It might have been a long shot last November at the Italian American Sports Museum in Chicago when Team Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza and Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo spoke about joining forces to help the Italians in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. With both Italian Americans tracing their ancestral roots to Sicily, residing in the Miami area and sharing a passion for baseball, it was apparent the more they talked that the more they found out about their commonalities. But what instantaneously brought these two even closer together as kindred spirits was their unconditional love for family and their admirable respect for their Italian heritage. Ultimately inspiring both to sport “Italia” across the chest and to give back to the game by participating in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, coach Piazza and slugger Rizzo are the true international baseball ambassadors who may one day share yet another common thread in Cooperstown
and quite possibly Rome as members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in both America and Italy.
Although Rizzo may have a long road ahead to attain the internationally recognized status that Piazza has already garnered, it isn’t the first time that the 23-year-old has had to beat the odds. While a prospect in
the Red Sox organization during early 2008, Rizzo was diagnosed with limited state classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Boston front office as well as Red Sox pitching ace
Jon Lester, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, were supportive of Rizzo in his battle against cancer. By beating this life-threatening disease, the sky was the limit
for this young man’s future. Now a cancer survivor himself, Rizzo is an inspirational role model who helps cancer patients and their families through the ongoing efforts of
the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation.
Tuesday #Cubs Anthony Rizzo made a surprise pregame visit to H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. twitter.com/LurieChildrens… #CancerSurvivor
— Roberto Angotti (@ABLblogger) April 21, 2013
We’re thrilled to partner with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation for our 3 “Meet the Team” parties this season,… fb.me/JbEwE5Ba
— Kane County Cougars (@KCCougars) April 8, 2013
Andre Dawson joined Anthony Rizzo at the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation’s Walk Off For Cancer 5K this morning: twitter.com/Cubs/status/27…
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) December 9, 2012
We’re proud supporters of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. Check out Anthony’s story and foundation here bit.ly/ScGxre.
— Marucci(@MarucciSports) November 20, 2012
Hey #Cubs fans, I’ve got a new page for everyone to go like! Check out the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation page on… fb.me/WgBvfxqe
— Between the Vines (@CubsStories) October 1, 2012
Everyone, Cubs fan or not, should support The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. Check out his site at rizzo44.com. Thanks!Plz RT
— Anthony Rizzo-Holics (@AnthonyRi44o) September 17, 2012
Initially interested in playing for Team USA but eclipsed by the stacked MLB All-Star calibre roster, Anthony Rizzo was intrigued by Mike Piazza’s guarantee for a prime time slot in the lineup as Team Italia’s slugger. “He’s just a great kid, and I think it’s just wonderful he chose to play with our team,” said Piazza. “As soon as we saw him walk through the door at spring training we exhaled.” However, if the opportunity arose to play for Team USA in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Rizzo has publicly stated that he doesn’t know which jersey he would wear–which is an encouraging sign for all believers. Piazza, who in many ways serves as his Sicilian baseball mentor, prays that he will stick with his roots and play for Italy. “It is important to have an impact guy like that with not only huge size, but status to play for Italy,” Piazza said. “If he’s finally able to reign in and stay healthy and maintain discipline and hit to all fields in Chicago, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a very productive major league hitter. I think he’s going to be big time for many years to come.”
After Team Italy defeated Mexico and Canada to advance from WBC Pool D play in Phoenix with Team USA to the next round at Marlins Park in Miami, Rizzo spoke proudly in defense of his team and chastised those who didn’t believe Italy would compete in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He said,
“No one scripted us to be where we are. But we had a lead in every game we played in this tournament. Every-one has written us off–we shouldn’t be here, this and that. I think we’ve earned the respect that we didn’t get at all in this tournament.” Rizzo conceded that he didn’t have the greatest of expectations for Team Italy, nor did he have any idea that his experience playing for Italia would be the most cherished of his career. “To be honest, I got over here, played the first couple exhibition games and thought, ‘We have good hitters, decent lineup, guys who do their job,’ and Mexico was the game of my life that I’ve ever played. It was so much fun and energetic. It was crazy.” The drama began in the ninth inning when Rizzo hit a two-run double off Mexico’s closer Sergio Romo to give Italy a 6-5 lead and ended when Italy’s closer Jason Grilli got Jorge Cantu to ground out to second with bases loaded.
Not only was Team Italy victorious on more than one occasion with their come-from-behind 6-5 thriller over Mexico and their Mercy rule 14-4 clobbering of Canada, but the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation were also big winners. Many of the Cubs personnel pledged $500 each to the nonprofit if Italy won at least one game. Chicago manager Dale Sveum joked with Rizzo saying that it was only $50, but the team has the morning meeting and friendly wager on video. All winning proceeds collected by the young Cubbie went to the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. “I made sure to text everyone with dollar signs to get their checkbooks ready,” Rizzo said. Once again Rizzo had beat the odds, but this time it benefited his charitable organization and the many families of cancer patients it serves. There was greater good than a game of baseball here. The lives affected by the good fortune of Rizzo and Team Italy far exceeded the box scores. The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation’s race for a cure to combat this deadly disease coupled with the genetic makeup and clubhouse chemistry among Italian players and coaches made for a winning combination second to none as Team Italy moved on to round two of WBC play along with Team USA at Marlins Park in Miami.
Italy took an early 4-0 lead against the 2013 WBC Champion Dominican Republic. Rizzo contributed offensively with a walk and run scored, but the Italians fell short in a heartbreaking
5-4 loss. Facing elimination versus WBC runner-up Puerto Rico, the left-handed slugger drove a three-run double into the right center field gap to put the Italians up 3-0 in the fifth inning, but Puerto Rico came back to lead 4-3. Rizzo walked in the top of the ninth to represent the game-tying run, but he would be left stranded. Team Italy made Italian baseball history by advancing to the World Baseball Classic second round where they nearly upset the 2013 WBC Champion and Runner-Up. Baseball fans and family in Italy could not be more proud of Team Italia’s performance in front of an international audience. The Rizzo family is originally from Ciminna, which about 30 miles southeast of the capital of Palermo in Sicily. Anthony Rizzo’s great grandfather, Vito, came over from Italy in 1905 on
the Prince Albert and went through Ellis Island. Rizzo’s father, John, remained in contact with his brother’s brother-in-law in Sicily throughout the WBC tourney. John Rizzo said, “They have a small core of baseball fans. It’s like a cult thing.” It won’t be a cult for long as baseball continues to be gain popularity among Italy’s youth. Having won back-to-back European Baseball Championships, the Italian national team has attracted the country’s finest athletes. Analogous to Chinese hero Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin’s contributions to the growth of basketball in China, Italian-born Alex Liddi and Anthony Rizzo are now baseball icons in Europe.
With every Team Italy win came its fanaticism. It was no coincidence that the merchandise booths at Phoenix’s Chase Field had sold out of of t-shirts and jerseys before Italy’s game against Team USA. The onslaught of Italian youth sporting RIZZO proudly on their back has only begun. Just as he has become of the face of the Chicago Cubs franchise, Anthony Rizzo has become the backbone of the Italian baseball revolution supported by Mike Piazza. When the 12-time MLB All-Star catcher becomes the first Italian American to be inducted into both the American and Italian Baseball Hall of Fame, the stakes for Anthony Rizzo to repeat history will set the tone for a Team Italia reunion.