2012-09-20 / Sports
For Cubs’ rookie first baseman Rizzo, N.J. is his second home
A nthony Rizzo broke into a wide grin as he spotted Aunt Tina striding toward him carrying a Styrofoam box. He knew the contents.
“That’s lemon ice from the Lyndhurst Pastry Shop,” said the Chicago Cubs’ rookie first baseman as he stood outside the bus and prepared to enter the visitors’ clubhouse at Citi Field in New York. “Any time I’m close to New Jersey, like here where we’re playing the Mets, my relatives bring me stuff like this. It’s really my second home.”
Rizzo was born and raised in Parkland, Fla., but he has family who live in the Garden State. Growing up, he spent many summers with his aunts, uncles and cousins, doing what every kid did on vacation—having fun, eating lots of good food and enjoying each other’s company. “Anybody who tells me they’re from New Jersey,” says the 22-year-old, who was brought up from Triple-A Iowa in late June, “I tell them I’m from New Jersey, too. I have so many memories of those summers. I love it there.”
His relatives love having him back. Each time the Cubs are on the road— draw a circle around the Garden State with a 400-mile radius— legions of Rizzo family members descend on major league parks wherever they are playing. It’s a sure bet one will be toting a box that contains the treat that most reminds Rizzo of New Jersey—lemon (regulars don’t call it Italian) ice.
“The first thing my brother John and I do when we visit (New Jersey) is head to Lyndhurst and get our lemon ice fix,” Rizzo said. “My aunts are amazing cooks, too. When I played in the minors, they always showed up with homemade stuff.”
One of those treats was Aunt Maria’s (Cinardo) cookies. She is one of seven sisters and brothers (one is deceased), and each time Rizzo’s team played in a city that was within reasonable driving distance from New Jersey, she and her husband Nick brought a large tin of her famous baked goods.
Rizzo spent many days and nights in different cities since being drafted in the sixth round by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. Still, he never fails to join his parents, Laurie and John, and older brother, John, for the family’s annual holiday trip to New Jersey.
The highlight is the Christmas Eve feast attended by the entire Rizzo clan—all 48 of them, when they spend the evening enjoying course after course of fish, lasagna, manicotti, antipasti and enough desserts to feed an army.
“We’re a close-knit family,” said Maria, “and that stems from what our father (Frank) taught us. We lost our mother when I was 11 and my dad had to become ‘Mr. Mom’ for all of us. We genuinely care about each other.”
Never was that love more important to Anthony than shortly after he was drafted by the Red Sox. He was assigned to the organization’s rookie team in Greenville, S.C. and he played in six games at the end of the 2007 season.
Rizzo went home to Florida and he couldn’t wait for the following spring, which was his first full season as a pro. Only when it was time to return to Greenville, Rizzo always felt very tired. He brushed it off thinking that his body was barking at him as he put himself through workouts to prepare for the rigors of pro ball.
The body aches didn’t go away and that worried Rizzo enough to consult with the team trainer, who sent him for tests. The diagnosis was conclusive—Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That diagnosis brought his season to a crashing halt and caused him to ponder about his future.
The Red Sox gave their young prospect the option of undergoing chemotherapy at Boston’s Dana Farber Institute or in Florida. Rizzo went to Boston to be examined by doctors and remained there for a short time, but he decided to finish his treatments at home. During his time in Boston, Rizzo’s family demonstrated the true love and support they have for their blood relative.
“I love to bake.” Maria said. “It’s like therapy to me. So I baked him my ‘healing cookies,’ I call them, and brought them (up there). Other family members came and made stuff that reminded Anthony of his time in New Jersey. That’s our family.”
After six months, Rizzo was declared cancer-free and he embarked on a strenuous rehab that returned his body to what it had been before the disease.
Since then, Rizzo’s career has literally catapulted to where he is now one of the top rookies in the National League. He was traded to the San Diego Padres after the 2010 season as part of the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox. When Theo Epstein became President of the Cubs in 2011, one of his first tasks was to trade for the youngster that he drafted as Red Sox general manager in 2007.
Cub fans are ecstatic Rizzo has landed in Chicago.
He is currently hitting .296 with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs in 73 games. Those statistics have helped him to become a serious Rookie of the Year candidate.
Rizzo dismisses his team’s current woes (Chicago is mired in fifth place with a 58-89 record as of Sept. 17). He prefers to talk about what he and his team expect to accomplish, which is to become a perennial playoff contender.
“The city of Chicago is hungry, so is our front office, our management and so are the players, and we just need to get better,” Rizzo said. “But Chicago is behind us and everybody knows it’s a process. We’re going to get this thing rolling and be a contender year in and year out.
“As for me,” he added, “the only way to get better is to do what I always have and that’s work hard.”
As Rizzo continues his development, the spotlight that shines on him now will undoubtedly become brighter—intense, some might say. There is no doubt that he will handle that pressure the same way he did with cancer—confidently.
That comes from two close cousins, Donny, who lives in Milltown, and Chris, Maria’s oldest son and a former Milltown resident who now lives in Cherry Hill.
“I actually spent a lot of time living with Anthony’s family in Florida,” said Donny, a Seton Hall graduate, “and we got as close as cousins get. Our days were filled with playing stickball, table tennis, you name it. Any time we get together now, we play the same games. He’s always been a kid at heart and nothing has ever ruffled him.”
Chris, an Occupational Therapist in South Jersey, agrees and said that the relationship with his cousin is the same as it’s always been.
“When we’re together,” Chris said, “we rarely talk about (Anthony playing in the majors). I know he prefers it that way. He genuinely loves people, especially his family, and doesn’t want relatives to make a big fuss over him.”
Donny laughed when asked if his cousin has time to speak with him now that he’s occupied with the demands of playing in Major League Baseball.
“You have to be kidding me,” Donny said. “Wherever he is, all I have to do is pick up my (cell phone), call him and he answers. A lot has changed in my cousin’s world, but nothing has changed between him and our family.”