FORT MYERS, Fla.--Spring training is typically the story of renewal and promise. That notion rings especially true for Red Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo.
While Feb. 27 marks the official start of minor-league camp, the 19-year-old has been in Fort Myers since Feb. 1. He is in what he describes as the best shape of his life, an apparently robust slugger-in-the-making.
In its own right, Rizzo's development as a player would have been impressive enough to monitor. In an organization where power has suddenly become a hot-button topic, he possesses the skill and frame of someone who may one day crush major-league pitching.
But there is more to his story than a blinking dot on the prospect radar. Turning back cancer will do that.
Rizzo is 19, less than two years removed from high school, flashes a youthful grin and probably loses little time in any given week to shaving. He embraces all of these teenage trappings ("I love being young," he beams) yet exhibits startling maturity, a trait that was amply apparent in his first one-on-one interview since being diagnosed.
On Thursday, Rizzo reflected on a life-changing 10 months while fellow cancer survivor Jon Lester pitched. Rizzo experienced first-hand the power of the pitcher's narrative, and embraces the idea that he will offer a similar symbol of hope to those who are confronted by the disease.
A PROMISING BEGINNING
Rizzo was recruited by the University of Florida, and planned to attend. But the recruiting process took some strange and disappointing turns, and the scholarship offer did not materialize.
During a high school senior season when he crushed the ball, the first baseman committed to Florida Atlantic University, the school where his brother is a star offensive lineman. The Red Sox selected him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, but gave him third-round money ($325,000) to convince him to begin his pro career.
The left-handed hitter was one of the standout players that fall in the Florida Instructional League. Sox officials raved about his potential, and the maturity of his skills.
Despite his youth, Rizzo was given a spot at the start of the 2008 season in Single-A Greenville. He started slowly.
“In the first week in Greenville, I was struggling real bad. I was batting one-something,” he recalled. “I just told myself, ‘Have fun.’ I was getting too serious.”
Then, he turned a corner with enough speed to create whiplash. Suddenly, he was hitting everything, collecting two or three hits in what seemed like every game. Against much older pitchers, his average spiked, and sat at .373 in the last week of April.
It was not merely the numbers that impressed. The way in which Rizzo was attacking his craft suggested a sophistication uncommon for someone with that little professional experience, particularly an 18-year-old.
“This kid is definitely a major-league prospect,” said Greenville manager Kevin Boles said around that time. “He's a guy who makes adjustments at-bat to at-bat. If he gets a little long with his swing on one at-bat, the next at-bat he shortens it up.
“A few times facing a left-handed pitcher, he'd pull off the pitch and try to pull to right field. Then, the next two at bats, he'd be hitting line drives to left,” he continued. “There's not that many guys out there at such an early age who can do that. It's a good quality to have.”
Understandably, Rizzo did not want to see his run of ridiculous success stall. And so when the swelling in his legs and ankles all the way down to his toes began (“pressing on it was like memory foam,” said Rizzo), he did not want to tell team trainers.
It was teammates Ty Weeden and Chris Province who took the initiative. They were the ones who alerted trainers and made Rizzo talk with the Greenville medical staff.
"Thank God they did," said Rizzo.
At first, the symptom was diagnosed as a kidney infection. Rizzo was unconcerned. Worst-case scenario? A week on the sidelines, some anti-biotics, then back to games.
But the condition proved more stubborn than expected. Rizzo was flown to Boston to meet with Dr. David Steele, a nephrologist at Mass. General.
The kidney specialist discovered swelling in the lymph nodes. A biopsy revealed the startling, almost incomprehensible news: Limited Stage Classical Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
“When I heard the word cancer, everything was, ‘Wow.’ I could die. I didn’t know what Hodgkin’s lymphoma was,” said Rizzo. “Then I heard the word chemotherapy. My mom was next to me. I just held her and hugged her.”
The doctors – accompanied by several members of the Red Sox medical brain trust – emphasized that Rizzo’s form of cancer was extremely treatable, that his prognosis was excellent. Despite the shock of the news, the 18-year-old latched onto the suggestions of optimism.
“And then (I) just said to myself after about an hour of thinking about it, ‘I’ll get through it. I’ll beat it,’” he remembered. “I started thinking positive. I just thought of Lance Armstrong.”
Rizzo would soon find positive reinforcement even closer at hand.
JON LESTER AND THE RED SOX
For better and worse, the Red Sox are an organization experienced in supporting a young player during his treatment for cancer. Rizzo did not have to look far to find someone who could offer a road map for his recovery and evidence of its potential success.
Rizzo expresses immense gratitude for the manner in which his illness was handled by team officials. The club offered superior medical care with renowned doctors at Mass General, and put Rizzo and his family up in a suite during his period of consultations and his initial treatment. After his cancer diagnosis, a plethora of front-office members went to visit with Rizzo in his hotel.
During the course of his treatment, Rizzo would receive regular calls from different team officials, whether general manager Theo Epstein or members of the player development staff, as well as testicular cancer survivor Mike Lowell, checking on his well-being and ensuring that he would continue to feel a part of the Red Sox.
