‘Dad, we did it!’ How Chicago’s Mike Rizzo took the family business National and won it all
In a dreary 2019 for Chicago sports — a year that featured four playoff misses and a double-doink — the 59-year-old kid from Dunning might be the city’s biggest sports success story of the year.
WASHINGTON — Ask Mike Rizzo’s first manager in professional baseball what he remembers about the young infielder from Chicago, and it’s the fight.
Specifically, it’s the fists-flying melee in Rizzo’s first home game as a pro and Joe Maddon’s first as a rookie-ball manager in the Angels’ farm system in 1982.
‘‘Rizz started a tremendous fight that we had versus the Bend, Oregon, Phillies,’’ said Maddon, the former Cubs manager.
‘‘No, I did not start it,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘But I finished it.’’
What nobody disputes is that this was no ordinary shove-a-little-and-backpedal baseball fight. Or that Rizzo was in the middle of the flurry of punches and had the Bend catcher pinned against the backstop when he eventually was pulled from the brawl.
Fast-forward 37 years, and Rizzo is the celebrated president and general manager of the World Series champion Nationals, not two months removed from champagne, cigars and a parade along the National Mall.
But rewind a minute before the first punch in Salem, Oregon, and he was just a raw Class A hitter in the on-deck circle when a teammate ran into the catcher on what he called a ‘‘very clean,’’ hard slide.
‘‘After the collision, he was walking back toward the dugout, and the catcher was popping off to him and then went toward him to attack him,’’ Rizzo said before adding, a little quieter, ‘‘so I didn’t want him to do that.’’
There was nothing quiet about what came next.
‘‘I was always taught when you fought, you fight,’’ said Rizzo, who grew up in the Dunning neighborhood. ‘‘You don’t push and you don’t talk and you’re not popping off. You go.’’
Northwest League, meet the Northwest Side.
‘‘That’s who he was,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He was never afraid.’’
IF THE NATIONALS’ top baseball executive is part fighter, he’s also part high-finance negotiator, part D.C. cigar bar, part barstools and Bud, part old scout and gut and part student of fast-moving trends in the game.
And all Chicago — from the Waveland Avenue sign in his Nationals Park office to the Dick Butkus Bears helmet and Illinois football helmet that sit on a table nearby to the trip he crossed off his bucket list when he watched the Bears three weeks ago at Lambeau Field.
‘‘In the elements,’’ said Rizzo, who passed on a chance last year because it was too early in the season and 80 degrees.
This time, he got his 11-degree game-time temperature and snow on the ground — if not the Bears victory he was looking for.
But Rizzo still basked in the fresh glow of the biggest victory of his life. And in a dreary 2019 for Chicago’s major pro teams — a year that featured four playoff misses and a double-doink — the 59-year-old kid from Holy Cross High School might be the city’s biggest sports success story of the year.
‘‘I thought it was great for the game that the Nationals won the World Series,’’ said former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who has known Rizzo since the 1980s, when Hendry coached at Creighton University and Rizzo worked as an area scout for the White Sox.
‘‘He’d been at it a long time, like myself and other people. Certainly nothing against who they were playing [the Astros], but being from Chicago and knowing even his dad way back, I was kind of glad to see him finally having a shot at getting the ring.’’
When the Nationals beat the Astros for the first World Series championship in franchise history, Rizzo became only the second Chicago-born head of a baseball operation to win one in the last 70 years — and the only one in the last 100 who grew up in the city.
How he got the chance — and how he helped make it happen — is a Chicago story generations in the making.
WHEN DANIEL HUDSONstruck out Michael Brantley swinging for the final out of Game 7 two months ago in Houston, Rizzo hugged his son, Michael Jr., who had been by his side throughout the postseason run, and his fiancée, Jodi, who became his wife two weeks later in a ceremony in Jamaica.
Rizzo then went onto the field to celebrate with veteran players who had known only heartbreaking eliminations before this night, found once-embattled manager Dave Martinez (a former Cubs outfielder and bench coach) for an embrace and gave an emotional interview to the team’s flagship station.
When he was able retrieve his phone, he made his first call to his dad, Phil, who was watching from home in Naperville.
‘‘Dad, we did it!’’ Rizzo shouted into the phone as more than 50 years of baseball, love and shared ambition melted into the emotion of a moment.
‘‘That was my first thought,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘He’s the reason I’m here. He’s the reason I’m at this level and at this game. He taught me the game when I was a baby and supported me throughout. He knows the business and the game very well, and throughout my life he gave me some really sage advice that has worked out beautifully.’’
Mike is the third of Phil and Bernadine’s four children — and the one who followed in Phil’s footsteps as a minor-league player and, later, as a scout.
Phil knew enough people in the game by the time Mike graduated with honors from Holy Cross to help him get seen and eventually drafted by the Angels. Phil also was the scout who was blunt and honest enough with his son after the Angels released him four years later to say, ‘‘You’re not a prospect,’’ and to advise him to take an assistant coaching job at Illinois and finish his degree.
