Roberto Clemente Award: Cubs' Anthony Rizzo a friend to pediatric cancer patients

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

HOUSTON – There is a place in our souls for the people who treat our children well, the people who’d help them be kinder and more generous. The people who’d make them laugh and believe in fairy tales, even the ones that come true. Especially those. There is a warm place in there for the people who become their inspirations and on some days their heroes. The best among them, however, become our children’s friends, because sometimes there’s just not enough of those to go around.

Not all the time, but every once in a while, when Anthony Rizzo stands on the other side of a door at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and he’s dressed in his jersey and he’s going to walk through that doorway and sit on the edge of the bed and be a friend, he is sick again. He’s 18 and sitting in the car with his mom and they are driving to Miami again, and he feels his stomach go soft and he tastes the metallic exhaust of the chemotherapy and he smells the hallways that led him to the needle and his own cancer treatment.

Then he blinks and smiles. He is healthy and strong, and little Ethan is in there. Or Parker. Or Benjamin. Abby. Savannah. Mia. Ryan. It’s probably a Tuesday, and this is where he spends so many of his Tuesdays, in among the little boys and girls who are fighting so hard to be healthy and strong, in among the moms and dads who have to believe their little boys and girls one day will be. Anthony Rizzo is. So can they. Just a little more time. A little more fight. So can they.

“Whatta we got today?” he asks, and a little boy looks up and smiles back, and the Cubs first baseman says he remembers these tubes and that monitor, how not fun that was, but, hey, just like that it was over and just like that I was feeling good and just like that it’s nine years later. Just like that you’ll be done with it too, promise.

Anthony Rizzo on Friday evening received the 2017 Roberto Clemente Award, which Major League Baseball views as its “most prestigious individual player” honor. The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, along with its Hope 44 Fund, assists pediatric cancer patients and their families. The foundation has committed more than $4 million to programs that provide financial assistance and guidance to parents and their children. Also, it has endowed the positions of two “child-life specialists,” social workers who administer funds and support families emotionally and financially coping with an ill child.

Anthony Rizzo was given Major League Baseball’s most prestigious honor, the Roberto Clemente Award, Friday. (Getty)

On an April day nine years ago, Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent six months of chemotherapy. A month later, he was told he was healthy, that he could get on with his life, be that baseball or whatever he chose. And on Friday morning he sat in a Houston hotel room, touched by an award whose namesake, Roberto Clemente, Rizzo said “put himself second to everyone else. His purpose was to help other people.”

In between, Rizzo has tried to ease the burdens of those afflicted, many of them so young and so determined to be courageous. The foundation helps pay the rent and the medical expenses, the electric bill, the school costs, whatever comes along, so that a mother’s focus is soothing her little girl’s fears, that a father’s sole concern is feeding his little boy’s dreams. So that Anthony Rizzo can come by now and again, talk a little about the game last night, and lay his big old hand on theirs and ask them to stay strong, to dream big. If he can, they can. Promise.

“You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind, that there’s so much work to do,” he said. “But with the little picture, there’s the direct impact you can make in someone’s life in that moment. I still don’t fully comprehend it, but over the last year-and-a-half, two years, especially after we won the World Series, I can’t tell you how many times a random person has come up and say, ‘You helped so-and-so, my sister’s brother’s aunt’s cousin, and I can’t thank you enough for what you did for him.’ That’s insane to me. All we did, maybe we wrote him a note, sent him a picture. But that little moment is a lifetime for so many. So, the job is to continue to keep going and keep helping. I know there’s a big picture, but you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

He called it “giving them light.”

Then, sometimes, they pay for a funeral.

“We just had a girl pass away last week,” he said, paused, and continued. “I’ve seen her grow up. I’ve seen her get better. I’ve seen her from terrible, to get better, to worse, to not with us anymore.

“I see a lot of the same faces. And then you see new faces. There’s a lot of kids we get close with. We grow attached to. There’s families we’ve seen grow up. It’s not hard to keep up with, because they’re fighting the fight. It’s fun to see them get better. Kids go in remission. There’s a lot of good, too.”

Fighting the fight, when there is only the fight. That’s what is so hard. That’s little Ethan. Or Parker. Or Benjamin. Abby. Savannah. Mia. Ryan. So many others. Too many. That’s when they need a hand. When they need a friend.