Every year at this time, Major League Baseball hands out a ton of awards for on-field performance during the prior season. It's certainly interesting to see who wins these awards. Witnessing and acknowledging outstanding athletic achievements is one of the reasons we're all drawn to sports.
However, the award announcement I look forward to the most each offseason is the Branch Rickey Award.
The Branch Rickey Award is named after the long-time Major League Baseball executive who was selected the most influential person in sports during the 20th century by ESPN's Sports Century panel.
Not only did Rickey break the color barrier in baseball by signing African-American Jackie Robinson, he also was a pioneer in signing players from Latin America. In fact, he signed the first Latin American player to make the Hall of Fame, Roberto Clemente. In addition, he spearheaded the development of the "Knot Hole Gang," which offered kids who couldn't afford a ticket a chance to attend Major League games. Rickey also created the minor league farm system in baseball and introduced statistical analysis to the game -- long before Billy Beane and Moneyball came along.
Foremost, however, Rickey was a humanitarian.
"The thing about him was that he was always doing something for someone else," said Jackie Robinson.
The Branch Rickey Award, created by the Rotary Club of Denver, honors the baseball humanitarian of the year. It's consistent with the Rotary motto of "Service Above Self." This past Friday, the 2014 Rickey Award winner, Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs was honored.
Rizzo was drafted out of high school by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. He got off to a good start in the minor leagues but in May of 2008 he was hit with the shocking news that he had Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer originating in the white blood cells.
He fought through six months of chemotherapy and then received the good news that his cancer was in remission. After months of building his body back up, he continued his quest to reach the major leagues.
A couple years ago, he debuted in a National League game while with the San Diego Padres. He was later traded to the Chicago Cubs. This past season, Rizzo received 8,800,000 votes from fans across the country to earn a spot on the National League All-Star team. He finished the season with 32 home runs and signed a seven-year contract with the Cubs.
In 2012, Rizzo and his family started the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation to raise money for cancer research and to support children and families fighting the disease. Rizzo is a frequent visitor to children's hospitals to talk with pediatric cancer patients. He also reaches out to young cancer patients by phone. His primary message is if he was able to beat cancer, then they can too.
"When I was still going through the chemotherapy, I was talking with my mom, dad and older brother and I just said after this we could build a foundation and do something special," says Rizzo. "To be able to touch anyone and positively impact their lives is priceless, it really is."
Rizzo's foundation held its third "Walk Off for Cancer" on Sunday. The foundation has also held two "Cook Off for Cancer" events. Together, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation has raised close to $700,000 for cancer research and patient support programs in just two years.
"I grew up in a service-oriented family," says Rizzo. "My parents, grandparents, and older brother were always doing things for others. Always, always, always. The message was always 'Help other people.'"
Rizzo is not only excited about the future of his foundation, he's bullish on the future of the Chicago Cubs.
"We're all very young," says Rizzo. "We're going to learn together. We're going to win together. We're going to lose together. We're going to get in trouble together. And eventually, we're going to have success together."
But ultimately, Rizzo realizes it's the impact he has on other people, not his on-field accomplishments, that will truly last.
"In baseball you're going to be who you are," says Rizzo. "Your performance will be what it is. But when you're done playing, you're done playing.
"If a guy wasn't a good player, but he was a great teammate, a great clubhouse guy, everyone will remember him. If a guy was a great player but he wasn't a great teammate or clubhouse guy, no one will remember him. He just kind of fades away.
"You always want to be a good person, and basically that's what my family has taught me."
As Branch Rickey once said, "It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind."
Anthony Rizzo is all-in with that sentiment.