Emotional Cubs star Rizzo at Florida vigil: ‘You’re not alone in your grief’

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Rizzo

MESA, Ariz. – When Kris Bryant got into town Wednesday night for the start of spring training, his first text was to Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo.

But not because he had any idea what his friend might be dealing with at the moment.

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“I asked him, `What’s the plan tomorrow?’ “Bryant said. “He’s like, `I’m actually going home.’

“I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ ”

Bryant’s heart sunk with the realization of what that meant, that those news reports he’d just heard about a school shooting were suddenly a lot closer to home than he’d assumed.

“It’s just a terrible situation, especially when it happens so close – especially his hometown,” Bryant said of the high school shooting that claimed 17 lives at Rizzo’s alma mater in Parkland, Fla. “As sad as it is to say, I’ve been through it.

“When something like that happens, it’s just so gut wrenching, and you don’t really know what to think,” said Bryant, whose hometown of Las Vegas was the site of the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. in at least a century. “Especially when you start to hear stories of people you knew and how people had to get away, it just makes it that much more real and more sad and … It’s just so hard to even think about it.”

Bryant and teammates pledged support for Rizzo and the community around Stoneman Douglas High School.

Manager Joe Maddon said he texted with Rizzo Wednesday night and told him to take as much time as he needed, even if it means remaining in Florida beyond Monday’s first day of full-squad workouts in camp.

“I just told him to get back to us if there’s anything we can do to help,” Maddon said. “I don’t even know what that means. …It’s just horrible. Horrible.”

Bryant said he learned that Rizzo knew some of the victims. One was Aaron Feis, the football coach who was killed as he used his body to shield students from gunfire. The school’s athletic director also was killed.

Another victim was a student related to Rizzo’s agent.

Cubs teammate Albert Almora Jr., a South Florida native who was taken under Rizzo’s wing soon after being drafted in 2012, said he learned of Wednesday’s shooting when his parents called him with the news.

“I go, `What school is it?’ They told me Douglas,” he said. “And I go, `Oh, my God, that’s where Rizz went.”

Almora said he played baseball games on that campus and that Rizzo – who makes his offseason home there – used the school facilities for batting practice during the winter.

“My prayer goes out to all the victims and the families that were affected,” Almora said. “Just to experience that, man, that will change your life forever.

“The only thing we can do right now is just come together,” he added. “We’re obviously all here for Anthony and for that school and all those families.”

<em>Almora</em>

Almora

Rizzo had spent mornings over the past week working out informally at Cubs camp, including Wednesday morning. But he left Thursday morning to return home.

“It really just speaks to who Anthony is,” Bryant said. “Yeah, we’re baseball players, and the season’s about to start, but something like this happens in his community, and he’s right there with them.

“Anthony’s just a role model for everybody on this team, and Chicago, the whole country.”

Rizzo, a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, was recognized for his off-the-field charitable work with the prestigious Roberto Clemente humanitarian award last year.

Before he left, Rizzo tweeted Wednesday night:

“Parkland and Coral Springs, please stay strong! This is out of control and our country is in desperate need for change. I hope in this darkest of times back home this brings everyone together and we can find love. You’re all in my prayers.”

At a Thursday night vigil in Pine Trails Park, Florida, the town directly south of Parkland, Rizzo, fighting back tears, said, ‘‘I want you to know you’re not alone in your grief. I grew up in Stoneman Douglas. I played on those fields. I went to those classes. I studied in those classrooms.

“The same school we saw in all those videos yesterday . . . for all the wrong reasons.”

Rizzo was not alone among the Cubs in his call for action on what has become an increasingly common reality over the past decade.

“There’s got to be something done,” Almora said. “I don’t know what that is. … I saw that there’s been 18 mass shootings in the first two months of this year. I don’t care what your political beliefs are, that just can’t happen.”

Wednesday’s shooter, a former student at the school, used a semiautomatic assault rifle.

“It just doesn’t make any sense that an automatic rifle has to be in anybody’s hands,” said Maddon, who did not take a political position when asked about gun control as a possible solution. “It’s easy to formulate the opinion that I don’t understand why those kind of weapons are necessary in our culture in the hands of just anybody. I don’t understand that. But I would want to be more educated.”

<em>Bryant</em>

Bryant

Almora is only 23 but seems to sense a changing reality around him.

“Nowadays, man, you think twice about going somewhere just because things like that could happen at any time,” Almora said. “Now having a son yourself, and putting yourself in parents’ situations right now, it’s miserable. Miserable.”

As tough as the Vegas shooting was for Bryant, who had friends and loved ones forced to run for safety during that incident, it seemed tougher to picture the setting in Rizzo’s tight-knit school community.

“I just couldn’t imagine being there,” he said. “Especially at a school. You’re supposed to feel safe there. It’s just a crazy world we’re living in nowadays.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

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