Rather than bemoaning his fate, Rizzo talked with his mother about – of all things – his good fortune. The player thought back to the possibility that he would have gone to college for Florida had the team offered a scholarship, and how different a course he might have followed had he not become a member of the Sox.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing about how we went about (the period of treatment). Everything was just unbelievable,” said Rizzo. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise that I didn’t go (to school). If I went to college, I would have lost my freshman year. Who knows how I would have come back? I was just so happy I signed, especially with this organization.”
There was another layer of serendipity to Rizzo’s connection with Boston. The club could offer the young player an introduction to a player who had provided startling evidence that cancer in the early steps of a career represented an interruption, and not necessarily a derailment.
Rizzo’s first treatment took place in Boston in mid-May. He had to remain in the Hub for a day to make sure that everything went well, and so on May 16, he was invited to watch a Friday night game against the Brewers from the box of the baseball operations staff.
The game was delayed by rain, and eventually postponed. The delay presented Rizzo with an opportunity to head to the Red Sox clubhouse, where he met manager Terry Francona.
During that meeting, Jon Lester came into the skipper’s office and introduced himself. The pitcher gave Rizzo a tour of the clubhouse and spent 30 minutes talking to the player, his brother and his father about his own experience with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.
“As I was talking to him, it was all kicking in that – wow, I have cancer; this is where I am; this is who I’m talking to – and I kind of just fainted,” said Rizzo. “I didn’t faint totally, but everything was dizzy. I kind of fell. I needed some water.
“Obviously, he had to go through the same thing with recovery. He told me everything about how when I start being able to work out again, it’s going to be a long process. He said, ‘You’re not going to be able to get into it again (immediately),’” he continued. ““He really helped me out, staying positive. He just gave me great advice.”
Three days later, Lester’s advice – stay as normal as possible, stay positive – received further reinforcement. In his first start following his meeting with Rizzo, Lester threw a no-hitter against the Royals.
“That,” said Rizzo, “was unbelievable.”
Despite that dazzling glimmer of hope, the chemotherapy sessions proved crushing, at least initially. He underwent treatments every other week for five months, from mid-May through mid-October.
Shortly after his first treatment, he had to fly from his home in South Florida to Greenville to pack his belongings and leave the baseball season behind. The nausea during those flights, Rizzo recalled, was consuming. For a while, things would get little better.
“For the first three months, I basically sat in my room the whole time. I couldn’t eat much, because of the taste and the nausea,” said Rizzo. “For three months, after my treatment, all I would eat was milkshakes. My neighbors would cook me brownies. That was basically my diet, because everything else was terrible.”
Rizzo was physically inactive during that period. That, coupled with his brownie and milkshake diet, left the athlete in a physically reduced state (“I got a little chubby,” he concedes with a grin).
But around the three-month marker, while the chemo dosages remained unchanged, he was once again able to resume physical activity. After his every-other-Tuesday treatments, he could start hanging out with his friends outside the confines of his bedroom.
“I would get (treated) on Tuesday and by Saturday I would feel normal again,” said Rizzo. “I couldn’t run around, because I wasn’t in shape, but I would go to the gym with my buddies and do light workouts just to get my blood flowing again.”
He would go with his friends to the batting cages at times. Though unable to engage in any intense hitting sessions, he found it therapeutic to mess around in that environment, to be around the game.
By the four-month marker, PET and CT scans revealed that Rizzo was cancer-free. Though he would still require additional treatments to make sure the cancer was completely eradicated, he was able to prepare once again to be an athlete.
“I would get my treatment on Tuesday, and by Friday I would be running around, just like a normal kid would do,” Rizzo said.
As he neared the conclusion of his treatments, he worked out with a trainer at home, and also made some visits to the Red Sox’ minor-league facilities in Fort Myers (roughly a two-hour drive from his home). At the beginning, he was so weakened by the months of poison flowing through his body that it became natural to wonder whether his strength would return, or whether a recurrence was just around the corner.
“When I first started working out, it was pretty bad. I was like, ‘Wow—I’m not going to be able to get back to where I was,’” said Rizzo. “But I would keep a positive attitude, every time.”
By September, Rizzo was nearing the end of his treatments. That timing coincided with the Instructional League season, the very setting where Rizzo had made such a favorable impression on the organization one year earlier.
Between his final treatments, an opportunity emerged. Rizzo would take part in the league for a week.
It had been, to be sure, an awful year for the Rizzo family. During spring training, his grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then came Rizzo’s Hodgkin’s diagnosis.
Shortly after Rizzo was declared cancer-free, his grandmother passed away. His brother, considered a legitimate NFL candidate on the offensive line, blew out his knee to end his senior year at Florida Atlantic University.
Rizzo saw that his parents had been drained, almost overwhelmed, by the succession of terrible news. He drew strength during his course of treatment out of a sense of necessity on their behalf.
“As sick as I was, as nauseous as I felt, I would never let my mom or dad see it,” said Rizzo. “I was just pulling for (my parents), more than I was pulling for myself. I never let myself think of what I was actually going through.”
