MESA, Ariz. — During early work one day in spring training last month, Cubs infielder David Bote looked up to see teammate Anthony Rizzo trying to get his attention.
“Hey, come here, ‘Boat,’ ” Rizzo said, sharing a minor difference he saw in Bote’s swing. “I noticed this. . . . Do you feel that?”
“Yeah, wow, I do feel that,” he told Rizzo. “Thanks for pointing it out.”
This is Bote’s third big-league season. He doesn’t remember much of that kind of encounter from Rizzo before this spring.
“I definitely have seen in just the two years that I’ve been here tremendous growth in that area,” Bote said of Rizzo.
This is where Rizzo tells you about why he’s different this year, how he’s taking leadership more seriously, what he’s going to do for a team that needs a clubhouse butt-kicker — and a fast start — like no Cubs team has since he has been in Chicago.
Not so fast.
“What’s the definition of a leader to you?” Rizzo said. “My style of leadership is my style.”
And he has no intention of changing who he is. A lover, not a fighter in the clubhouse. A first baseman who works smarter, not longer, in practice. A hitter who plays 153 games a year with an .862 OPS.
“I’m not going to show up at 10 [a.m.] when I usually show up around 2 or 3,” Rizzo said of the way he manages the grind of the season. “That’s pointless to me unless we’ve got something going on.”
But make no mistake: As this team opens an actual season of reckoning, even if only 60 games, like nobody in that clubhouse has experienced, nobody embodies that more than Rizzo.
He was the face of the rebuild when the front office traded for him in one of its first moves eight years ago, grew into an All-Star face of the franchise as the team ascended to World Series heights and continues to be its face as friends have endured the hottest trade rumors of their careers during a two-year team decline.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen this whole operation grow. And it’s like family — from walking into Wrigley Field, to saying hello to the security guards, ushers, to my wife feeling comfortable, my parents feeling comfortable, all of it. That’s what makes it home to me.”
It’s why he was so happy to see the entire core return this spring after a winter of trade rumors, why he wants to win so badly and return to the playoffs — and why he wanted the contract extension over the winter that seemed like a natural win-win proposition when he approached the team.
“It made a lot of sense to try to get it done and not try to break their bank and also be fair,” said Rizzo, who is playing this year on a $16.5 million option exercised by the team (with another one for the same money pending in 2021).
“On the other side, it didn’t make sense.”
The “talks” got shut down before they began, he said, and before he got the chance to talk numbers.
It was a cold blast of reality to the cornerstone player who has played for three organizations but only one front office — drafted by the Red Sox of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in 2007, traded by Epstein to Hoyer’s Padres after the 2010 season and acquired by the Epstein-Hoyer Cubs in January 2012.
Family? They even tried to trade his MVP pal, Kris Bryant, during the winter.
“This is a business,” he said in January. “It’s as cutthroat as ever now.”
Beyond the urgency of trying to make the most of what might be a last, best shot with the core that won in 2016, Rizzo’s personal stake in 2020 might be higher than most.
“I’m going to enjoy this year as much as I can because you just don’t know,” he said, uncertain where he’ll be playing even next season — much less after that final option year. “You have no idea. I want to say [Chicago]. I love this city; everyone knows how I feel.
“That’s out of my control at this point. I have no idea what they’re thinking and what’s going on.”
What he won’t do, he said, is try to prove his worth to anybody else.
“I’m going to be me,” said the three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner who has finished in the top four in MVP voting twice. “The expectations I put on myself are far more than anyone can put on me.
“I’m happy with the last five, six, seven years — my whole career. But I really do believe I have way better years ahead of me.”
This from a guy who starts a season in his 30s for the first time.
“I feel like I’m 21, though,” he said. “Time flies by. That’s why you’re going to see me smiling, enjoying it, because it’s too short.”
And this: He plans to win an MVP.
“That’s the goal every year,” he said. “And that’s not unrealistic.”
A big rebound to the top of the division for the Cubs could go a long way toward that goal.
That’s not lost on Rizzo — who, for the record, does not believe he or anyone else among the nine players that remain from the championship core took anything for granted or got complacent after the meteoric 2015-16 rise to the top.
No matter what anybody else suggests or thinks.
He also bristles at the suggestion that the team has failed since winning the World Series, whether it was the 2017 season in which the Cubs reached the National League Championship Series, the 2018 season in which they tied for the league lead in victories (95) before losing a division tiebreaker or even last year’s 84-win playoff miss.
“Winning’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard.”
Just look at the Dodgers, he said, “arguably the best team in the league the last five years, right? They’ve won the most games. Two World Series appearances.”
And no championships, albeit losing to one convicted cheater (Astros) and another charged (Red Sox).
“It’s hard to win,” Rizzo said.
“We’re a [Game 7] rain delay away, a couple of lucky bounces away from not winning, ever.”
That’s not to say he’s OK with falling short, especially last year.
“When you’re winning, losing’s not OK. And us losing these last couple of years is not OK,” he said.
If last year cost the manager his job, everyone in the clubhouse knows he could be next depending on how this team is playing as it nears the trade deadline. There was no money in the budget to add significantly for the second consecutive season, but the front office also kept the team intact after promising to listen to trade offers on everyone.
“Realistically, we’re a bad start away from this team being blown up by the deadline,” Rizzo said. “We’re a good start away from adding on to a legacy.”
Talk about “urgency.” Epstein’s 2019 mantra and promises of reckoning a year ago pale in the heat bearing down on this year’s team.
“It’s been years since I’ve had really good friends get traded,” said Rizzo, looking back on veteran-purging moves during the 2012-14 tanking years. “That’s the reality. You can’t run from the reality.”
If Bote notices something new with Rizzo this year, maybe it’s just that: a man now in his 30s confronting the cold business side of the game and the personal urgency of a season that matters so much to him.
It also comes at a time when his favorite manager, Joe Maddon, has been replaced by his greatest mentor, former teammate David Ross.
Rizzo might have been Maddon’s strongest supporter in the clubhouse, connecting with him the first time they talked at length, over dinner and a bottle of wine before Maddon’s first spring training with the team.
Even this spring, Rizzo’s parents — fixtures at Cubs games throughout Rizzo’s career — spent a day at Angels camp to hang out with Maddon, on a day the Cubs were playing at their own ballpark against the Brewers.
“You’re never going to hear me talk bad about Joe because I love Joe,” Rizzo said. “And everything he was about, I loved. And now it’s the same with Rossy. It’s just that new spark for all of us.
“Change sucks. But change is good. . . . To change is to grow.”
Growth. Always growth.
“As far as being extra-motivated, no I’m not,” he said. “I’m motivated the same every year in every way — all my offseason workouts, in-season grind, being a good teammate. All of that is at an all-time high every year, and it’s growing. I want to grow.”