BOSTON — After he hugged former teammates, he granted a round of interviews in front of the Padres’ dugout. Then major league baseball player Anthony Rizzo was finally free to step onto the Fenway Park grass in foul territory, watching Boston take batting practice.
Rizzo, his arms folded, kept a satisfied grin on his still-boyish face.
“It definitely feels good to be playing here,” Rizzo said.
Fenway Park brings special memories to Rizzo, and not just because he was in the lineup Monday night, less than a year removed from his Hadlock Field days.
Go back three years to Rizzo’s first visit to Fenway. Accompanied by his parents, the Rizzo family met with General Manager Theo Epstein and Manager Terry Francona, and then took a tour of the park conducted by Jon Lester.
The meeting was arranged to support Rizzo as he was about to begin chemotherapy treatments for cancer, specifically Limited Stage Classical Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“To be face to face with Theo and the others, and to see their genuine concern was very nice,” Rizzo’s father, John, said last autumn. “They made us feel like family.”
I originally spoke to John Rizzo while working on a story for the Red Sox magazine (a story never published because of certain events in early December).
The selection of Lester as tour guide was not coincidental since he is a cancer survivor.
“He told me everything he went through and how he went about it,” Rizzo said. “It was a lot of help.”
Two years later, having beaten cancer, Rizzo’s baseball career progressed to a promotion last May to Double-A Portland at the age of 20.
So young, but with power, a mature approach to hitting and a beautiful swing. Hadlock fans were reminded of another Sea Dogs first baseman from 2002 — a 19-year-old named Adrian Gonzalez.
Rizzo was on the threshold. The Red Sox had big expectations, according to former Boston scouting director Jason McLeod.
“It became apparent quickly he was a pretty special kid,” McLeod said.
McLeod is now the assistant general manager for the Padres, hired by General Manager Jed Hoyer, a former assistant to Epstein. In the off-season, when Hoyer and Epstein talked about a trade involving Gonzalez, there was one constant — Rizzo.
“Anthony’s name was always in there,” Hoyer said.
The trade was announced Dec. 6 – Gonzalez for Rizzo, Sea Dogs pitcher Casey Kelly (Rizzo’s friend), Class A outfielder Reymond Fuentes and a player to be named (utility player Eric Patterson).
“It was shocking,” Rizzo said. “Coming up with the Red Sox and getting developed, and them helping me through my sickness.
“I was with Casey when we got traded. After it all settled in, (we realized) it was such a great opportunity. And here I am in the big leagues.”
And if the trade had not happened?
“I’d probably be in Double-A right now,” Rizzo said.
Well, there’s something to be said about spending the summer in Portland but Rizzo had bigger plans.
When he was assigned to the Padres’ Triple-A team in Tucson, Rizzo looked over San Diego’s schedule and circled a date — June 20.
“I definitely set a goal to be here at Fenway,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know if it was realistic, but I got off to a great start and kept it going.”
In 52 games with Tucson, Rizzo batted .365 with 16 home runs and 52 RBI.
“I just built off last year,” Rizzo said of his time at Hadlock. (Kudos to Portland hitting coach Dave Joppie).
The Padres promoted Rizzo to San Diego on June 9.
“We told him not to go out there and try to replace Adrian Gonzalez,” Hoyer said. “Adrian Gonzalez at 21 years old was toiling in Triple-A.
“Don’t think you have to replace the Adrian Gonzalez you see on the field right now. Just be yourself. I think he’s done a very good job at that.”
Gonzalez was 24 when he became a full-time major leaguer. Rizzo looks to be ahead of that timetable.
Although he came in batting only .148 in 10 games, he had a homer, triple and double, and eight walks.
On Monday, Rizzo made his Fenway debut, earlier than expected and in a different uniform.
Boston’s version of a welcome mat was 6-foot-7 lefty Andrew Miller. He struck Rizzo out in the second inning on a 94 mph fastball. Rizzo finished his night 1 for 4, including a booming double to the triangle.
Rizzo will improve. Does anyone doubt that?
“I’m just going with it,” Rizzo said of his first weeks in the majors, “gaining confidence with every situation I’m in.”
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]