Rizzo prepared to take on big league challenge
Padres top hitting prospect has accomplished much in short time
TUCSON -- The temperature had already reached 103 degrees Saturday afternoon when Anthony Rizzo passed through an open door at Kino Stadium, trading the refuge of the air-conditioned clubhouse for a nearby sliver of shade.
Dry, desert heat, the Florida-born Rizzo admitted, doesn't sit well with him. It's left him longing for something different, though it's not for the destination you might expect the 21-year-old first baseman to choose.
Cool, coastal breeze of downtown San Diego? Think again.
"I actually like the humidity," Rizzo said, smiling. "It helps you sweat."
Rizzo is getting his wish, as his much-anticipated exodus from Tucson and the Pacific Coast League to the Major Leagues will finally be complete Thursday, when he will land in the starting lineup, playing first base and batting somewhere between fifth to eighth, for the first of four games against the Nationals at PETCO Park.
Is he ready? In the opinion of many, he has been ready. Certainly his .365 average, .444 on-base percentage and 1.159 OPS after two months of bashing 16 home runs and driving in 63 runs presented a compelling case for his promotion.
"He will get beat on something, then he makes an adjustment. Very seldom have I seen where he is embarrassed throughout a game or make the same mistakes over and over," said Tucson manager Terry Kennedy, leaning back in his office chair three hours before Saturday's game.
"As a [former] catcher, I will always look at hitters as to say 'What would I do here?' But with him, there's nothing in the strike zone I see that he can't handle."
On Monday, the Padres gave veteran Brad Hawpe, their first baseman, a start in right field. Presumably, it was to prepare Hawpe for a permanent move so Rizzo can drop anchor at first base -- for now and the foreseeable future.
"We're happy with the progress that he's made. Some of the things we've asked him to do ... he's done well," Padres general manager Jed Hoyer said this week.
Ask Rizzo, who will turn 22 in August, about an impending promotion and he won't turn into a shrinking violet and nor will he hide under the convenient (and safe) mantra of "I'm just focused on today."
"I've had a lot of fun here and I have great teammates and there's a great staff here. But I don't want to sit in Triple-A forever," Rizzo said. "It has been a dream of mine to play in the Major Leagues since I was a little kid.
Rizzo won't have to wait much longer, as he'll become the first of three highly regarded prospects the Padres acquired from Boston in December for All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to reach the Major Leagues.
|"Coming up as a kid, if someone could do something that I couldn't, I'm there five hours until I can do it, too. It didn't matter if it was juggling, paddleball or video games. No matter what it was, I wanted to get better and conquer it."|
|-- Anthony Rizzo|
"He just seems to know what he can do. He seems really polished for how young he is," said Tacoma manager Daren Brown, who saw Rizzo get seven hits, including two home runs, and nine RBIs against his team during a four-game series in May.
Tucson pitcher Wade LeBlanc, who has made 41 Major League starts over four seasons with San Diego, has marveled more at how Rizzo prepares for games than his actual success during them.
"Not comparing him, because that's a lot of pressure, but it's like what I saw Adrian do," LeBlanc said. "He would study a pitcher he was going to face and form his approach and stick with it -- regardless of how the guy is attacking him.
"I wouldn't say he's on that level now. But he's got a good shot to get there."
So how did Rizzo get to the precipice of beginning his Major League career? And, better still, what is it that has allowed him to advance quickly?
Dean Florio, who coached Rizzo at Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., said it's the work ethic and competitive drive -- in addition to natural talent and keen hand-eye coordination -- that has afforded his former pupil his success.
"All of the big power-hitting lefties I've had, they're all dead-red, pull hitters when they come into the program," Florio said. "During his sophomore year, as I threw to him in the cage, I threw the ball away, away, away.
"By his junior year, he was starting to put it together. By his senior year, he had it down. I remember he hit a home run to left field and pulled one to right in the same game. A lot of high school kids can't do that. But Anthony listened and he worked at it."
