By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo can create a whole bunch of runs this upcoming season for a team that expects to contend for a pennant. I want him to do that.
Rizzo is one of baseball’s best stories as a cancer survivor-turned-superstar and has been the face of cancer philanthropy in Chicago sports. I want him to be that.
He’s not comfortable being an ambassador for a movement that’s gaining more traction than ever before following a mass shooting. I can’t demand that he be.
The high school Rizzo attended, Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, is still reeling from 17 students and staff members being shot to death last Wednesday. He has direct and indirect connections to the deceased and is grappling with answers to uncomfortable questions about America being the only country where the loss of several lives at once by bullets — especially in schools — is a consistent nightmare. He’s shaken and hurting, and it’s understandable if someone who just had his world rocked like this isn’t ready to be philosophical or be an activist about the situation.
“I play baseball,” Rizzo told reporters Monday as he returned from Florida to his team in Arizona. “I’m an athlete. My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. My focus is on baseball.
“And my focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me, it’s hard enough to hit a baseball. It’s definitely (harder) to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”
How taking a particular stance on the issues at the forefront of every mass shooting’s aftermath — most notably gun control and mental health — would be unfair to Rizzo’s teammates isn’t clear. They’re adults with thoughts of their own and the ability to educate themselves on such issues. But there’s a general vibe in a baseball locker room in which stasis is sacred and being outspoken on a polarizing issue is problematic.
Rizzo did mention, though, that he wants to support the Parkland community in whatever direction it goes. The current students of Stoneman Douglas have already planted their flag. Hardly any of us hasn’t seen Emma Gonzalez’s poise amid rage and tears.
A freshman survivor penned an op-ed with a firm political stance in the New York Times on Sunday. Students there have raised almost half a million dollars as of this writing to fund a march on Washington next month. A senior student journalist has been calling out political inaction since the horrific shooting.
“They’re going to speak up,” Rizzo said. “It’s good for the kids to go out and show that they have a voice. I can’t tell them what they just went through. They just went through the scariest time of their life that no one should ever have to go through. For them to be outspoken about it, it shows that they’re not just going to sit back and be another statistic. They really want to make a change.
“I can’t even sit up here with confidence and say that hopefully this is going to be the last mass shooting, because it probably won’t be. But hopefully this is one of the steps in the right direction.”
Why is what these students are doing a step in the right direction, though? Because they’re being specific in their demands of grownups for policy change in their state and in the rest of this country. They’re mobilizing, utilizing multiple media platforms and not letting this mass shooting become just another gray link in a sadistic American chain. They’re sabotaging the deflecting phony talking point about the need to not politicize a tragedy by literally politicizing their own tragedy.
“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is. I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope that somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’”
The people who are paid to make those decisions have failed for almost 20 years in better protecting Americans from being executed at school, work, houses of worship, the movies or a concert. One of the faces of Major League Baseball carries cachet should he dictate what needs to be done up the line of command. But one can’t be pushed unwillingly into that position.
Rizzo’s ambiguity is his choice and his right, and he shouldn’t be demanded to use his voice in calculated specifics any more than LeBron James and Kevin Durant should be told to “shut up and dribble.” A powerful voice has to want to be used for tangible change and should be allowed space when ready.
Ambiguity or neutrality or silence on matters political are all still political statements themselves — particularly when presented with a clear opportunity to express a position on an important issue.
“To be very clear, I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time in my message,” Rizzo said, referring to a speech he gave at a vigil his high school. “So anyone out there who wrote ‘gun control,’ saying I called for ‘gun control,’ I think, is very irresponsible. I did not say that once.
“I don’t know what needs to be done. I don’t know enough about it. I know there’s a lot of shootings. I know they’re done with a specific make. But I don’t know what needs to be done.”
There’s plenty of readily-available info out there on “it.” Rizzo seems close to really articulating what he seems to want to convey. Yet he’s not quite there.
His current personal situation has to be respected. Civilian political figures are voluntary, even if they are often born of involuntary trauma.
Rizzo’s prominence stems from being asked to get on base and be an insurance policy on defense and having answered in amazing fashion in his time with the Cubs. Lurie Children’s Hospital has $3.5 million more to fight cancer because of his efforts. It can’t be said that he hasn’t made an important, positive mark.
For as rare as his athletic talent is, it’s a fraction of pros who can successfully intersect sports and the sociopolitical. Despite one of the most politically charged times in sports history, it’s not fair to expect Rizzo or other athletes who don’t feel that social calling to be outspoken on controversial issues. No matter how close to home they hit.
If he someday feels that calling, though, he will have an audience.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.