Rozner: Nats GM Rizzo pays tribute to late father, Chicago roots

• First in a series

In the 30-plus years I've known Mike Rizzo, there has never been a time he didn't answer the phone.

Not when he was an area scout with the White Sox.

Not when he was the scouting director for the Diamondbacks.

And not now, when he's a World Series-winning boss of the Washington Nationals.

Unlike so many in the sporting world, Rizzo doesn't forget those who knew or helped him before he was a big deal.

Born, bred and raised in Chicago, and for a long time a Rolling Meadows resident, Rizzo still has a lot of Chicago in him.

He doesn't sound like an Ivy Leaguer when he speaks because he's most assuredly not, but it was the education he received on the streets of Chicago that served as his foundation.

"It all goes back to my mom and dad," said the 59-year-old Rizzo, still working at the Nationals' spring complex in West Palm Beach. "My dad worked for the city his whole life until he became a scout. It was a hard life.

"When I got into baseball, he said, 'Never forget they can take it away from you in a second.' He pounded that into my brain. This game will humble you.

"You're gonna see the same people on the way down that you saw on the way up. So you think things are good today, but in this game it changes quickly.

"The greatest gift he ever gave me was my work ethic and my attitude, the things you can control.

"Look, we grew up tough. We grew up fighting. If you backed down from a neighborhood fight, you were gonna have to fight dad when you got home.

"If you talked back to a coach or teacher, he didn't go to school to find out what happened and yell at the teacher. He said, 'What the (bleep) is wrong with you? You don't yell at a teacher.'

"If the brothers at Holy Cross smacked you around, he didn't get mad at them," Rizzo chuckled. "He got mad at you - and then you probably got smacked again.

"He taught us to respect our elders."

Mike's dad Phil, a scouting Hall of Famer, died two months ago at the age of 90. He was an absolute classic. When you ran into him on the road, without saying "Hello," the first words out of his mouth would be, "How the (bleep) do the Cubs think they can win with this starting rotation?"

Phil Rizzo passed away three months after seeing his son win the big prize, while remaining close by as an adviser whenever his son needed an ear to chew off.

"There's some days that are harder than others, and I know there will be some emotional days going forward," Mike Rizzo said. "The ring ceremony when they announce his name, that will be tough.

"Thanksgiving and Christmas the first time without him will be emotional, but my dad would have been the first guy to say, 'Quit your (bleeping) whining and get back to work. Get your team together.'

"He always said, 'Never get married or die during a baseball season.' That was not allowed."

This is a man who truly loved his father, and not just for helping him get into the game of baseball. It was Phil who told Mike after several mediocre minor league seasons that it was time to give up playing and try his hand as a scout.

"He taught me so much, but it was the way he worked that was probably most important," Mike Rizzo said. "When we lived in that little bitty bungalow on Waveland Avenue, with one bathroom and one shower for six of us, he was up at 4:30 every morning in the freezing cold of Chicago to go start that city cement truck or dump truck.

"He never let us forget where we came from and when I got into baseball he said, 'Always respect this game. It's bigger than you. It will go on without you when you're gone and a year from now they won't even remember you.'

"You have to respect the game and treat people right."

That's why Mike Rizzo still answers the phone.

"Hey, us Chicago guys have to stick together," Rizzo said. "Not that many of us left from the old days."

Ain't that the truth.

• Next: Mike Rizzo on a 19-31 Nationals team that kept it together and went on to win the 2019 World Series.

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