The Chicago Cubs clubhouse is a fascinating place in more ways than one.
For starters, it’s a 30,000-square-foot bunker with every bell, whistle and amenity that any Major League Baseball player could ever desire. The inhabitants of said clubhouse are 56-36 and sit in first place of the NL Central by 8 games thanks mostly to their extremely efficient rotation, powerful offense and wizardly manager. And the foundation of this clubhouse is built on incredible team chemistry, likeability and unselfishness.
The most fascinating story that has grown from this year’s clubhouse though, is the blossoming friendship and healthy sense of competition between Cubs superstars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
As corner infield cornerstones of Theo Epstein’s regime, the 24-year-old Bryant and 26-year-old Rizzo hold the key to the franchise’s long time chase for that coveted curse-breaking championship. They’re two happy-go-lucky ballplayers with adjacent lockers that were each trained from early ages to put team before all else. Ironically enough, they’re also two of the top contenders for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
You can argue and shape the stats for either player. To date, Bryant has more runs, homers and a higher WAR. Rizzo has a better batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.
“We try to say it’s like we pace each other,” said Rizzo, who admittedly enjoys the competition.
Monday night against the New York Mets, Rizzo stepped up to the plate in the third inning. With runners at first and second in a scoreless tie, crafty lefty Steven Matz had a 2-2 count on Rizzo. Anthony proceeded to foul off five pitches in a row, then he clobbered a changeup over the wall for a three-run homer. It was the tenth pitch of the at-bat and suddenly the score was 3-0 Cubs.
All the offense needed to snap an eight-game losing streak to a team that bounced the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series.
An MVP level at-bat you could argue.
As the game progressed, I kept thinking about how Rizzo has been the most important building block of this Cubs renaissance. One of two holdovers from the 101-loss Cubs of 2012 — reliever Travis Wood is the other — Rizzo was thrown into the North Side fire at age 22. He then became the de facto leader at 23 when Alfonso Soriano was traded to the Yankees. Now he’s the unquestioned leader of one of baseball’s best teams.
“This guy is doing MVP caliber stuff on a daily basis for us,” said catcher David Ross. “He’s our staple. [Bryant] is a stud too and there’s a lot of these guys that are great, but for me Rizz is the catalyst and leader and the guy that is as consistent as they get.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, lead oozer of clubhouse wisdom, wholeheartedly agrees with those MVP sentiments.
“Absolutely he’s got that level of ability,” Maddon explained. “Offensively, defensively, homers, driving in runs, hitting in the middle of the batting order. He’s the anchor of the whole group, there’s no question about it. He’s not spoken about enough I don’t think. He’s spoken about, but not nearly enough. A lot of the other guys grab attention and Anthony just keeps doing what he does.”
September statistics and standings will likely determine the eventual NL MVP, but Rizzo would be the first one to tell you that he eyes a bigger prize.
His sights are set on the Billy Goat.
Sam Panayotovich reports on Chicago sports and anchors weekend morning sports for WGN Radio. You can see and hear more of his work here.