Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo back in camp after ‘hardest thing I ever had to do’

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Rizzo signs autographs on his first day back at spring training camp after going to Florida to be with friends and family after deadly shooting at his alma mater. /John Antonoff photo

MESA, Ariz. – Anthony Rizzo returned to Cubs camp for spring training Monday, but it was clear that part of him was still home in Parkland, Fla.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, just going back,” said Rizzo, who rushed home to be with family and friends after a shooter killed 17 students and adults Wednesday at Stoneman Douglas High School, his alma mater. “You don’t know what to say. There’s nothing you can say.

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“My first instinct was just kind of numb. I felt helpless here,” he said. “That’s where I grew up. I got in trouble there; I succeeded there; I learned to be who I am because of Parkland.

“To be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo, who still makes his offseason home in the community and stages an annual charity event at a park near the high school each winter, asked to speak during a candlelight vigil held at that park Thursday night and delivered an emotional speech that resonated on national broadcasts, social media and in the Cubs’ clubhouse.

“I was speechless when I heard it,” said teammate Albert Almora Jr., a fellow native of South Florida, who watched from Arizona. “When he gets emotional, I get emotional. It was tough to see him like that because he cares so much. I was right there with him. I felt it.”

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Rizzo’s agent lost a niece in the shooting. He and his brother played for Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach killed shielding students from gunfire with his body.

“He’s a true hero,” said Rizzo, who saw Feis just a few weeks ago at the school for a fundraiser to provide lights for the school’s baseball field. “It shows the type of person he is. I believe he has a daughter or son at home. It’s sad. But I hope he continues to be recognized for that.”

Teammates welcomed him back Monday with hugs and quiet conversations.

“My biggest concern is I want him to really take care of himself,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s an emotional moment for any one of us. And I think people like him tend to be carriers in the sense that they will carry other peoples’ weight of emotion, and that’s hard to do.

“I really encouraged him to make sure he takes care of himself while he’s coming back and ease into this situation, because he’s been through a lot.”

Rizzo said he was on a golf course when he first got the news.

“[Like] probably everyone in here when they first heard the initial [report of a] shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” he said. “Then I found out it was at Douglas and you get a little more concerned, `Hey, what’s going on?’ At first it was ‘just a few people injured.’ Then you find out it was what it was.

“It’s gut wrenching. You just go numb.”

Rizzo said he felt it was important to speak at the vigil as a former student and member of the community. “Maybe they could feel it a little bit more than someone random saying stuff,” he said.

He met with victims and family members after the vigil and visited shooting victims in the hospital.

He said he’s proud of the way students have mobilized since shooting into a growing activist movement.

“For the to be outspoken about it shows that they’re not just going to sit back and be another statistic,” he said. “They really want to make a change.

“I can’t even sit here with confidence and say this is going to be the last mass shooting because it probably won’t be. But hopefully this [students’ action] is one of the steps in the right direction.”

Rizzo made a point to say he wasn’t taking a position on the gun-control part of the issue or any other political position.

“I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I start going one way or the other,” he said. “It’s hard enough to hit a baseball. It’s going to be definitely hard enough to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Watch Rizzo’s speech below:

The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, fought through tears as he delivered a heartfelt speech at a vigil held for Wednesday’s shooting victims. pic.twitter.com/ZJcdgqMkRy — SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 16, 2018

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