SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – A few days back, just when the sun was starting to stay up long enough to push the neighborhood Wiffle ball games into early evening, Nolan Arenado backed out of his driveway, turned up some Arctic Monkeys and drove into the desert.
It’s a good six hours from Dana Point, California, to here, so another six hours between him and that weird-ass wild-card game the Colorado Rockies lost, and a lot of time to think about what may be out there for all of them. He switched out Arctic Monkeys for Kings of Leon, Kings of Leon for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Red Hot Chili Peppers for Alabama Shakes, sticking to that over his preferred rap because there’d be plenty of batting practice coming, and he loves rap during batting practice.
For four baseball seasons running he has been better than the last. So, too, have been the Rockies. Whether that’s sustainable we’ll know in six or seven months, though Arenado was determined to do his part. Two weeks after he’d gathered his bats from the Chase Field rack, he’d hired a chef for the first time, and was back in the gym, breaking from the routine only to watch the occasional playoff game, wishing it was him, instead sitting with his buddies, eating wings and playing dominos.
He’s thicker through the shoulders and chest, so stronger, but not so restricted to slow his swing or eliminate the arm slots he’d need from third base. It’s all part of the plan to get better again, to work himself away from losing that baseball game on the fourth day of October, to play them all deeper into the fall.
“I wanted to go to L.A. so bad,” he says, “to play in that series.”
So, yeah, he pointed the car into the desert, half-listened to whatever played next, and considered what might come. Already, at 26, he’s been a National League MVP consideration three times, an All Star three times, a Gold Glove third baseman five times. Maybe there has been a better third baseman. Maybe not.
He allowed himself on that drive the excitement of a new camp, of knowing he’d left none of the offseason to chance or idleness. He allowed himself the fear of regression, of bad luck, of slumps that may last a week or a month and just won’t let go. He always circled back to excitement. He also stole more than one look at his rearview mirror.
“I was in a hurry to get out here,” he says with a smile. “Just antsy.”
He stood Saturday morning in a hallway outside his clubhouse. He wore a wool cap and hoodie. The mornings are still cold. He leaned against his bat, then weighed it in his hands for the thousandth time, then studied its grain, and leaned on it again. Nolan Arenado never seems happier than when he’s puttering through a day of baseball, a little of this, then a little of that, some hitting at dawn followed by some ground balls mid-morning followed by more hitting near noon. The weight room counts as baseball, as do the hours in front of his locker, sorting this from that, laughing with the boys, then going home to wait for the next day of baseball.
It’s why he breaks up the offseason monotony of preparing for baseball by playing baseball, such as it is on the street in front of his house, standing in left-handed with a Wiffle bat, the boundaries being curbs and cars and masking tape and other people’s houses. It’s three-on-three, usually the same six dudes, among them his cousin and brother. Sometimes someone can’t make it, so there’s a ready list of what he calls “last-minute call-ups,” but otherwise it’s the same six, a couple times a week and nobody really writes down the score but everybody counts the home runs. There’s a pitcher and a catcher and one guy standing in the mouth of an open garage, you remember, the way baseball used to be played, when there were no adults around, which was most of the time.
That was his winter, that and getting bigger and stronger and thinking about being even less of a pull hitter and not thinking about that one game they lost, the one that cost them the rest of October, or at least a little more of October. Then it was time to go, and the truth is he was ready to go, and had been for a while. It was time to get better again. For him. For all of them.
Besides, he said, “I just missed it.”
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