SAN FRANCISCO – Cubs players had big plans for Monday night in San Francisco when one of the more popular staffers was due to join the club for the start of its west coast road trip.
Instead, the trip started on a downcast, sobering note with the news Monday that team psychologist Ken Ravizza – a pioneer in sports psychology – had died, several days after suffering a heart attack near his home in the Los Angeles area.
“He was always there, he was always happy, he was always smiling,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who wore “KR” on his hat during Monday’s game against the Giants. “It’s just weird. You see him in L.A. on our last trip and he was supposed to be here, and we had plans.
“Life happens fast.”
Ravizza, 70, built a practice and reputation through the 1980s and ‘90s during a time of widespread resistance from often hardscrabble managers and general managers in one of the most old-school cultures in sports: baseball.
Working along the way in Olympic sports, football, women’s volleyball, Australian rugby and other sports, Ravizza’s reputation grew in baseball through work with the Cal State Fullerton program and the Angels minor league system – where Joe Maddon became a believer, advocate and friend.
“It was quite a shock,” said Maddon, who brought Ravizza into the Cubs’ organization when hired before the 2015 season — after having taken him to Tampa Bay for his first job as a big-league manager.
“I just want people to know he was the best at what he did. He left an eternal impact on a lot of us. … There’s a tremendous amount of Ken’s influence that I spew on a daily basis.
“I’m going to miss him. I miss him already.”
Shortstop Addison Russell called it a “hard loss” for the team, losing a widely respected voice in the business who helped Russell feel he belonged in the big leagues as a rookie in 2015 and to become an All-Star in 2016.
“Something that always stuck with me from Day 1 that I met him was ‘Embrace that breath,'” Russell said. “When you embrace your breath you embrace the presence, where your feet are at today. Just focus on your breath. Take a deep breath.”
Utility man Ben Zobrist worked with Ravizza both in Tampa Bay as a young player and with the Cubs as a veteran.
“Most people in the game don’t even realize how much he’s bought that conversation to light,” Zobrist said. “He and Joe together really, as a partnership really bringing the mental side of the game to light was a big-time step forward in the game – to bring that into mainstream, where it was no longer looked as a weakness but as another way to keep getting better.”
“He’s an amazing person and an even better friend,” said infielder Tommy La Stella, whose reconciliation with the team after refusing to report to the minors in 2016 was bridged in large part through Ravizza’s efforts. “He was an unbelievable listener. I just liked to listen to him talk. He has so much knowledge and experience – life experience. Honestly, we never really talked baseball much.
“He knew how to put things that made sense to your mind because he was listening to you talk and he knew it would make sense to you. He had an incredible knack for that.”
Former Cubs catcher John Baker, now in the Cubs’ mental skills department, credited Ravizza for bringing Eastern philosophy to sports – against the grain of the tough-guy culture of American sports – with big success.
“When we’re in L.A. he’s recommending I go visit the cathedral, not for religious purposes, but just to go experience the vibe in that place,” Baker said. “He sent Tommy to the [Lake Shrine] Self Realization Center in Malibu to walk through the garden, because he thought he’d appreciate it.
“He impacted a lot of lives.”
“His mission and everything that he was working to do in professional sports is already well underway,” La Stella said.
“He was the first, man. And he was the best.”