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June 28, 2012

Inside The Park

Why Can't We Just Leave Rizzo Alone?

by Bradford Doolittle

As one who ordinarily dislikes slack moments, I tend to plan things down to the second. It's a practice that often leaves little margin for error and sometimes results in small mishaps. Because as much as you try, you can't fully allow for externalities. One of those is the Chicago Transit Authority, not a sturdy peg on which to hang a daily calendar. The online tracker for the trains is very accurate, but you want to leave a buffer, because the CTA has its externalities as well.

The day of Anthony Rizzo's Cubs debut, I did not leave enough of a buffer. I know that it takes me about six minutes at a steady pace to walk to the Argyle Station, and the tracker told me I had eight minutes. Nevertheless, there it was pulling into the station just as I approached the entrance. I sprinted up the stairs only to find the doors sliding shut and an unforgiving train operator at the helm.

The wait for the next train made me about 11 minutes late to Wrigley Field, a place I haven't been going to much lately because of depression and a kind of existential crisis, a black-ass funk during which I have not been able to fathom why anyone could possibly care about a baseball game. It's a long story— some seriously bad shit has happened in my life lately. I may tell the story another time, but not now. The point here is that I as made my way into the ballpark, I was way out of the loop and in a total fog. So when I saw some of my media colleagues scrambling downstairs, I was confused but didn't think much of it. They do that, the media. They scramble. I kept my distance and quietly made my way into the suddenly-abandoned press box, where I set up my work station for the evening. I looked out at a tour group moving through the bleachers and wondered if it was too late to find someone to take my stringing assignment.

As it turns out, the mad dash had a purpose: Rizzo was giving a press conference in the dungeon-like media room in the bowels at Wrigley Field. By the time I returned downstairs, dreading the long pregame vigil in which we awkwardly hover around the players as they go through their pregame routines, Rizzo was already talking and the room was closed up. Fine by me. Screw it. I went out into the ballpark and sat in the seats, reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon on my Kindle.

When enough time had passed, I went back inside to find out when and where Dale Sveum was going to talk and to, you know, do my job. Rizzo walked by and nodded. My first thought, like one of the cartoonish scouts from the Moneyball movie, was that, hey, that's a good-looking kid. Big, blond, and fresh-faced. A media friend walked over and asked if I was "feeling better," and I shook my head. At that point, no, I was definitely not feeling better. Nearby, a group of reporters was interviewing Starlin Castro about Rizzo. Further down, a couple of others were asking Bryan LaHair about the same subject. The television directly over my head was blaring the MLB network, which was talking about Rizzo's impending debut. The Blackberry in my pocket vibrated, and I pulled it out to see a text message from the guy I was working with that day. It assured me not to worry, because he "got Rizzo."

It was at that point that, at long last, it dawned on me what I had stumbled into: it was Anthony Rizzo Day at Wrigley Field.

My mood sunk just a little bit further. I knew, of course, that the Cubs had recalled Rizzo. I wasn't that far removed from the never-ending news cycle. Even at my worst, I'd pulled up Prospectus and MLB Trade Rumors and the scoreboard a couple of times a day. If there was one thing I was looking forward to in my outing that evening, it was to see the young man behind those huge Triple-A numbers in action. What I had not anticipated, however, was that Rizzo would be getting Chicago's version of the Bryce Harper treatment. Every affiliate was represented: print, television, radio, and web. Columnists you don't see around much were on hand. Even some curious New York reporters had wandered over from the Mets' side of the ballpark.

The thought stifled me, and not because I knew that I'd have to write a pre-game separate on the topic. It bothered me because the buzz was so manufactured. The Cubs have the worst record in baseball, and for much of the season, the only good news generated by the organization were the seemingly-daily reports of another Rizzo home run. At first, these reports were minor notes in gameday sidebar stories. But as the homers piled up, suddenly it became a hot topic. When would he arrive? What is taking so long? Sport talk radio and television got into the story, and then the fans started to wonder too. Rizzo's hype machine was going full-bore by the time he arrived, through no fault of his own. He was being hailed as a savior. The good-looking kid was being set up to fail before he'd even stepped on Wrigley Field.

I heard one radio reporter recording an intro to a sound bite in which he referred to Rizzo's "major-league debut." I saw other references to the same subject on Twitter. This is how myopic fans and media can be about the team they follow. It was of course not Rizzo's major-league debut. He's barely even a rookie, having fallen two at-bats and two days of service time shy of exhausting that status last season for San Diego.

This is important to note not just for editorial reasons. Rizzo has already spent a decent chunk of time in the big leagues and, so far, he's flopped around like a marlin on the deck of Ernest Hemingway's boat. He hit .141 with one homer in 153 plate appearances for the Padres last season. Kevin Goldstein ranked him at No. 75 on his Top 101 Prospects list entering the season. Rizzo was a sixth-round draft pick and has already been traded twice during his professional career. Last winter, the Cubs landed him for Andrew Cashner, a young power pitcher coming off shoulder trouble. None of this is Rizzo's fault. All he can do is go out and play. But can't we just employ a little temperance here?

