When he’s needed most on and off the field, Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo stands tall

SHARE When he’s needed most on and off the field, Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo stands tall

The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo celebrates his second-inning home run with teammates during Opening Day against the Marlins on Thursday. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

MIAMI — Baseball is a kid’s game. But if you’re lucky enough and good enough, you can play it into adulthood.

Life is supposed to be everybody’s game, and you shouldn’t have to be lucky enough to make it to adulthood.

Both those ideas converged Thursday in Anthony Rizzo, a baseball player and human being who has had it with all the gun-induced dying in this country. The Cubs first baseman addressed the goodness and the ugliness that have come out of the mass shooting at his high school last month.

Then he hit an Opening Day home run.

‘‘I’ve hit a lot of home runs,’’ he said. ‘‘That was probably the most out-of-body experience I’ve had hitting a home run, probably in my life. It felt really good. Obviously, my emotions on Opening Day usually are pretty high. But with all this, you can’t really put it into words.’’

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No one can speak more forcefully than the children and teenagers who called for a change in U.S. gun laws during a recent rally in Washington. But it helps when someone of Rizzo’s stature takes a stand. And for the first time since the mass shooting, he stood for tougher gun control.

‘‘In a perfect world, make it stricter,’’ he said. ‘‘Make background checks a little harder to get these guns. I think it’s a little too easy to go in there and get a gun. I think pretty much the entire nation can agree on that.

‘‘There are a number of other things [that can be done]. My biggest thing is that, if you can make it harder to get guns, hopefully it eliminates a little bit of the problem.’’

Rizzo is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman went on a shooting spree Feb. 14, killing 17 and injuring 17 more. It wasn’t close to home for Rizzo; it was home.

So when he crossed home plate after his second-inning homer, he put his hand on the Stoneman Douglas patch on his uniform and pointed ‘‘to those kids up there and the adults that lost their lives.’’’

When he thinks about the people spreading rumors that the students protesting at the rallies were actors hired by anti-gun activists, he gets angry.

‘‘I think they’re losers; that’s what I think, to be honest,’’ he said. ‘‘You hear all these things, and it’s like: ‘How can you even say this? Where’s your heart? Where’s your sense of sympathy? It’s as real as it gets. If you don’t think it’s real, go there.’ It’s crazy to hear that.’’

There isn’t much worse than a man opening fire with a semi-automatic weapon on a group of high school students. But critics ripping children and teenagers on Twitter for demanding sane gun laws is a close second.

‘‘You’ve got these extremists,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘You’ve got the people who are going for all the gun laws, and they’re going to the full extreme. Then you’ve got the other side that is defending them that is going full extreme that we’re taking away rights.

‘‘I don’t think that’s the message. I think the message is somewhere in the middle that everyone can agree on. For them to get bullied on Twitter by someone with strong fingers, I think it’s pretty funny. I know for a fact that they’re not going to let anything affect them and their mission because what they’re doing is bigger than themselves. It’s for a lot of people.’’

If you haven’t realized it by now, Rizzo isn’t going to shut up and swing a bat.

‘‘It really affected him, what he saw, and he’s standing up for what he believes in,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘He’s not someone who’s just going to look the other way and think that someone will take care of things. He really wants to dive in and make a difference.’’

If you’re worried that Rizzo’s focus on the shootings might affect his play, A) what’s wrong with you? and B) his homer in the Cubs’ 8-4 victory should ease your mind.

A few days ago, he watched Stoneman Douglas’ baseball team win a game 15-0 and came away impressed with the players’ resilience.

‘‘The kids are doing great,’’ he said. ‘‘From the outside looking in, it kind of relates to when I had cancer [in the minors]. People are, ‘Oh, can we talk to him? Is he contagious? Can we touch him? Can he go outside?’ Outside looking in, that’s what you think.

‘‘But those kids are doing great. From what I’ve heard, a lot of the students back at school are doing great, the teachers are doing great. I know a lot of teachers, so I’ve been talking to them. It’s normal. You just have to be normal. You have to try to make it as normal as you can.’’

Three Stoneman Douglas families that lost someone to the shootings and one survivor whom Rizzo visited in the hospital will throw out first pitches before the Cubs-Marlins game Friday. It will be another reminder of the horror of Feb. 14, but it also will be a picture of resolve.

Lots of people are sick of gun violence. We’ve been sick of it for a long time. Maybe this is the time when it finally takes.

‘‘We’ve never seen this before in our country,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘We’ve never seen 11-year-olds speaking at a rally, multiple 11-year-olds, 6-year-olds. I think that the nation is listening. I think there are some politicians that are maybe shaking a little bit, a little nervous. You’ve got to keep going. [Those students have] to keep going, fighting for what they believe in.’’

Subscribe to ‘‘The 2 Ricks: Unfiltered,’’ the podcast featuring Sun-Times columnists Rick Telander and Rick Morrissey, at Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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