“Dude, let’s go grab something to eat,” the message would read. “I need to get away from my phone.”
At their local Glory Days Grill, the two Oakton senior baseball players would talk about sports, life and school — a refreshingly pedestrian conversation for the 18-year-old Rizzo, who usually had spent the preceding hours fielding calls from professional baseball scouts and pondering his future.
“He had such a big summer in some big showcases and was just destroying every pitch he saw, but because Joe is so humble and never lets the moment get too big for him, I think everything that came after that kind of took him by surprise at first,” Cozad said. “He realized that he could actually go pro.”
Lauded for a sweet, powerful lefty swing refined by six years of daily batting practice, Rizzo has shot up the national baseball rankings, placing him on the cusp of his childhood dream and at the center of many teams’ radar ahead of June’s MLB draft. After starting the season as Baseball America’s 34th-best prospect among college and high school players, the South Carolina commit now sits at No. 13 in one publication’s 2016 draft class rankings . He has maintained his high standing by batting .392 this spring with four home runs, 14 RBI and 18 walks entering Friday’s Virginia Conference 5 tournament first round.
The accolades have been both gratifying and motivating for Rizzo. From the day he committed to the sport as a 12-year-old, the All-Met infielder has poured his all into reaching baseball’s biggest stage, spending his afternoons hitting off the tee or polishing his mechanics in the garage when rain kept him off the field.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing in that big league stadium and getting it done there,” Rizzo said. “There’s no one I really modeled my game after. It’s really been me and my dream, and working toward my dream.”
Much of that work starts in the batter’s box for Rizzo. Blessed with broad shoulders and an astute mind, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder made his way into Oakton’s cleanup spot as a freshman, pacing the Cougars with a .450 batting average during their run to the Virginia state semifinals.
The spotlight continued to grow as Rizzo moved to shortstop as a sophomore and committed to play at South Carolina before his junior season. And even as the number of fastballs he saw dwindled, Rizzo put together his best showing last spring, batting .606 with seven home runs and 25 RBI to earn Virginia 6A state player of the year honors.
“As a freshman, you’re just one of the guys. But as he kept putting up numbers, eyes started to open and expectations came,” Oakton Coach Justin Janis said. “But he’s handled it all very well and has kept improving.”
The climax in Rizzo’s rise came last summer. After lacing a single in the nationally televised Perfect Game All-American Classic and finishing third in the event’s home run challenge, Rizzo joined his EvoShield Canes fall-ball team for the Perfect Game championships in Jupiter, Fla.
It was there that Rizzo, who had recently trimmed his long locks and thick beard for a more clean-cut look, became synonymous with the term “dirtbag” — a moniker used by the swarm of scouts in attendance to describe, in baseball’s case, a blue-collar player whose jersey is always dirty with determination.
“Whatever I do, I’m going to go full-gear and grind it out,” Rizzo said. “That’s how I stay focused and what my team deserves from me.”
Since then, 28 of the 30 major league teams have made in-home visits with Rizzo and all 30 have watched him take batting practice, according to his father, Joe Rizzo Sr.
“He’s an okay athlete, and there’s a question about where he’s going to play defensively,” one veteran pro scout said. “But he can do the one thing that will get you to the big leagues and keep you there, and that’s hit.”
His plate prowess firmly established, Rizzo has worked this year to improve his fielding skills. Previously prone to errors at shortstop with Oakton or at his preferred position of third base with the Canes, Rizzo has improved his hand speed and made himself a reliable defender for both.
“It’s ridiculous how fast his hands have gotten, to where I’ve never seen him miss a one-hopper in practice or a game this season,” Cozad said. “I think it’s helped with his bat, too.”
Scouts have also taken notice, resulting in the flood of calls to Rizzo’s phone and a series of initially “nerve-wracking” visits during the fall. The process has been more manageable this spring, with the help of Rizzo’s father, adviser Michael Zimmerman and a personal website created for scouts to access pertinent information. But above all, Rizzo has taken control of this precious stage in his life by maintaining his even-keeled, fun-loving personality.
“His attitude is the same and his work ethic is the same,” Rizzo Sr. said. “He’s doing the same things he would’ve done if he wasn’t receiving attention from pro scouts because it’s all about consistency with him.”
That’s why Rizzo still plays pranks on his teammates, like when he sent a junior varsity player on a 30-minute pursuit for special “left-handed curveballs.” He still indulges in multiple plates of hot wings and signs autographs for wide-eyed kids after games. And even with a senior schedule that lets him out of school an hour early, one of the country’s best hitters still uses the extra time to take batting practice with his dad before every Oakton game.
“It’s looking pretty positive and that it could go well for me,” Rizzo said. “But I don’t rest on that or let any of it get to my head because the work that got me to this point is the only thing that’s going to keep me on this path.”