By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — The defending champion Cubs lost an irreplaceable leader with the retirement of veteran catcher David Ross in the offseason. When such a leadership void exists, the usual response is along the lines of “all of us must be leaders,” but that’s easier said than done.
The right leadership for a team varies as to what the makeup of that group is all about.
For the Cubs, 27-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo will be looked to as a key leader following the exit of Ross. Rizzo is the longest-tenured Cub, with his leadership role initially foisted upon him in July 2014, when the Cubs traded pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for Addison Russell and others.
Then 24, Rizzo may hadn’t found his big league persona yet and was being asked to carry a large burden as a youngster.
“When I first came here, (Rizzo) was already mentioned as one of the leaders on the team,” said manager Joe Maddon, who assumed his role in November 2014. “I thought that was unfair to label him a leader at that point. He was too young, lacked experience and had not yet been involved with a winning group. That was unfair to him, I think. I believe that with the guys that Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) brought in over the last two years, yeah, now he understands what it takes to be a leader.
“He understands how to win. He knows how to play every day. There still is a growth component to that as well. This goes well beyond a batting average and home runs hit. For me, it’s about showing up every day and caring about the other guys more than you care about yourself. I think Rizz is able to do that. He is now aware of all that.”
The love Rizzo has for his teammates is easy to see, and he’s adjusting to daily life without Ross and Dexter Fowler.
“It will be a minor adjustment,” Rizzo said. “They are leaving us in good hands. We have another year of friendship and another year of us policing each other. Their personalities, what they do on the field yes, 100 percent (will be missed). That is just the way baseball is.”
Rizzo embraces the leadership role for himself, and he also expects his teammates to step up and lead with him.
“Everyone leads in their own way,” Rizzo said. “You have quiet guys. You have guys who are louder. You also have guys who do it by example. The best part is we are all unique in our own way. We all get along, even with everyone having different styles. It’s not ‘do it this way or the highway.’ We have guys doing different things, and we all understand that.”
Developing a strong continuity after winning one World Series is the goal of Rizzo and his teammates.
“I had an old man in the gym tell me, ‘Hey, you have won one. You really have not won anything until the whole country hates you,'” Rizzo said. “In a way, it’s true. Being a Dolphins fan, I grew up hating Tom Brady. That was because he was so good. I think this team has a lot of personalities. It will be tough. That is just the way it goes. We just go out and play. If we respect the game, it will be hard for people not to like us.”
A leader doesn’t pick himself to be the man. Others simply gravitate toward a person who has both leadership and fellowship attributes. For the Cubs, Rizzo has an abundance of that to offer.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.