And so it was that Rizzo’s return to the diamond in the Instructional League offered not just satisfaction but hope to Rizzo and his family. He was allowed to play in two games and bat four times in the first week of October.
In his first trip to the plate, Rizzo struck out. In his second, facing Twins prospect Shooter Hunt (the 31st overall pick last year), ball met bat on a two-strike breaking ball. Rizzo lined a double to left field, and upon his arrival at second base, the significance was undeniable.
“All my teammates were cheering,” said Rizzo. “I just looked over at my parents. I knew my mom was bawling. That’s when I started tearing with happiness, being out there again. In the dugout, they wrote, ‘Welcome back, Rizzo,’ on the ball.”
Even so, the ordeal was not done. Rizzo had his final chemo treatment about two weeks later, on Oct. 14, and was given a definitive cancer-free prognosis by November.
Around that time, he could resume complete workouts. At first, rather than feeling restored, Rizzo was confronted with the reality of the poison that had been shooting through his body for the previous months, wondering whether any ache represented a return of illness.
“When I stretched, it was like glass running all through my muscles,” he said. “It took me about two months to get back to where I could start pushing a little bit of weight again.”
He went to the strength camp conducted by the Red Sox in early December. Then, too, he was still limited, wondering when normalcy might arrive.
“I just wasn’t where I could be,” Rizzo said. When I was stretching, I still had a little glass running through my muscles: sore, stiffness. I’m a pretty flexible kid. I was nowhere near where I was before the sickness.”
But the new year represented a drastic improvement. By mid-January, the shackles had come off. Rizzo no longer felt weakened. To the contrary, with the chemicals flushed from his body, he felt as strong as he ever had, and was able to approach his workouts at full throttle.
At this stage of spring training, he looks robust. His has shed the weight that he added during the ordeal, replacing it with lean muscle mass.
A year ago, Rizzo weighed roughly 230 pounds when he reported to spring training. This year, he is at roughly 240 pounds, but has dropped his body fat by roughly five percent from 12 months ago, suggesting a significant increase in muscle mass.
He is, by his own and the team’s account, stronger than he has ever been, in better shape than he has ever been, more chiseled, quicker on his feet than he was before his illness.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt,” he said. “Once the new year hit, I just trained harder than I’ve ever trained before. My energy level has never been higher. I’m stronger than I was last year. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m in the best shape of my life right now, and I hope to keep progressing.
“I love being out on the field more than ever now,” he continued. “I can’t wait for games to begin.”
Rizzo faces no restrictions as he prepares for the 2009 season. The Red Sox anticipate that he will once again be assigned to a full-season league once spring training concludes.
He is 19. He is in the best shape of his life. He has been pleasantly surprised to find that, in early batting practice sessions, his swing shows the mechanics and life that existed prior to his cancer diagnosis.
In short, he is still very much a prospect, at a point in his career when his development as a player is considered a baseball rather than a medical issue.
“The way Anthony handled his treatments with such maturity and courage was an inspiration for the whole organization,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “He’s a special kid from a great family and he is blessed with tremendous ability as well.
“Watching him launch balls in (batting practice) with big-time, easy power can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. He’s already accomplished so much in his brief career off the field; his potential on the field is limitless now.”
Rizzo is driven to test that proposition. He does not concern himself with where he will be playing (most likely back in Greenville). The mere fact of his return to the field has its own rewards.
“When it first happened, I didn’t realize how much I loved baseball as much as I do now—just playing on the field everyday with the guys,” said Rizzo. “Now that it got taken away from me, I appreciate the game that much more now.
“I’m going to go out every day, play as hard as I can and see where that takes me … I’m going to be working my tail off to keep moving up, keep moving up as fast as I can. If I go back to Greenville, I won’t be thinking about last year. My first at-bat of the season this year, last year is in the past.”
That is not to say that he has shed any goals. To the contrary, his ambitions have been brought into sharp relief in the past 10 months.
“My ultimate goal is to win a World Series as a Boston Red Sox,” said Rizzo, “and not just to get there but to stay there.”
While Rizzo is motivated by what lies ahead of him on the field, he also embraces the notion of what his return represents off of it. It would be understandable if the 19-year-old wanted to put on blinders, to return to the life that he had and to pretend that the illness that interrupted his career was not a part of his future.
But he refuses to take such a course. He has first-hand experience with the impact that a cancer survivor can have on a cancer victim. Rizzo wants to serve that role.
During his treatments, Rizzo met an eight-year-old with the same form of Hodgkin’s. He has remained in regular e-mail contact with the young patient, the first of many people for whom the ballplayer hopes to provide encouragement and inspiration.
"I'm not ashamed (to be a survivor)," he said. “I still think about it every day – how lucky I am to be back on the field. I’ll never forget what I’ve been through – ever. I’ll go to charity events. Hopefully I’ll have my own charity when I get to the big leagues. I’ll never forget any of that.”
Alex Speier is a senior writer for WEEI.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and his blog can be found at Full Count.