MESA, Ariz. — So Tuesday’s mid-morning fun begins with the Cubs gathered in a large circle listening to announcements from strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss, who is dressed as the Lone Ranger in a huge white Cubs bath robe made to look like a game jersey, with “BUSSEY” inscribed on the back in blue letters.
Ah, but what of the small electric keyboard set up under the awning next to the locker room, with two speakers connected by patch cords? This, friends, is important.
Like Liberace flouncing with confident pomp into his seat at his rhinestone baby grand Baldwin piano with bejeweled candelabra on top, here comes Anthony Rizzo, performer.
Teammates gather ’round as the Cubs first baseman digs in.
First is the recent giant emotive hit by Adele, “Hello.” I’m pretty sure. There were even some serious sing-alongs by teammates to this. It could have been another song, but let’s go with Adele.
Then came another tune, lost in the garble.
Finally, “Drops of Jupiter” by Train — with Rizzo adding vocals — though to this hearing-impaired ear it sounded a bit like early Yoko Ono doing vocal exercises to a kid’s keyboard exploration.
And lastly, the thunderous applause for the free concert. Rizzo, nodding with understanding and acceptance, stood up, like all great artists eventually must, and mingled with the common people.
“Totally wasn’t prepared,” he said. “But that’s what this camp’s all about — be ready to do something.”
It wasn’t as nerve-racking as his first big-league at-bat.
“But that was not easy,” he said. “My first live gig there was tough.”
Here’s the thing about Rizzo. By temperament and work habit and Cubs longevity and success afield, he has become, without question, one of the main leaders of the team. Just the day before, against the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the left-handed slugger had cranked a monstrous, towering home run to right that immediately followed outfielder Jason Heyward’s crushed homer to left.
Rizzo and Heyward together — with righty Kris Bryant between them — is a twist that might tie the offensive knot at Wrigley Field. When combined with Bryant’s huge bat and Kyle Schwarber’s stunning power and switch hitter Ben Zobrist’s steady production, the Cubs have an attack that has to scare every pitcher everywhere.
And while we’re at it, let’s mention that the Cubs, who once were considered horribly deficient in left-handed batters, now are lousy with them. Against the Brewers on Friday, the Cubs’ lineup had six hitters, counting pitcher Jon Lester, batting left-handed, more lefties than at a Bernie Sanders rally.
And the leader is 26-year-old Rizzo, still a youth, but older than Bryant, Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Javy Baez and even veteran Heyward, by one day.
“I thought there was a lot of undue stress put on him — not stress, but expectation, last year, about being a team leader,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Twenty-five going on 26, let the guy grow up a little bit. Let him get his feet underneath him, and he will grow into that position.
“I think he’s being nurtured properly, he’s being raised properly. We have the right pack of wolves out there to bring him on up. I think he’s really benefitted from a lot of the veteran players that are here.”
Nobody, except the Cubs’ front office, was certain Rizzo would turn into the player he has become. When he signed a seven-year, $41 million contract in 2013, one that runs through 2019 with club options for 2020 and 2021, it seemed a bit charitable and hopeful for the then-23-year-old.
But the 6-3, 240-pound first baseman has put up 80, 78, and 101 RBI since then, to go with 86 home runs in three years, including 31 last year.
That musical performance — such as it was — was considered more than just talent-show filler by Maddon.
“I love the fact that we put him in an uncomfortable, unannounced position and he came through,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff that I really appreciate and respect. He has grown. He’s growing into that position.”
And the show goes on, with the Cubs coming together in spring training the way you expect teams on a mission to.
As Rizzo said in May 2013 after signing the contract that showed team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer’s complete confidence in him, “I feel like I’m playing Little league now.” Then he added, “There is nothing else in the way. It’s about the team and nothing else.”
And as a leader knows, a team needs to be entertained.
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