Going National: Alumnus Rizzo realizes Major League front office dreams

Editor’s note: Sports columnist Rich Mayor and his family have known Illinois alumnus Mike Rizzo for most of their lives. Since Rizzo was recently awarded the Washington Nationals’ general manger duties after Jim Bowden resigned, Mayor shares his journey.

It’s a beautiful and sunny early September Saturday in scenic Champaign-Urbana. After taking in an Illini football game with assorted family and friends, I found myself sitting on the patio at Legends when my dad’s best friend returned from a cigar run. He handed me one. I lit up.

Through puffs of smoke and my mom’s looks of displeasure, it was just guys being guys. We talked about the game we’d just seen, the Illini’s hopes for the coming year and baseball. We talked a lot about baseball, for there was an expert on hand. You see, my dad’s best friend doesn’t hold any ordinary job. His name is Mike Rizzo, a University alumnus and the assistant general manager of the Washington Nationals.

Although that day Rizzo answered to then-GM Jim Bowden, he was recently given general manager responsibilities — without the official title — when Bowden resigned on March 1 amid rumors of skimming signing bonuses given to Latin American prospects.

“I look at it as a positive, as a challenge. I embrace it,” Rizzo said. “It’s nice to have the titles, and I believe that will come, but just to have the chance to accomplish a lifelong dream is more than I could ask for.”

Current Chicago Cubs television color analyst and former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly has called Rizzo “brilliant.” Former Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola Jr. told The San Diego Tribune that he has a rare “feel” for finding talent. The hosts of the “Mully and Hanley” radio show on WSCR-AM-(670) in Chicago, Mike Mulligan and Brian Hanley, said Rizzo was “brilliant, truly one of the talents.”

Rizzo, 48, joined the Nationals’ front office in the summer of 2006 after eight highly-successful seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, primarily as director of scouting. Since then, he has helped to legitimize the previously laughable Nationals minor league system. The rankings have fluctuated over the past few years, with Baseball America ranking Washington’s farm system as high as No. 9 in 2008, one year after it ranked dead last.

In Arizona, Rizzo gained great respect and attention by transforming the Diamondbacks’ minor league system. Upon his arrival, the Diamondbacks’ farm system ranked 29th in baseball, according to Baseball America. Five drafts later, Arizona’s system was ranked No. 1. That kind of transformation isn’t supposed to take only six years but Rizzo and his scouts pulled it off. It happened because Rizzo is a hybrid, a blend of old and new trains of thought in baseball. The old school, taught to him by his father, Phil, a Hall of Fame scout in his own right, focused primarily on getting out to see prospects. Decisions came straight from your eyes and your gut.

“(My father) gave me the foundation, not only my baseball background but my personality, my work ethic,” Rizzo said. “Every part of your being is formed by your parents, and without my dad passing along those lessons from the streets, I’m not where I’m at today for sure.”

Today, the scouting focus is on statistics. Rizzo is young enough to understand and respect the new school but born and raised in the old school, developing an ability to bring both together to make the ultimate judgment on a player.

“I always pride myself on saying that I’m a street guy with an education,” Rizzo said. “I think those guys are the most dangerous, because they have a toughness and an air of embraceability about them, but they also understand the very complex dynamics of a major league franchise … I think I’ve mastered both, and I believe that’s what the best-built general manager in baseball can be.”

While Rizzo made the desert his digs, it took Arizona just three years to win a championship. He said his scouting department also put 47 drafted players into the major leagues, the most in baseball in that time frame.

Rizzo, who grew up on the north side of Chicago, spent four years as an infielder in the minor leagues. After making it as high as Class AAA, he retired from baseball and enrolled at the University, where he served as an undergraduate assistant on the Illinois baseball team for two years.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications, Rizzo broke into scouting through his father and made his splash signing future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas to the Chicago White Sox.

“It was my first time really negotiating a six-figure contract with a professional negotiator or agent, and it really taught me about preparation and really knowing your subject matter, knowing the secret tricks of professional negotiators and how to combat them,” Rizzo said. “It taught me a better poker face and how to utilize the techniques I learned way back in the neighborhood and implementing them in a high stakes poker game.”

Rizzo is about 5-foot-9, with a tree-trunk body that might as well be wearing a sign that says, “You don’t wanna mess with me.” He’s usually a shade of olive-tan, in part because of his Italian heritage and partially because of his year-round travels across the world to scout prospects.

Asked point blank if he expects to be hired by the Nationals as the permanent GM, Rizzo responded with his traditional confidence.

“I do, I really do,” Rizzo said. “I check all the boxes that need to be checked for successful general manager in the major leagues, I’ve done every aspect of baseball that there is to do, I’ve done it at a high level. I’m at or near the top of my peers.”

My dad tells a story about Rizzo, one that sums up his tenacity and determination. In the story, he and Rizzo are facing each other as nine-year-olds in Little League. My dad didn’t believe in breaking up double plays; Rizzo did, and this difference soon came to a head. With Rizzo on first, his teammate hit a grounder to my dad, who was playing second. As my dad tagged second and prepared to turn two, Rizzo slid into him, breaking it up.

My dad was flustered — who did this kid think he was? He gave Rizzo a look. Rizzo stood up, dusted the dirt off his pants and said, “That’s how they do it in the big leagues.” They were best friends the next day. Rizzo was going to get there, one way or another.

Rizzo’s story is a classic one, a neighborhood kid made good. He gave playing baseball a shot and it didn’t quite pan out. He gave coaching a shot, but decided it wasn’t for him. He gave scouting a shot, and 28 years after landing his first job in baseball, he is preparing to grab the reigns of his own franchise.

I guess some dreams do come true.