Rizzo to Lester: Roberto Clemente Award 2017 Winner to 2018 Cubs Nominee
Each year Major League Baseball (MLB) honors one player with the Roberto Clemente Award. Originally known as the Commissioner’s Award in 1971, its debut year, it is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Each of the 30 teams nominates a player. Fans, along with members of the media, vote online. While a panel of baseball dignitaries ultimately chooses the overall winner, the online votes count as one vote added to those cast by the panel.
The award was renamed in 1973 for 15-time All-Star and Hall of Fame outfielder Clemente. He was killed in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve 1972.
Last year the winner was Anthony Rizzo. At 18 (while in the Boston Red Sox organization), he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He underwent six months of chemotherapy. After an additional six weeks of therapy, doctors told him he was cancer free in late 2008. Four years later, he started the nonprofit Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation to raise money for cancer research. The Foundation provides support for children and their families dealing with the disease with centers in Florida and Illinois.
Rizzo also received the 20th Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award last year. After being nominated by his teammates, he was chosen for the award by fellow MLB players. It is given to the player for “on field performance and contributions to his community” that “inspire others to higher levels of achievement.”
In a September 2016 ESPN The Magazine feature, by Robert Sanchez, the author shared the strong bond between Rizzo and Jon Lester, this year’s Clemente Award nominee for the Cubs. Rizzo had just been diagnosed when then Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein introduced him to the lefty (who was two years post his own cancer-anaplastic large cell lymphoma-battle at age 22. The year before, Lester returned to the mound, and started the World Series clincher for the Red Sox against Colorado. That day in the locker room the Rizzo family had many questions for the pitcher.
How did he deal with chemo? How did his family deal with their son having cancer? How was it coming back to baseball? Lester did his best to answer all the questions, focusing on viewing cancer as ‘a competition he had to win.’ He also told the teen to not stop his life. Even if his thoughts turned dark, as Lester said his did during the most difficult times, he hung out with his family and friends, hunted, and threw a baseball when he could.
After Lester told Rizzo’s father (whose own mother died from cancer when he was in eighth grade), “Let your son get settled into this stuff first. And then see how he feels. When he feels up to it, let him go do his thing,” his son fainted when everything became all too real. Once Rizzo was resting in the manager’s office, Lester added, “Don’t make a big deal of this. If something happens, keep moving.”
Before the Rizzo family left the locker room, Lester added he would see them again. Lester threw a no-hitter in his first start after meeting with Rizzo.
Rizzo would be voted into the 2014 All-Star game as the fan-decided Final Vote, while Lester, then the Boston ace, was part of the American League team. Before the game, Rizzo went up to Lester, and asked if he remembered him. Knowing the pitcher would be a free agent after the season ended, Rizzo told Lester that Chicago was a good place and that the Cubs were a great organization.
“Anthony’s a big part of why I came over here,” Lester said. “If I’d have first met him just as a minor leaguer, without our connection, it wouldn’t have been the same conversation. What we shared added the intrigue to it, knowing he wasn’t just talking to me like, ‘Hey, we would really like to have you as a pitcher.’ It was other things-deeper things.”
Teammates see Rizzo and Lester act like brothers. “They jab at each other, but it’s always lighthearted,” third baseman Kris Bryant says. “Jon helped Anthony through a very tough time, so they have a relationship none us can have. They’re leaders for this team, and their past experiences shaped that.”
Manager Joe Maddon on the duo, “Those two have a bond that sets them apart. None of us can truly say they know what the other guy has been through. They do.”
Lester added, “It’s like everything has come full circle. We’re in a completely different destination than where we met.”
Short for “never quit,” the NVRQT campaign, run by Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF), helps to raise awareness and funds for children’s cancer research. Lester partnered with PCRF in 2012 (on a side note, the same year the Rizzo Foundation was started) to help inspire other cancer patients. The campaign’s white-on-white baseball is a symbol of “hope, purity, and play for those affected by childhood cancer.”
In a Boston Globe article, reflecting on that first year with NVRQT, Lester shared, “It took me 5 years to get to the point that I felt comfortable going back into a hospital. Whenever we visit kids the smell of the place still brings back some not-too-pleasant memories, but meeting the kids quickly changes all that. We do love meeting the kids, signing some balls and telling stories.
My 5-year cancer-free mark coincided with my son Hudson’s birth and Farrah and I decided it was time to give back. After meeting so many kids and their families we also saw the look in their parent’s eyes. There is a worry so pure and a fear so deep that we knew it was something we never wanted to go through.
Our cause would become children’s cancer research. I had helped out the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation years ago and we decided every penny NVRQT raised would go straight to them. PCRF provides grants to researchers around the country who are working on better treatments and real cures that will change care around the world. I received a LOT of support from teammates and fans when I was sick and the words of encouragement meant a lot during some of those long days.”
A second Cubs player is actually on the ballot this year as his former team nominated him.
The Texas Rangers nominated Cole Hamels for the third straight year. In 2009, Hamels, and his wife Heidi, started the Hamels Foundation charity, one that is dedicated to “enriching the lives of children through the power of education, giving them the tools they need to achieve their goals, through a community-based approach to education.” The Foundation works to empower inner-city children in the United States and in rural Malawi, Africa.
Hamels also worked with the Rangers’ MLB Youth Academy and hosted members of the military from nearby bases in Texas with tickets to home games as part of Operation 35. Last year the Hamels donated their multi-million dollar 32,000-square-foot home on Table Rock Lake in Missouri to Camp Barnabas. The 100-acre property will be used for that charity to provide “life-changing experiences to individuals with special needs and chronic illnesses as well as their siblings.”