You could smell the stale booze from the top of the staircase, as soon as the clubhouse door opened to the media on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs don’t need to clinch a playoff spot to celebrate. They party after every win, dancing, chanting and spraying beers all over the room as the light show comes down from the ceiling.
Those details get hazy, but Anthony Rizzo gets a lot of the credit as the All-Star first baseman/wannabe DJ who tries to make it feel like a South Florida nightclub.
“We have to enjoy this,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully, this is the flip of a new generation of Cubs fans and Cubs players and an organization where we can do this every year.”
Rizzo walked around the field with a champagne bottle in his hand after a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that didn’t really matter because the Cubs had already guaranteed their spot in the postseason.
It was Rizzo who challenged the Cincinnati Reds last summer, walking over to their dugout and almost sparking a bench-clearing brawl. It was Rizzo who said it was time to compete in the National League Central after Game 162 last season (and the franchise’s fifth consecutive fifth-place finish). It was Rizzo who predicted the team would win the division during a promotional stop before Cubs Convention in January.
“I love it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want us to aim high. Always, man. Never run away from expectations or the word ‘pressure.’ Run towards the moment.
“I want us to expect that every year. Not just this year. Every year. I want us to get to that point where we can talk that kind of talk on an annual basis. Not in a bragging way. Not in a disbelieving way where it’s a reach or a stretch.
“You gotta start somewhere, man. You got to make some bold moves or maybe say some bold things on occasion. But then you got to back it up.”
Rizzo has definitely walked the walk, leaning over the plate and forcing his way into the MVP conversation, putting up 30 homers, 95 RBI and a .905 OPS while handling his face-of-the-franchise responsibilities.
“He’s been phenomenal for us,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s the guy that’s posting up there every day and carrying the load in the middle of our lineup. He plays great defense. He’s our leader out there on the field.”
This is Rizzo’s team. Jon Lester knew it when he signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal last December. Dan Haren noticed it when he got traded here from the Miami Marlins at the July 31 deadline.
“You don’t really see too many quote-unquote ‘leaders’ out there that are that young,” Haren said. “Even guys like (Mike) Trout and (Bryce) Harper – they’re perceived as being too young to take on that leadership role and they leave it up to more of a veteran guy like (an Albert) Pujols or a Jayson Werth.
“Whereas here, Rizzo is just like one of the guys. But I think a lot of guys (still) look to him for guidance on and off the field and motivation during the game. He always brings it.”
Rizzo is not necessarily a natural leader. He showed bad body language and looked lost at times during the 2013 season, when he hit .233 and still produced 23 homers and 80 RBI. That was the year then-manager Dale Sveum bungled a question about holding players accountable and floated the idea of sending Rizzo and Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.
But Rizzo doesn’t back down, surviving a cancer scare and justifying the faith Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod had in him as he got traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres and to the North Side. In many ways, Rizzo has the ideal temperament for the Wrigleyville circus.
“Everybody has respect for the guy that plays every day, the guy who tries to be out there every day,” Castro said. “If he’s struggling, he never puts his head down. He comes in here to play every day and help us to win.”
Rizzo turned 26 last month and remains under club control through the 2021 season because of what turned out to be a club-friendly extension, making him the heart of what could be a playoff beast for years to come.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Rizzo said. “We’ve had some tough years. But we’re a confident group and we’re going to have some fun.”