That was apparent to others, as Rizzo's success at Douglas High led him to a scholarship offer from Division I Florida Atlantic University. With the 2007 First-Year Player Draft weeks away, Rizzo was invited to a private workout at Fenway Park by the Red Sox.
Current Padres assistant general manager Jason McLeod, who was running Boston's drafts at the time, said that the workout added "... conviction in who he [Rizzo] was as a person."
Rizzo's approach and ability to drive the ball the other way with easy power off the barrel of his bat certainly didn't hurt either, McLeod said.
The Red Sox drafted Rizzo in the sixth round, giving him a signing bonus of $325,000. Because he signed late, he got 21 at-bats that summer in the Gulf Coast League before getting ready for his first full professional season.
But 21 games into the 2008 season, while playing for Single-A Greenville, Rizzo started to feel tired and sluggish. His didn't feel it in his swing -- he was hitting .373 -- but he felt it everywhere else.
"I was super tired. I remember I hit a double to left field in a game and I was running and even though I'm pretty slow already, I can usually run in circles," Rizzo said. "And I had gained a bunch of weight because I had swelling in my legs.
"That's how they detected it, because I had a kidney malfunction."
Diagnosed with limited-stage Classical Hodgkin's lymphoma, Rizzo was treated as an outpatient at Massachusetts General Hospital before he returned to his family home in Florida, where reality finally took hold of him.
"Once they told me, I was in shock. I was off to a great start, hitting .360, .370, and then it is like, 'boom', I'm back home watching television," Rizzo said. "But the doctors I had in Boston were great and were so assuring I was going to beat it. I knew that I would."
Six months of chemotherapy wiped out the cancer and Rizzo was able to resume playing in 2009. His annual checkups have been good. He has spent time visiting hospitals during the past two seasons, relishing the chances to spend time with children who have cancer.
"Seeing the kids who are younger than I am going though what I did," Rizzo said. "I was 18 and playing baseball and loving everything when it happened. I think it just makes me even more appreciative of being healthy."
Rizzo has been hitting ever since, taking on the challenges of higher levels each season, which his friends and teammates alike will tell you is a testament to his competitiveness. Just ask Casey Kelly, a close friend and teammate from their time in the Red Sox system.
Kelly, also part of the Gonzalez trade, is currently pitching for Double-A San Antonio. Rizzo was actually at Kelly's house in Sarasota, Fla., when the trade went down.
"In Spring Training, we would shoot free throws at the hoop at the hotel and play H.O.R.S.E.," Kelly said. "Every time I beat him, he wanted to play again. I would be like, 'No, let's go inside.' Once he won, though, we could finally quit.
"That's just how he is. He's extremely competitive. He's not going to let anyone stand in his way."
It's an assessment with which Rizzo won't attempt to argue. Indeed, it's one he takes pride in.
"Coming up as a kid, if someone could do something that I couldn't, I'm there five hours until I can do it, too," Rizzo said. "It didn't matter if it was juggling, paddleball or video games. No matter what it was, I wanted to get better and conquer it."
That Rizzo's core group of friends is as competitive as he is has led to some interesting challenges over the years, like the one he faced during his first season in the Red Sox system.
"They called to say they'd picked up the game of squash and said how they were going to kill me at it," Rizzo said. "I had never played it before. So we ended up playing and they destroyed me at it. It was bad. The ball doesn't bounce and I'm like 'What?' But I kept playing and playing. I wouldn't stop."
So why stop now?
The Padres are equal parts curious and anxious to see what Rizzo can do with his next challenge -- not just reaching the Major Leagues, but as every player will tell you, playing well enough to remain there.
"Hopefully I will get called up and help contribute to a run for the playoffs," Rizzo said. "It's exciting. I'll turn on [TV] now and see how much fun guys are having. Not just the Padres, but Major League players everywhere.
"It's something I think about it every day."