Rizzo hit .342/.405/.696 for Iowa. A nice line, to be sure. He put up similar numbers in Triple-A in the Padres’ system last year. This year's performance, as Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer noted before Rizzo's debut, was more impressive because of the playing venue. It's a lot harder to put up those numbers in Des Moines than it is in Tucson. Rizzo made some mechanical adjustments, holding his hands lower and shortening his stroke. It's thought that these tweaks will allow him to better translate his minor-league numbers to The Show. However, there is still the matter of his approach: Rizzo struck out 52 times and walked just 23 times for Iowa in 284 plate appearances. Yes, his slash stats sparkle, but you have to be wary of a player with questionable patience who may also have issues with making consistent contact. In this case, we have the added red flag of his first-year, big-league numbers. All we really know at this point is that when Rizzo makes contact, he knocks the crap out of the ball. We don't know if he's going to make contact often enough for it to matter.

The intent here is not to knock Rizzo, or to suggest he is going to fail again. He may well man first base for the Cubs for the next 15 years, and in 25 years, maybe he's making a speech in Cooperstown. Who knows? This is really not about Rizzo at all. It's about unreasonable expectations, and where they come from.

"I think it's great to be excited, but it has to come with the understanding that he's going to have his ups and downs," Hoyer said. "You're looking at a career here, not just a couple of weeks or a couple of months."

Wise words, but will anybody listen?

Let's bring this back around to me, since I know that's what you really want to know about. After standing through press conferences with Sveum and Hoyer, during which nearly every question was Rizzo-related, I felt the fog start to lift. I realized that I was now suddenly very interested in all this Rizzo business, and if I gave it some thought, I might even have something to say about it. I even began to look forward to the game.

Ah, the game. It was a really nice day at Wrigley. Bright and mild, with the wind blowing in. Wayne Messmer sang the anthem, while my colleague imitated the high points because we've heard him do it some many times. We began to joke about Rizzo. Why didn't he sing the anthem? When was the statue dedication? What business did Hank Aaron have wearing Rizzo's No. 44? After Rizzo caught a line drive hit right at him, I tweeted, "Rizzo snared that screaming liner with the poise and dexterity of a young Lou Gehrig."

Rizzo received a standing ovation when he was announced for his first at-bat, which made me slap my forehead. Clearly the hype machine had worked. Then Rizzo singled in that first trip to the dish. Sort of. He hit a hard smash at Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, who couldn't quite pluck it. Venerable scorekeeper Bob Rosenberg announced, "E6." (Venerable is an understatement. Rosenberg has scored every professional basketball game in Chicago history except two. He's done Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Cubs, and even some lower-profile sports. The number of live professional sporting events he's attended in Chicago is probably somewhere around 6,000. It may be more than that.) Old Rosie isn't as quick on the uptake these days. An audible smattering of disapproval erupted in the press box and the crowd booed loudly when 'E' was flashed on the scoreboard. Rosie watched a replay and quickly changed the play to single. I, and about 10,000 other tweeters, noted that Rizzo was batting 1.000.

In the fourth inning, Rizzo stepped to the plate in a 3-3 game with two outs and runners on the corners. Rizzo lined a Dillon Gee pitch into center field, right at Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who stumbled while fielding the ball. The lead run scored from third, and Castro raced to third. Nieuwenhuis threw the ball toward third to try to cut down Castro. Rizzo rounded first, paused, and when the throw went towards third, he slid into second base. The crowd was going crazy. I marked on my scorecard a '/' to denote single and, as is my habit, I used Stats LLC notation to record the movement of the baserunners: r3H13b2t. That is, runner on third to home, runner on first to third, batter to second on the throw. Could have been an error on Nieuwenhuis, but I didn't think so. Because of the volume of the crowd, it was several minutes before I realized that Rosie had made an announcement amongst the clamor: "Double. RBI." I shouted down to the Cubs' media relations director, who held up two fingers at me to confirm.

Um, no.

But the call stood, writing everybody's game story for them. The wire service service lede was this: "If the lofty expectations were weighing on Anthony Rizzo, he sure didn't show it in his Cubs debut."

I didn't have to look up that lede, because I wrote it. Yes, I was feeding the hype machine. There was no choice. Rizzo, and the expectations surrounding him, was the story. Even if I had written a different lede, something about the Cubs' bullpen throwing five scoreless innings, for example, it would have been changed. The Cubs went on to win 5-3. Rizzo handled his postgame press assault with aplomb. He's got a shy, unassuming manner that seems genuine, and he's really polite. The last quality is going to change. It has to, or he's going to be pestered to death by reporters always on the prowl for a player who doesn't say no.