They worked together and against each other as scouts for years until Mike rose through the front-office ranks, becoming the scouting director for the Diamondbacks and the assistant GM for the Nationals before ascending to the top job with them in 2009.
A few months later, Phil signed the first of 11 one-year contracts as ‘‘senior adviser to the general manager.’’
‘‘He made me the happiest father in the world,’’ said Phil, who turned 90 in November. ‘‘He did something that I was supposed to do, but I didn’t get it done. . . . I’m so happy, you have no idea.’’
THE RIZZOS LIVED6½ miles west of Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue, and Mike became a natural fan of the Cubs and third baseman Ron Santo. He and sister Kim (or one or both of their brothers) took the bus on nearby Addison to the ballpark ‘‘all the time’’ after school or during the summer.
‘‘A couple of times, we walked home from the game,’’ said Mike, who still can name every player on the 1969 team.
But most of what Mike learned about the game was taught at home by his dad, a former minor-leaguer and boxer who fed his family by driving a truck for the city and fed his passion by scouting part-time — and sharing that passion with Mike.
‘‘From the time he could walk, he had a bat, ball and glove,’’ Phil said. ‘‘In the winter in Chicago, you freeze your ass off, so I put a net up in the garage.’’
With an orange traffic cone as a tee, they worked in the winter on Mike’s swing and approach.
‘‘With two strikes, hit to right,’’ Phil said.
In the spring, Phil put the tee in the alley behind the house, paced out 90 feet from the tee and put a stopwatch on Mike.
He taught him everything from the fundamentals of hook slides to how to lean into a pitch to get hit.
The basketball lessons started early in that alley, too, when Phil put a hoop on the garage and taught Mike the finer points of man-to-man defense.
‘‘I said, ‘OK, now you play, and I will guard you,’ ’’ Phil said. ‘‘I beat the [expletive] out of him. I pushed him. I held him. I slapped him. I banged him. I knocked him down. He said, ‘That’s not basketball.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ But I said: ‘When you guard the best player on the other team, you better do something good. So you foul out of the game, but he didn’t score any points. That’s a feather in your hat.’
‘‘After a while, he started kicking my ass and started knocking me around. I said, ‘Now you’re playing the way I want you to play.’ ’’
MIKE TURNED INTOa hard-nosed point guard for Holy Cross’ basketball team and the shortstop for the school’s best baseball team his junior year. He also was a linebacker on the football team until that commitment started to interfere with baseball.
He was elected senior-class president in 1979, too.
‘‘I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I made sure my kids were,’’ said Phil, who also helped raise a pilot and a founder of a Chicago-area marketing and public-relations firm.
Phil grew up near Taylor and Halsted in Little Italy, a ‘‘pretty tough neighborhood’’ that he navigated and survived through sports (mostly baseball), which helped him avoid falling in with what he calls the ‘‘bootleg boys.’’
‘‘Everyone thinks I get my toughness and edge from my dad; I get it from my mom,’’ said Mike, whose mother died about 15 years ago. ‘‘She was the toughest woman I ever knew.’’
Wherever it started, Mike has put it to use wherever he has gone in baseball — whether in Salem, Oregon, as a first-year player or three decades later as a first-time GM trying to turn around a franchise that had been atrophied by more than four years of ownership limbo until the Lerner family bought it in 2006.
During a tumultuous 2011 season, he drew a rare-for-a-GM suspension for a game after arguing with umpire Phil Cuzzi over ‘‘baiting’’ Nationals catcher Pudge Rodriguez following a disputed call on the bases. A month later, manager Jim Riggleman said he’d quit unless his lame-duck contract status for the next season was resolved. Rizzo told him to pack his bags, then wouldn’t allow him to address the team afterward.
‘‘There’s a lot of black-and-white with us,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘I think that’s what the players need and expect, and I think that they respect that.’’
Said Hendry: ‘‘Blunt and honest. That’s the kind of reputation he has.’’
Blunt? The next season, as the Nationals went from a .500 team to National League East champions, Rizzo got another one of those unheard-of-for-a-GM penalties (this time a fine) when he called out then-Phillies ace Cole Hamels for admitting to hitting rookie Bryce Harper on purpose with a pitch.
Rizzo called it ‘‘classless’’ and a ‘‘gutless chicken[-expletive] [expletive] act.’’
What other executives do things like that?
‘‘I don’t know what other GMs do,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘I know what I do. I’m with them. I know them. I have a relationship with them.
‘‘That’s my team. I put it together. I have skin in the game.’’
That works both ways.
He also took heat for years for shutting down right-hander Stephen Strasburg during the 2012 playoffs because of workload issues for a young pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery.
Without Strasburg, the Nationals lost to the Cardinals in a five-game heartbreaker in the NL Division Series. Seven years later, Strasburg was the World Series MVP and then signed a seven-year megadeal.
