- Associated Press - Monday, February 19, 2018

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Anthony Rizzo’s parents were among the first homeowners in Parkland, Florida. The Chicago Cubs first baseman has watched his tight-knit community grow and change dramatically. He remembers as a boy when there were no stoplights in town to the four there are now.

Rizzo feels great ties to his hometown that touches up on the Everglades.

So last week, after the shooting rampage at his former high school, Rizzo knew he must immediately go home . “Numb” is how he described his initial feelings hearing the deadly attack happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He left his team’s camp in Arizona and on Thursday night spoke at a candlelight vigil back in Florida. He visited victims in the hospital. He spent time with his parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. He talked with neighbors.

“I felt helpless here,” Rizzo said Monday upon rejoining his teammates at spring training. “That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there. I succeeded there. I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas.”

Rizzo now must shift gears from the “gut-wrenching” experience to baseball, with the Cubs holding their first full-squad spring training workout. He was adamant he has never once called for gun control and doesn’t plan on becoming a public advocate on the subject, saying that would be unfair to his teammates.

“I don’t know what needs to be done. Some type of change needs to happen for the better,” he said.

A 2007 graduate of the school, Rizzo played for slain assistant football coach Aaron Feis, and the infielder’s brother played four seasons for him. Rizzo, who last November donated $150,000 toward getting lights for the baseball and softball fields, saw him a few weeks ago.

“Every single one of my best friends in high school, we all have memories of Coach Feis,” Rizzo said. “For him to lay his life down like that and save kids just shows the type of person he is. He has, I believe, a daughter or son at home. He’s a true hero.”

Rizzo spoke for 15 minutes Monday after attending a morning infielders meeting and ahead of a full team gathering at the Cubs‘ Sloan Park spring training facility.

“You’ve just got to be there for people in these times,” Rizzo said. “There’s really nothing you can say, nothing you can do except just be there and show that you care for them and that you’re there for them, because as much as I want to say I know how it feels for them, I don’t. I didn’t lose anyone that was direct family, but I feel like I did because I’m from there.”

Rizzo wanted to do something for the heartbroken students and residents in his hometown, so he asked if he could speak at the vigil.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “Just going back, you don’t know what to say. … When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things, if you can. Just to see how real it is, it’s sad. And it’s why I’m so proud of what they’re doing back in Parkland and how everyone’s coming together because they’re going to turn this tragedy into something hopefully really, really positive.”

Manager Joe Maddon supported Rizzo’s trip and pledged any help the Cubs might be able to provide.

Chicago owner Tom Ricketts said “Anthony’s character has always been one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in baseball … obviously last week takes it to the next level.”

Outfielder Albert Almora is also from South Florida. He knew what he would do when he saw Rizzo.

“I’m just going to first give him a long hug like I always do and try to put a smile on each other’s face and just go about our day and know without saying much that I’m there for him,” Almora said.

Rizzo is deeply appreciative of the outpouring of support he’s received from so many in baseball. He will continue to offer the same for everyone back home.

“I’m really proud to see what Parkland is doing right now, what all the kids are doing and how they’re speaking out and trying to make a difference,” he said. “I stand behind my community. I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together.”

In time, he hopes, the community will move forward and stay together. He hopes parents all over the country will feel their kids are safe going to school each day.

Rizzo isn’t ready to say how he might honor all of those lost. It’s all still so fresh right now.

“They’ll be in my heart every day,” he said, “They’ll be in my thoughts every day.”

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More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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