During the game, I received a Twitter question from someone who goes by the handle "softyelectric." He or she asked, "Who's to 'blame' when fans disappointed with nice .275/.350/.475 player? Hoyer for making rizzo deal? Trib? Everyone, no one?"

This is the blame game, something we all seem to play. We've always got to be blaming someone for something. Why is that? I thought about it and responded, "If fans want to be disappointed in that, then they are to blame."

Softyelectric, obviously a thoughtful person, then offered, "Mostly agreed, but doesn't sheer volume of stories contribute to 'expectation inflation'? Even if they don't predict 1.000 OPS?"

It's an excellent question, one that I won't attempt to answer in great detail because it's an exhaustive topic. I will share my answer: "It does, but in 2012 people have got to learn how to sift through media bullshit. It's either that or choose to be stupid."

There is an incredible thirst for text these days these days, for a hundred viewpoints on every topic under the sun. Demand being what it is, someone is going to emerge to quench it. Whatever you desire, you can find. As Prospectus readers, you may be fairly inoculated against hype and ridiculous arguments because you've filtered them out and opted to focus on well-reasoned voices. But there is a huge spectrum of content on everything that happens, ranging from the brilliant to the sublime to the absurd to the moronic. People have to learn to wade through it. To me, reading and comprehending the internet should be a subject taught in schools. That's not to let the media off the hook, but readers have responsibility as well. To a certain extent, it's a chicken-and-egg problem.

But let's bring this back around to Anthony Rizzo. He was hailed as the great blond hope, and for one day at least, he was anointed a conquering hero. All that for going 2-for-4 with an RBI on a day that save for the vagaries of Bob Rosenberg's well-seasoned mind, could have simply been 1-for-4 with an RBI single. As for me, by the time I filed my stories and sat back to reflect, I realized that I had thoroughly enjoyed the day. Even more importantly, I felt like what I had watched mattered. It was a big moment, and in 21st-century fashion, I posted a status update about it on Facebook.

The next day, I walked into the ballpark at the same time as Rizzo, trailing behind him several feet as we moved towards our respective work spaces. He stopped and looked uncertainly at the row of unmarked doors. Finally, he made a choice, walked over to one and tried the knob. It was locked. Ken, who works the door that leads to the Cubs' clubhouse, was down the way, hopping up and down and yelling, "Anthony! Anthony!" As I watched Ken greet Rizzo with a handshake and let him inside, I felt like I understood the feeling of newness that Rizzo had to be feeling. His parents had flown in for the series, to watch him play baseball at famous Wrigley Field. In his postgame comments the day before, he had likened himself to Henry Rowengartner, the kid who gets to play for the Cubs in the movie Rookie of the Year. This was no savior. This was a guy trying figure out where the clubhouse was.

Even though it was the dreaded day game after a night game, when you feel like you've barely left the ballpark, I was excited to be at Wrigley for the first time in a month. The fog was gone. Hopefully for quite awhile. It'll come back. It always does, and more bad news is always just around the corner. But baseball has been a welcome refuge from reality many times in my life, and it was with much relief that I realized that it appeared to once again be fulfilling that function for me. (That remained true even after I watched the Mets pummel the Cubs 17-1.) I set up my work space in the press box and then went downstairs to the clubhouse.

Randy Wells was going around and saying his goodbyes. He'd been designated for assignment. Out with the old, in with the new. Another day and more news. Pretty low-level stuff, but it seemed to matter. That was a good sign, for me anyway. Then something else happened that, while not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, reminded me of my trepidation from the day before and, sadly, reminded me of one of the reasons why I had to take a month-long ballpark break.

Rizzo emerged from the training room and went over to his locker. Like a swarm of vampires, the notebooks, tape recorders, microphones, and television cameras closed in around him. It hadn't even been 12 hours since we had last questioned him. Rizzo again answered the questions, which were poor and several of them recycled from the day before. I mean, there was really nothing to talk about. He spoke of how long his parents would be in town, mentioned that he hasn't always worn No. 44, and said that he once had a Twitter account, but shut it down. Riveting stuff.

So again I was left thinking about the hype beast, about who feeds it and who feasts from it and how it fosters an air of paranoia between the players and the media, making it all the more hostile for people like me, who really just want to talk about baseball. If everything works out on the field, Rizzo is going to have to deal with the media for the next 15 years or so, and he's going to have to deal with fans reacting based on what they've learned from that media. He's going to lose his "Ah, geez" quality. He's not going to smile as often, and that youthful blush on his cheeks is going to disappear.

It's all just a shame. Why can't we just leave the kid alone? Because we can't. We have no choice. The beast must be fed.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Cubs,  Anthony Rizzo,  Media,  Hype,  Wrigley Field

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