MESA, Ariz. — He wore a blue Chicago Cubs hoodie and blue Cubs shorts, his bare knees bouncing up and down nervously below the table where he sat. He rested his elbows on the table, leaning into the microphone, and picked at the calluses on his hands, the residue of a million swings of a wooden baseball bat. There was a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his face.
Anthony Rizzo didn’t look tired, just weary. He wasn’t the one whose eyes had seen the unthinkable, but he was the one whose eyes had looked into the eyes of those who did, and tried, however futilely, to absorb some of their pain. That was its own sort of awesome and sobering responsibility, and it had Rizzo, the Cubs’ strapping first baseman, searching again for the right words.
“The blink of an eye,” he said quietly, “everyone’s upside-down.”
Rizzo was back at the Cubs’ spring training headquarters on Monday morning, five days after departing it suddenly to hurry home — home being Parkland, Fla., the site of last week’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, his alma mater. The 17 victims included some he knew and some he only knew of. Among the dead were his agent’s niece and the football coach his brother played four years under.
“I didn’t know most of the kids personally,” he said. “But they’ll be in my thoughts and prayers every day. I go to sleep at night, [and] things start spinning through my head. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people who were directly affected.”
Rizzo chose his words carefully Monday, never once using the words “gun control” or even “guns” — except to clarify to a questioner determined to go down that road that he hadn’t spoken them at all, a clarification he made with firm conviction.
“To be clear, I did not say the word ‘gun’ once in my [public statements]. Anyone out there who wrote [that] I called for gun control I think is very irresponsible,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what needs to be done. I don’t know enough about it. I know there’s a lot of shootings. I know they’re done with a specific make [of semiautomatic rifle]. But I don’t know what needs to be done. … It’s hard enough to hit a baseball. It’s [impossible] to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”
The furthest Rizzo would go was to say he hopes the politicians are thinking what the rest of us are: “You just hope that somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why? Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day. This is a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.”
The word Rizzo kept coming back to was “change.” There needs to be some, he said. He couldn’t say what that change should be, but he knew what it looked like — it looked like the faces of the Douglas High students he spoke to, the ones so clearly determined to make it happen. If this shooting is going to be different from the ones before, all of them greeted with the weary resignation that nothing will ever change, it will be because of those students.
“I think it’s great for the kids to go out and show that they have a voice,” Rizzo said. “They just went through the scariest time of their life, that no one should ever have to go through. For them to be outspoken about it [shows] they’re not just going to sit back and be another statistic. They really want to make a change.
“Hopefully,” he paused and caught himself. “I can’t even sit up here with confidence and say this is going to be the last mass shooting, because it probably won’t be. But hopefully this is one of the steps in the right direction.”
Later, he looked out at the group of reporters crowded around him and said, “Some type of change needs to happen for the better. Because I’m sure people in here have kids, and no one feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to a school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”
When Rizzo first heard of a school shooting on Feb. 14, his reaction was like that of most: A vague, resigned numbness that resolved itself into practiced nonchalance — this type of awful news story having long ago become far too common.
“I took my next golf swing,” he said, “because that’s how numb this country is to it.”
Only later, as he came to realize it was his town, his school, his people who had been shot, did he start to reel. And it was then, all at once, he felt the tug of home. He knew he had to go to Parkland.
“I mean, I grew up in Parkland,” he said. “I got in trouble there. I succeeded there. I’ve learned how to be who I am because of Parkland. So to be across the country and not be there, and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there and help support them was very important to me.”
Among the victims with whom Rizzo was closest was Aaron Feis, the football coach who reportedly died while shielding children from the shooter’s bullets. Rizzo said he had seen Feis just three weeks earlier.
“Every single one of my friends from high school, we all have memories of Coach Feis,” Rizzo said. “And for him to lay his life down like that and save kids, it just shows what type of person he is. … He’s just a true hero. He had this monster come in and shoot up a school, and he jumps in front of kids and saves their lives.”
Rizzo’s speech at a nationally televised vigil there Thursday night — “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said — was powerful, poignant, widely viewed and well received. What wasn’t shown was the way Rizzo later visited with victims at the hospital and in their homes, comforting those who needed it and taking comfort himself in the embrace of family and friends.
“There’s really nothing you can say, nothing you can do except be there and show that you care for them,” Rizzo said. “Because you know, as much as I want to say I know how it feels for them, I don’t. I didn’t lose anyone who was direct family — but I feel like I did, because I’m from there.”
Back in Mesa, Rizzo’s teammates watched his speech and saw a side of him they might not have known was there. Rizzo, 28, is a cancer survivor, a man honored in 2017 with MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship [and] community involvement.” And even with all that in his background, nothing could have prepared Rizzo to stand on that stage, in front of his community and all those television cameras, and find the right words.
“I was speechless,” center fielder Albert Almora Jr. said Monday of his reaction to Rizzo’s speech at the vigil. “When he got emotional, I got emotional. I was right there with him. I felt it.”
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said Rizzo’s character is “one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in baseball.” “What he’s done for his causes, for cancer, the amount of time he gives for kids in particular and the amount of energy he puts into his own charitable efforts is remarkable,” Ricketts said. “Obviously last week takes it to the next level. He responded like a person with true character. You can’t say enough about what a great person he is.”
On Monday, back in Mesa, Rizzo threw himself into the embrace of teammates and into the comforting, daily monotony of mid-February baseball. He will always be linked to the Parkland tragedy, because of his roots, and he will do all he can to help those kids and ensure those 17 deaths were not in vain.
But now, the Cubs need him, too. And maybe there was some comfort to be found being back at work, back in uniform, and back in the familiar realm where calluses grow on hands that grip a wooden bat for hours at a time.