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Rizzo back with team

The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo prepares for an at-bat during a game last season in Baltimore. On Monday, Rizzo returned to Chicago's spring training camp in Mesa, Ariz., after visiting his hometown of Parkland, Fla. to support victims of last week's deadly shooting at his former high school. 

MESA, Arizona — Normalcy has returned to Cubs camp for Anthony Rizzo, who two weeks ago left Arizona to be with his family and the Parkland, Florida, community following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It's the way Rizzo wants it to be, the way it should be.

Being perhaps the most prominent alumnus of the high school, Rizzo knows he's going to be asked about the shooting and its aftermath.

He has talked with some of the students and supports them in speaking out but doesn't feel the need to become a spokesman himself. Rizzo's first obligation is to the Cubs, and he'll do whatever he can to help in Parkland's recovery in his off time.

As he prepares for the 2018 season, Rizzo would prefer to talk about baseball rather than Parkland, but he understands the situation.

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Cubs Rizzo Baseball

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo waits to bat against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rizzo is departing spring training for his home in Parkland, Fla., to offer support in the wake of a deadly shooting at his former high school.

"Being able to talk to you or other reporters about what happened at Douglas is nice because it's such an important subject," Rizzo said Tuesday at Sloan Park. "But this is what I love to do.

"Playing baseball is obviously what I want to talk about and express myself about most. At the same time, there's a fine balance now with what happened in my hometown."

Rizzo has been criticized for staying out of the gun-control debate, preferring to keep out of the "politics" of it. That's his prerogative. He has strong feelings on the subject but doesn't feel the need to address them publicly and become a target on social media or in the news.

Supporting the community, as he did by delivering a heartfelt, emotional speech at a vigil in Parkland the night after the tragedy, is and always will be Rizzo's priority.

"What he just did, he'll never be the same," manager Joe Maddon said of Rizzo's speech at the vigil. adding: "I mean, the maturity level _ what he just did, a lot of us can't do that."

The Cubs know Rizzo will remain active in supporting the Parkland community. He and his foundation have been helping raise money for families of victims, getting autographed items from teammates and other players and spreading the word on social media.

No one seems worried that it will affect his focus for the season. The Cubs open against the Marlins on March 29 in Miami, and Rizzo said he's excited about going home, where he'll be bombarded with requests for his time.

"I think 'Riz' can handle it," Cubs President Theo Epstein said. "You're talking about a human being who stops at a children's hospital oncology unit on the way to a game, and no one else knows about it, just to make an impact on kids and make a difference.

"Then he shows up (at Wrigley) and hits a couple (of) homers. He's pretty good at compartmentalizing. I think being home for him will be really emotional.

"He's never going to forget where he's from or forget those kids or turn his back on them. He's going to continue to do his best to stay engaged and involved. But he also knows how to get engaged in the grind of the season and be professional."

The Cubs have plenty of work to do before then, and Rizzo wants to have some fun along the way. This camp has been low key by recent standards.

Has this team grown up to the point it doesn't need the goofy skits before workouts? Rizzo said it's just an evolution for this group, many of whom have been together since 2015.

"Guys are doing a really good job of holding everyone accountable and being their own police department, knowing what they do to get ready," he said. "We have that environment of comfort, which is good, but we push each other to be uncomfortable. I've been really happy with the way things are going."

The 2017 season ended in disappointment. But looking back, Rizzo said it was "a great year" coming off the championship run.

"It depends on how you look at it," he said. "We came out and won the division again, we grinded through a crazy Game 5 (of the NL Division Series) against a very good Nationals team, and it shows the kind of guys we have here.

"It was no secret, we were on fumes. We go play the Dodgers, and they were just the better team. You can't hang your head. We threw it all out there and we just came up short."

The lessons learned from last year can help the Cubs get back to where they want to be. We'll soon find out if this group can avoid the slow start that forced it to expend more energy in the second half of 2017, leaving them on fumes when they needed a lift in late October.

In the meantime, Rizzo is just glad to be talking baseball on a sunny day in Arizona.

He might never be the same, as Maddon said, but Rizzo is ready to do whatever is asked of him, whether it's by the Cubs or his hometown.

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