Rizzo beats cancer to return to lineup
Even the most casual baseball fan knows Jon Lester's story.
On Aug. 27, 2006, Lester was scratched from a scheduled start against the Athletics due to a sore back. He thought the pain was due to a car crash he had been involved in, but a trip to the doctor's office revealed that he had anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
After several months of chemotherapy, Lester's cancer went into remission and he was able to return to the diamond for the start of the 2007 season with low Class A Greenville. Now, after a full recovery, Lester has shaped himself into one of the best young pitchers in the game and represents one of the most inspirational stories in baseball.
Could it be that the Red Sox could have a repeat performance? He still has a ways to go, but first baseman Anthony Rizzo has already gotten past the most formidable hurdle, and now he's back to proving himself on the field.
Like Lester, Rizzo was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma (limited stage classical Hodgkin's, specifically). When the diagnosis came in late April 2008, he was hitting .373/.402/.446 after 21 games with Greenville. He missed the rest of the season for regular chemotherapy treatment.
Rizzo, a sixth-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2007, was still able to get his baseball fix between biweekly treatment sessions. Though he was usually fatigued for the first week after treatment, he would feel better during the second week, giving him the chance to visit the team's spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., to take batting practice and infield.
When Lester and Rizzo spoke shortly after the diagnosis, Lester told him he made a conscious effort to do something physical whenever he felt well enough, so Rizzo made staying active a priority.
"You don't know how good you're going to feel day-to-day, so the days you do feel good you go out and do as much as you can," Rizzo said. "There are days you feel normal, so I would go out and shoot basketball and mess around with my friends."
Declared cancer-free last November, Rizzo is now mindful of what a privilege it is to play professional baseball for a living.
"With me being young and playing every day, I took it for granted sometimes," he said. "When I got the diagnosis, I could have never played baseball again. I don't take any days for granted now.
"When I'm struggling, I think about what I was going through last year to pull me out of it. (Fighting cancer) has made me mentally stronger as a person."
Business As Usual
Having made a complete recovery, the lefty-swinging Rizzo started the year back with Greenville and showed no signs of rust. He likely would have opened the season in high Class A had he been able to complete his first full professional season last year, but he wasn't so concerned with where he was playing—being able to play at all was enough.
"I wasn't thinking too much about getting moved up. I was excited to be back in Greenville again," Rizzo said. "You can't control (getting promoted), and no matter what, you're playing baseball and having fun."
Even after missing nearly a year's worth of development time, though, it was apparent that Rizzo was too advanced for his South Atlantic League competition. He was batting .298/.365/.494 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs in 245 at-bats with the Drive. Red Sox officials were convinced he was ready for Salem, promoting the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder in late June.
Rizzo was batting .264/.343/.374 in his first 91 at-bats with Salem, though he has yet to show much power, with one home run and seven doubles. Scouts don't expect that to last for long.
"He's a big, strong, physical kid," one National League scout said. "He can make hard contact and has power to all fields. The ball really jumps off his bat."
With an approach that he describes as "selectively aggressive," Rizzo is especially lethal when he is looking for the fastball and gets it.
"He's aggressive at the plate, aggressive against fastballs," the scout said. "Watching him in BP, he's got enough strength and bat speed to drive the ball out to all fields. If you've got him in a fastball count, he can really hurt you."
Salem manager Chad Epperson is also taken with Rizzo's swing, calling it "something you'll remember," and his knowledge of the strike zone, which is advanced beyond his 20 years. But Rizzo's glovework has made the biggest impression on Epperson, who is in his third season as the Red Sox' high Class A manager.
"I think he is the best first baseman in the Carolina League for sure," Epperson said. "You talk about the whole package—feel around the bag, positioning yourself, showing that kind of feel with the glove—it's as good as I've ever seen."
The lofty praise naturally provokes comparison to Lars Anderson, another first baseman who was the organization's top prospect coming into the season and is at Double-A Portland. The Red Sox front office could face a tough decision down the road.
"(Rizzo) has got some similarities to Anderson," the scout said. "I wouldn't say he's blocked, but he's got to go out and perform at his level. I think it's a good problem for the organization, to be honest."
Regardless of what the future holds for Rizzo, though, the real story is that he has one. And soon enough, he may share an infield with someone who has walked a mile in his shoes.