very hard.”

Having been on that ride in Chicago, all Rizzo wants to do is experience the same type of journey in the Bronx. 

“When you get to the top of the mountain like we did, and you’re the last one up there with your teammates, you realize that the journey began in spring training,” Rizzo said. “You have bumps in the road, you have adversity, and you have some really good times, better times and amazing times. You also have terrible times during the year. At the end, it’s really rewarding. One way that winning the World Series changed my life is that it became addicting. As a player, it’s what you want to do.”

Rizzo is in a good place these days, but make no mistake about it, what he accomplished with the Cubs — and what he did in the first series of this season against the Red Sox — is only part of the first baseman’s long journey through baseball. 

“The first half of my career with Chicago was amazing, and I hope the back nine is as much fun as the front nine,” he said. “This game is fun, but you can’t play forever. Everyone has their expiration date. But until that day comes for me, I’m going to be doing everything I can to help my team win.”