MILWAUKEE – Anthony Rizzo sat down in a folding chair facing the table stacked with laptops and TV screens and joked with the Cubs staffers who coordinate the video/advance-scouting systems: “Who we got tonight?”
The Cubs were a few hours away from facing Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 2 in their first matchup since last year’s National League wild-card showdown. Rizzo walked into PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse that afternoon wearing a short-sleeve blue jacket covered in stars – with no shirt underneath – and red shorts as part of Joe Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” suit dress-up gimmick.
Rizzo went out that night and doubled twice off Cole, helping set the tone for a three-game sweep where the Cubs outscored the Pirates 20-5. There are so many different personalities that go into the gonzo team with the best record in baseball, but no one symbolizes that mixture of breezy confidence and intense focus more than Rizzo, a co-creator of the GrandpaRossy_3 Instagram account and an occasional karaoke singer at Stanley’s in Lincoln Park.
“I always know (who’s pitching),” Rizzo said before Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “Always.
“(But) the more experience you get, the more you realize that it doesn’t matter if it’s Kershaw, Arrieta, Bumgarner – they have to make the pitches.
“Early on (in a career), you get a couple hits off (guys like that) and you’re all excited. Well, the next day you’re facing Jon Lester, so you got to re-amp. It’s not easy to do, but if you just stay at that one level, you’ll be all right.”
Rizzo’s swagger, competitive nature and goofy sense of humor will be so important for a team that began the day as a virtual lock to make the playoffs, at least according to the projections on FanGraphs (99.3 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (98.1 percent).
Rizzo is a face-of-the-franchise, Gold Glove-caliber first baseman leading the team in homers (11) and RBI (34) with an OPS approaching 1.000. Yet it still almost feels like he’s flown under the radar during the season’s first six weeks.
Rizzo has played in three different organizations for all kinds of managers (Bud Black, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria) but it’s hard to imagine a better fit for him than Maddon, who walks the same fine line between getting locked in and having fun.
“We do that really well, and Joe permits us to do that,” said Rizzo, who’s developed a routine where he goes to the gym in the morning, takes a nap to recharge and shows up ready for work and not more eyewash. “Sometimes you hear about teams where once you get to the park, it’s all serious, serious, serious.
“We’re having a good time. We’re playing baseball. So when it’s time to be serious, you get your work in.
“I don’t get here early. What’s the point? Joe says the same thing.
“When I first came up, I was getting to the ballpark at 12:30, 1 o’clock. I’d sit around and think about: ‘Am I going to get a hit?’ You just start thinking all crazy things.”
Rizzo tries to block out the noise, but he did hear about Cole’s dismissive comment after beating the Cubs on Sunday at Wrigley Field: “I don’t really think they’re the best team in baseball."
“That’s his opinion,” Rizzo said. “We can have the best record now. We can have the best record at the end of the year. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s a crapshoot. They know it the best, playing that wild-card game the last three years and deserving to be more than a wild-card team, because that’s how good they’ve been.
“My opinion on it is the best team in baseball is the one who wins the World Series.”