MESA, Ariz. -- Blinding morning light cascaded through the Cubs clubhouse windows Tuesday to the very spot Anthony Rizzo stood in front of his locker.
They anticipated almost everything else when planning this $99 million spring training palace but apparently not that. Rizzo squinted and shook his head as reporters gathered. Politely asking for permission he didn't need, the Cubs first baseman moved the group out of the glare in front of teammate Casper Wells' stall.
"That's better," Rizzo said, smiling.
Avoiding the spotlight usually is for Rizzo.
He is 24, bats in the middle of the order and plays baseball in a passionate sports city, yet Rizzo the reluctant star embraces his role as a teammate the tightest. He would rather discuss the timetable of the Cubs' hotshot prospects -- "There's no reason to ever take your time in the minor leagues," Rizzo said -- than his own development.
The closest thing the Cubs have to a leader withstands attention more than he welcomes it, humbly questioning what he has done in just 296 major league games to warrant such curiosity. Like it or not, Rizzo must adjust quickly for everybody's good.
On a young team growing up in front of Chicago, Rizzo cannot hide -- in the lineup or the clubhouse -- as hard as he might try. Asked if he had something to prove after a disappointing season in which the left-handed slugger hit .233 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs, Rizzo deflected the question.
"As a team we have something to prove," Rizzo said. "We finished in last place. It's over with. It's in the past."
What Rizzo didn't say said everything. A player cannot feel what he never acknowledges, but as the full team reports Wednesday to Cubs Park, pressure is as omnipresent as the sun, no matter how much Rizzo pretends it doesn't exist.
"What other people say doesn't affect me too much," he said.
Other people simply are taking the Cubs' cue. When the Cubs locked up Rizzo in May with a seven-year, $41 million contract, they did so expecting more than the signature player of the Theo Epstein regime delivered. More than any other Cub, the front office cannot be wrong about Rizzo without critics wondering what else Epstein and Jed Hoyer might have misjudged. They already fired manager Dale Sveum partly because Rizzo's development hit a snag.
The more Rizzo struggled in 2013, the more you wondered if his slow bat was weighed down with organizational burden. Nobody worries about the mental toughness of a guy who beat leukemia as a teenager. But was the conscientious player who struck out 127 times being too hard on himself?
"It was one of those years where he learned a lot about himself," second baseman Darwin Barney said. "You look at him now and he's in the best shape I've ever seen him. Very determined. It's going to be exciting to see a guy with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder."
Enter manager Rick Renteria with a pat on the back. It was Renteria whom Rizzo met once before at a career crossroads when both worked for the Padres. When the Padres demoted Rizzo to Triple A, Renteria -- the team's bench coach -- went out of his way to privately boost Rizzo's confidence the way he did publicly Tuesday.
"He had a good season (in 2013), just not as good as everybody was expecting," Renteria said. "Did he get outside himself trying to do too much to help the club? We've got to figure what were those variables that put him in a position where everybody says he wasn't able to do what everybody expected him to do."
Overall, Renteria's go-back-to-the-foundation hitting approach with Rizzo made sense until the manager started sounding like someone making excuses for a core player who shouldn't need any. Renteria, for example, idealistically rejected the notion that players with contracts the size of Rizzo's need to produce more based on salary.
"I can't say to him, 'You've got to go out there and play well because you're getting paid to play well,' " Renteria said. "I'm hoping he wants to play well because it's the right thing to do."
There are 41 million reasons Renteria and the Cubs can demand Rizzo improve more this year than the guy paid to be a utility infielder. How Renteria will measure Rizzo's improvement raised an eyebrow too.
"We've got to get away from doing things in terms of numbers and start viewing things in terms of approaches," Renteria said. "Ultimately, (plate) approaches will lead to the numbers that are good, bad or indifferent."
Perhaps, but Rizzo's numbers for the 2014 Cubs cannot be bad or indifferent. They better be good, or the bright lights will find somebody else.
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