‘‘You can’t be scared,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror. And I’m good with that. The decisions I make, I make them with all the best intentions.
‘‘I took hell for the Strasburg shutdown, but I sleep like a baby because I know things other people don’t know. I never think what might have been or could have been. I accept the decision that I made. I live comfortably with it.’’
UNTIL A YEARor two ago, Phil kept a busy travel schedule scouting for Mike. He travels far less but still watches every Nationals game, has a bank of televisions to monitor other games, files reports and talks with Mike after games daily.
‘‘I say it like it is, and sometimes that’s not too good,’’ Phil said.
That included strong disagreement with Mike about the Strasburg decision.
‘‘He’s not old-school,’’ Mike said. ‘‘He’s the principal of old-school.’’
Whether anyone considers it nepotism, part of some kind of Chicago Way or a son’s love, much respect and value are drawn from Phil’s input, both because of a lifetime in the game and because of the unique candor their relationship affords.
‘‘He’s a mouthpiece I can talk to about any subject — and as candid as I can,’’ Mike said. ‘‘I can throw ideas off of him, and he can tell me if he agrees with them or he doesn’t agree. I know when I click that number I get an opinion. And it’s often loud.’’
But whatever influence Phil wields today or might have instilled decades ago, Mike’s executive style is his own. It’s definitely apart from the direction the game seems to be headed, which is advanced quantitative analytics and exhaustive breakdowns of kinesiology to improve swing and pitching mechanics.
When the Nationals won the World Series, some celebrated it as a victory for old-style scouting over the hyper-tech evaluation and preparation processes used by teams such as the Astros.
The Nationals have one of the most robust in-the-field scouting staffs left in the game; the Astros are among the growing number of teams that have shed entire traditional scouting departments.
‘‘I get questions all the time about what the industry is doing, and I say I worry about us,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘I don’t need to or care to figure out what the industry does and what these trends are because, let’s face it, we’re a copycat league; we’re a copycat sport. I think that gets us in trouble sometimes.
‘‘We try to stay away from being there. We try to be true to our philosophies because we feel our philosophies can bear long-term success.’’
Rizzo, whose scouting roots include running the drafts that produced much of the 2007 Diamondbacks team that swept the Cubs in the playoffs, considers it an overstatement to call the Nationals’ title a victory for old-school methods.
‘‘You walk past the desks and cubicles of some of the smartest young men I’ve ever been around,’’ he said of the eight-man crew of ‘‘Ivy League-born and -bred’’ analysts. ‘‘We marry that to some of the orneriest, grinder baseball lifers that there are. And there’s a mutual respect between the two.
‘‘I think you make good decisions based on all those diverse viewpoints.’’
In fact, he said, ‘‘We do quite a bit of the same stuff that the Astros do.’’
Except maybe the electronic sign-stealing.
‘‘We don’t do that, no,’’ he said.
FOUR OR FIVEyears ago, Mike was helping Phil fix something at the house.
‘‘He dropped a wrench or something, and I said something smartass to him, and he friggin’ smacked me on the back of the head,’’ Mike said. ‘‘I said: ‘You can’t hit me on the back of the head anymore. I’m your boss now.’ He said, ‘Bulls---.’ ’’
‘‘They always got something to say,’’ Phil said.
It obviously wasn’t the first time Mike got a whack on the head — for any number of infractions growing up. It sounds like it won’t be the last, either.
‘‘He was no angel,’’ Phil said. ‘‘That’s what I like. I don’t like to see an angel. An angel is when you die and go to heaven. But when you play, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to bust your ass to stay there. That’s the way I brought him up.
‘‘And I’m so happy and thankful that he did what he did [with the 2019 Nationals]. I cry when I think of it.’’
AS THE CUBSmuddle through another slow-moving, cash-strapped offseason — made even longer by the fact it included a barren October — it might seem natural to add Rizzo’s name to the list of possible replacements for team president Theo Epstein when Epstein presumably moves on to another challenge after his contract expires in two years.
Some on Twitter already have done that after the Nationals’ World Series victory led to them re-signing Strasburg and taking a serious dive into the Josh Donaldson bidding to try to replace third baseman Anthony Rendon.
And maybe the dominoes will fall in just the right direction with just the right timing someday to make what Rizzo once considered a dream job come true. He has one year left on his contract.
‘‘I would be lying to you if I said that, driving through [the middle of nowhere], I didn’t dream about being a Cubs general manager and winning that first World Series in 100 years or whatever it was back then,’’ he said of his scouting days.
‘‘I don’t like to get that far [ahead]. I love it here. I’m happy here. They gave me my first opportunity to be a general manager when few, if any, would have. So I’m indebted to them, and I work extremely hard for them. I can’t and I won’t allow myself to think in those hypothetical terms.
‘‘But I like being a GM. And I like building things. And I’m a winner, and I always have been. And I want to continue to do that.’’