ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joe Maddon had a gut reaction when he heard Anthony Rizzo had been traded into the cauldron of pressure that is New York Yankees baseball.
"My first internal response was that he’s perfect for it," the former Cubs manager, now in charge of the Angels, told Newsday.
Rizzo and Maddon were a part of the 2016 club that gave Cubs fans their first world championship since 1908.
"Anthony gets it," Maddon said. "He understands his place in the game, he understands the day-to-day workings, he understands playing in a big market. I know people will say Chicago compared to New York is not a big market, but it is."
Maddon said Rizzo, a Cub from 2012 until the Yankees acquired him just before this year’s trade deadline, has the ideal demeanor to handle the pressures that come with playing for a franchise with great expectations.
In the case of the Cubs, it was about ending a historic championship drought while fieldling constant questions about curses, goats and past October choke jobs.
With the Yankees, it’s the yearly expectation of being a World Series contender.
"He’s got a really good way about him, a very calm way about him," Maddon said. "He comes to play every day, he’s able to file away a bad moment. He accepts criticism really well. He’s always seeking advice and a better way to do things. He’s not an I-know-everything kind of guy at all. He’s a great listener. The [complete package]."
One team insider said the energy in the Yankees’ clubhouse jumped "from about a 2 to a 12" after the trade deadline, which also featured the acquisition of outfielder Joey Gallo and pitchers Andrew Heaney, Joely Rodriguez and Clay Holmes. Rizzo, by all organizational accounts, has been the primary clubhouse spark. That came as no surprise to Maddon, who called the first baseman his "rock" when he managed the Cubs.
"I don’t care what happened the day before, it could have been awful, he’s still going to show up the same guy," Maddon said. "And he’s not going to permit anybody else’s negative energy to infiltrate his space. He’s never going to do that. And I think with that, he’s going to send out the positive vibes to the rest of the group that ‘hey, it’s all right.’ Yeah, you’re going to lose a game now and again, you might lose a couple now and then, but you have to show up the same cat the next day with the same kind of attitude, the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of optimism."
Lefthanded hitters Rizzo and Gallo added some much-needed diversity to the Yankees’ lineup.
Rizzo started hot, going 9-for-32 with three homers and a .963 OPS in his first nine games before being put on the COVID-19 injured list. After coming off the list, Rizzo went 1-for-18 in his first five games but has turned it on again of late. He is 9-for-26 in seven games after going 1-for-4 Wednesday night in the Yankees' 4-1 win over the Angels.
But — and Aaron Boone has mentioned this repeatedly since Rizzo arrived — it’s not just about offense. He’s proved to be a significant upgrade in the field at a position the Yankees haven’t been consistently good at defensively since Mark Teixeira’s retirement after the 2016 season.
"He’s outstanding at balls in the dirt, he’s outstanding in general, like manipulating his feet on the bag to cover the most ground that he can," Maddon said of the four-time Gold Glove winner. "But he’s really good on things that are down, he’s very good on bunts. And he throws well. He’s a really good thrower and he’s proud of his arm. He likes to throw, so he’s not going to shy away from the tough throw from first to second or on a bunt to third. He doesn’t shy away from the tough throw. Ever."