Every parent wants to see their child succeed in life and accomplish their dreams. For a Little League® parent, that could be seeing their child make it to the major leagues, play in a World Series, or even better, win it.
John and Laurie Rizzo got to see their son, Anthony Rizzo, achieve that dream last year when he helped the Chicago Cubs win their first World Championship in 108 years. But before they saw Anthony raise the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Rizzo’s were avid volunteers as both Anthony and their other son, John, played Little League growing up in Florida.
Mr. and Mrs. Rizzo’s hard work, dedication, and guidance to Parkland (Fla.) Little League and the entire Little League organization earned them the prestigious honor to be named as the 2017 George and Barbara Bush Little League Parents of the Year.
“It’s such an honor to be named Parents of the Year,” said Mr. Rizzo. “We’re just nobodies. Just one or two of hundreds of thousands of people that were coaching Little League, so it’s an honor for us just to even be thought of to represent all the parents of Little League.”
John, 30, and Anthony Rizzo, 27, started playing Little League when they were each five years old. Mr. Rizzo had played Little League when he was younger, and loved it so much that he wanted his sons to get involved. He coached both John and Anthony at each level, with Mrs. Rizzo acting as a devoted Team Mom. Mrs. Rizzo would bring snacks for the team and often organized other parent volunteers for her boys’ teams.
Both Rizzo boys played Little League until they were 12 years old, with Mr. and Mrs. Rizzo there every step of the way. Even with busy work schedules outside of baseball, both made it a point to always be there to support their sons.
“It’s tough, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to have practices, you have to organize kids, and you have to teach them life experience too, not just baseball. You have to teach them teamwork, and how to get along with others, and how to respect parents,” said Mr. Rizzo. “So I always emphasized looking okay, taking care of yourself, being respectful, and good grades.”
After Little League, John went on to play football in high school before eventually walking onto the football team at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), where he earned a four-year scholarship.
Anthony was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB draft. He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 2010 and made his major league debut in June 2011. Less than a year later, he was traded to the Cubs, where he has become an All-Star first-baseman, appearing in the All-Star game in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Despite both of his sons’ success during and after Little League, one of Mr. Rizzo’s favorite memories from coaching didn’t involve either of them.
“This one kid, Thomas, could just about pick up his bat and throw a ball, but he really was always trying hard,” said Mr. Rizzo. “But I told him he was going to pitch that day, and he was so excited and he did really good for a kid that couldn’t throw really well. I saw him a couple of years ago, and he started telling me what an impact I had on him, just from letting him pitch that one game. So, Little League leaves a mark on you, it’s pretty cool.”
Beyond baseball, the Rizzo’s have taken on a cause that is very close to their hearts. In 2008, Anthony was diagnosed with limited stage classical Hodgkin's lymphoma. After six months of treatment, he was in remission and could go back to playing baseball. His own diagnosis, plus the loss of his grandmother to cancer, inspired Anthony to start the “Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation”, whose mission is to raise money for cancer research and to provide support to children and their families battling the disease.
“Every Tuesday of the month that Anthony has a home stand, he goes to the hospital, and he doesn’t like anybody with cameras or video coming. He just likes going in there and walking through the cancer ward, handing kids signed hats, and just sitting down talking to them,” said Mr. Rizzo. “Just to go with him, and watch that, it’s pretty moving.”
Reflecting on both his time as a Little League player and coach, Mr. Rizzo is in awe that he got to be in the position of those that he and his friends idolized growing up.
“Growing up, there were guys in my town, and you look back, and they were legendary when we were little kids,” said Mr. Rizzo. “Little League coaches were like gods, you looked up to them, and just to be in the same group with those guys, it’s an honor to coach Little League to me.”
The George and Barbara Bush Little League Parents of the Year Award, established in 1980, is presented annually to the parents of a Major League Baseball player who were actively involved in their son’s Little League experience.
“Parents like John and Laurie are the reason that Little League Baseball and Softball has developed into the world’s largest youth sports organization,” said Stephen D. Keener, Little League President and CEO. “It is thanks to the millions of dedicated parents who put in the time, effort, and support of their children, and all those involved in the Little League program, that makes the Little League experience truly special. We are proud to honor John and Laurie with this prestigious honor as they represent all of the values that this award was created around.”
More than recognition of one set of parents annually, the Parents of the Year Award is designed to be a symbolic recognition of the millions of mothers and fathers who each year respond to the call of parental duty and help provide a wholesome healthy arena for leadership training for the children of their respective communities.
The award is named for former President Bush and his wife Barbara, who were volunteers during their children’s early years in Texas, and continue to support Little League today. The award is presented during the Little League Baseball® World Series, held each August in South Williamsport, Pa.