Washington Post: D.C. embraced Mike Rizzo. Now he wants to give something back.

Perspective by Barry Svrluga

March 12, 2024 at 10:10 a.m. EDT


When the Washington Nationals hired Mike Rizzo to be a top assistant in their front office, Ryan Zimmerman was a rookie third baseman, Joe Gibbs was midway through his second stint as the coach of the city’s NFL team, Nationals Park had not yet opened, Alex Ovechkin had scored only 52 NHL goals, and the Washington Wizard at the peak of his powers was … Gilbert Arenas.


That was midway through the 2006 baseball season. Rizzo grew up in Chicago. He gained a reputation as an accomplished scouting director in Arizona. But now, entering his 19th season with the Nationals — his 16th as general manager — he is of Washington.


“This city has embraced my family,” Rizzo said. “This is my home. We kind of grew up with the neighborhood and with the team — from scratch.”


He is 63. He is at his 42nd spring training. He has a grown son, Mike Jr. He needs to have his second hip replacement surgery sometime soon, because it’s hard to get around.


But he also has a 13-month-old son, and with the Nationals in the long process of a rebuild — a World Series title followed by four straight last-place finishes — he is pledging to see this project through.


“My energy is as high as it’s ever been,” Rizzo said.


“He’s a young 63,” said his wife, Jodi. “I don’t think there’s ever a day that goes by that he takes for granted what his job is. There’s 30 baseball teams. You’re one of 30 in the entire world, and I think he understands the responsibility that the Lerners have given him.


“And he loves his job. He loves his job. How lucky are any of us to be able to say that?”


But even before the birth of their son Santino — he goes by “Sonny” — last January, the Rizzos began thinking about ways to make an impact on Washington that outlasts their time in the city and their time in baseball. Back when covid hit, they found themselves making one-off contributions — donating to help support the sandwich shop across the street, things like that. Mike’s sister Kim was diagnosed — and eventually died — from ALS, so they contributed to research of that disease.


But they wanted more focus. And the focus, they decided, should be Washington.


“We got to thinking that we have to do something for our legacy right here in D.C.,” Mike Rizzo said. “Let’s take a look at where we’re at. We thought that we should put our efforts right in D.C. There are children in my neighborhood who need help. If I’m going to give a dime to anybody, why not give it to the people who live around me.”


Thus, the Rizzos are launching the Rizzo Family Foundation, a nonprofit that will have a three-pronged approach. It will provide annual grants to D.C. nonprofits that are “dedicated to supporting children and families in need of educational, physical, emotional and/or financial assistance.” It plans to provide a college scholarship, named after Mike’s late sister, to a high school student who is always “looking for ways to help improve a situation and make their environment a better place,” as Mike believes Kim did every day. And it will host D.C. students at Nationals Park with free tickets and behind-the-scenes experiences.


“We want to wrap our arms around an organization every year with a grant,” Jodi Rizzo said. “We want to grant a scholarship. But we’re also asking: What else can we do? We want to use Mike’s quote-unquote ‘celebrity’ to make a bigger impact.”


That “celebrity”: Mike Rizzo has lived in the Navy Yard neighborhood — walking distance to his office — since he moved to D.C. full time, back before all the restaurants opened and all the condos were built. He said in times both good and bad — through playoff disappointments and the World Series title, through the teardown that led to the current rebuild — he has been supported by the neighborhood. Though he and his family are planning a move to Northern Virginia, his time in the District has been defined by his accessibility to the people around him. That might be grabbing a beer at the Big Stick. It might be sitting in his Adirondack chairs outside his home, smoking a postgame cigar as the crowd filters to the highway.


“People will roll down the window and yell, ‘Go Nats’ or something,” Rizzo said. “They’ve always been so respectful.”


“I don’t know what they say when they roll the window back up,” Jodi Rizzo joked.


About that: Mike Rizzo knows the results of the past four seasons — in which the Nats lost more games than anyone in baseball — can’t be repeated over the next four. To that end, the magnets on the whiteboard in his office in West Palm Beach, Fla. — as well as the office on South Capitol Street he’ll move back into at the end of the month — show the names of the players who will make up the 2024 Nationals. More important are the names below them, the prospects who will make up the Nats in 2025 and beyond.


“I have a picture in my mind,” Rizzo said. “I’ve got visions of how it’s going to work almost monthly. I have a vision of where we’re at now, where I want to be in mid-May, at the all-star break, at the end of the season — and five years from now.”


Maybe in five years, Mike Rizzo won’t be the general manager of the Washington Nationals. But who’s to say? The only head of a baseball operations department who has been in his job longer than Rizzo is Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees. And Cashman doesn’t have a toddler tearing toward him when he walks in the door after work, keeping him young.


“He is very hands-on as a father,” Jodi Rizzo said. “I think when he had Michael 30-some years ago, he was a scout having to drive all over the Midwest to do his job. Life looks a little bit different now. He is just a really fired-up person. But he never really brings baggage home from the office, which is a really nice thing for fatherhood.”


The baggage of the last four seasons has been difficult to handle. But there’s something about trying to rebuild the Nationals in 2024 as opposed to when he became their GM all those years ago: This time, he’s trying to do it in the city that became his home.

Nash Sanderson