In an April 2018 profile of Nolan Arenado by Robert Sanchez, Arenado’s parents, Millie and Fernando, describe their son’s reaction to the Rockies’ loss in the 2017 NL Wild Card Game. Millie says Nolan was “devastated,” but in the course of their conversation he lightly said, “It’s not like I’m going to jump off a cliff, Mom,”
The line got a lot of attention because it’s funny and shows a Platinum Glove winner having an ordinary conversation with his mother. Given where we’re at in 2018, however, the paragraph that follows is probably more important:
Back home in California this offseason, the freshness of the loss haunted him. He’d often go to his batting cage; between reps with his trainer, he’d text Charlie Blackmon or DJ LeMahieu, two of his closest teammates. They’d talk about what they were doing, how their workouts were going, what their families were up to. Invariably, though, the conversation would turn to that night in Phoenix. The Rockies had put up four runs in the first four innings against Zack Greinke, one of the league’s best pitchers. Arenado had hit a home run later in the game. After a few texts, one of the guys would finally peck out the words each of them was thinking: How did we score eight runs and lose?
When the Rockies have played the Arizona Diamondbacks this year, each series has carried a sense of the team wrestling with its Wild Card ghosts. In their opening series, the Rockies lost two of three games in Arizona, creating a gnawing fear that 2018 would pick up where 2017 had ended. The feeling persisted into June when the D-backs swept the Rockies at Coors. But in July, the Diamondbacks, having run first very hot and then very cold, made their way to Coors, and that’s when the Rockies began to find their way, going two for three in the series. A week later, they returned to Phoenix to take two of three from the Diamondbacks, the first game highlighted by a shelling of pitcher Archie Bradley, whose triple devastated the Rockies in October. For the first time in 2018, there was a sense that the Rockies had banished their demons and moved past October. As July closes, the Rockies are very much in contention for another post-season run.
Arenado is having an MVP-caliber 2018. But perhaps the most memorable thing about Arenado’s season will be his emergence as the Rockies’ leader. Those winter conversations with Blackmon and LeMahieu suggest that he was laying the groundwork for the next step in his evolution as a player. In the past, Arenado has seemed reluctant to assume a leadership role; this year, he has fully embraced it.
This became especially clear after a late June interview with The Athletic’s Nick Groke in which Arenado expressed his frustration with the Rockies’ season. Most fans focused on Arenado’s statement “I’m tired of losing” and took it as foreshadowing his intention to leave when his contract ends. But the interview’s subtext was much more interesting because it revealed two things we hadn’t seen before. First, it showed Arenado leveraging power in new ways. Because he’s one of the best players in baseball in the final years of his contract, Arenado is uniquely positioned to get attention when he speaks. (LeMahieu can’t do this — he’s not sure he will have a contract with the Rockies after 2018; Blackmon can’t — he’s committed to a lucrative, long-term contract.) Second, rather than use that platform for a contract negotiation, Arenado was instead beginning a conversation on behalf of himself and his teammates with Rockies management about their 2018 roster expectations if they were post-season contenders. (I’ve written about that here). In other words, Arenado was taking on a leadership role with his team.
With this in mind, consider two of the the mentors Arenado has played with and what it may indicate for Arenado’s future with the Rockies.
The Mentors: Todd Helton and Carlos González
Arenado has said that he learned about being an MLB infielder by watching Troy Tulowitzki, but he probably learned about leadership from Todd Helton and Carlos González.
Although we’ve come to think of Helton as “The Toddfather,” in this 2013 article, Troy E. Renck laid out Helton’s reluctant acceptance of a leadership role, which Renck as “Todd and the Toddlers”:
He grew from a top prospect into the face of the Rockies franchise, he understood his responsibilities. . . . Helton became the reluctant voice during the Rockies’ lean years that I coined Todd and the Toddlers. He wasn’t happy, but he was accessible. And behind the scenes he was something more: a template for the team’s only World Series run, in 2007, by which time the Toddlers had grown up.
Rookie Nolan Arenado began playing for the Rockies in 2013, Helton’s last season. Patrick Saunders described Arenado’s brief time as a “Toddler” and argues for Helton and Arenado as “the Rockies’ odd couple.” In the article, Arenado makes clear how intimidatied he felt about playing with Helton, but he worked through it and came to see Helton as a teammate to learn from, not to fear. Arenado grew, in part, because of Helton’s leadership.
After the Helton years, Carlos González emerged as the team leader, and, effectively Arenado’s second Rockies mentor.
Eric Garcia McKinley points out that González, who became a Rockie in 2009, also benefitted from the leadership of Helton, Tulowitzki, and Brad Hawpe, and tried to pass on to younger players what he had learned. In other words, the Rockies are a family with a shared baseball history and values.
As the 2018 season approached, González remained unsigned. Arenado was clear in his comments to the press that he and other players wanted CarGo back on the team:
“I think it would be safe to say that everyone here misses him, really badly. . . . Don’t get me wrong, I think we have strong group of guys, but we miss CarGo’s energy and laughter. I know a lot of guys miss him — even if they won’t voice it — because we have talked about it since we all got here.
CarGo kept things light. He was a good balance for guys like me; guys who are kind of serious. I mean, CarGo could be serious, but at the same time, he kept everyone loose.”
He was, to quote Saunders, “the king of the Rockies’ clubhouse. The all-star outfielder was a leader and a confidant, and perhaps the team’s most magnetic personality. Players were drawn to him.” Jena Garcia has commented on the Rocky Road Podcast that González and Gerardo Parra are essential cultural bridges in the Rockies’ locker room. This is one way in which González’s leadership varies from Helton’s, but in a culturally diverse clubhouse, it is essential.
In Todd Helton and Carlos González, Arenado learned from two of the best. As consequence, he is, in a sense, tasked with carrying on their legacies. In the 2018 season, he has done that while developing his own leadership style.
2018: Arenado Becomes the Leader
When Purple Row’s Samantha Bradfield asked Arenado about his leadership, he said, “I don’t know, you’d probably have to ask the guys about that. . . . I’m definitely not the vocal guy here. I’m more just a guy who just goes about his business and hopefully people feed off that, but yeah I think you’ve gotta ask the guys about that one.” However, he does acknowledge a difference:
I think my role has changed for sure, and I think that comes with the territory of being a guy that’s been around a little bit and that’s been able to perform the last few years. I think sometimes young guys come up, and they want to ask why I’m having that success and you know there’s a little bit of [stuff] like that I gotta be able to communicate with them and tell them what I feel has helped me and will help them.”
Moreover, this season, despite his assertions that he’s not a “vocal guy,” he has become a go-to interview. In addition to talking to Saunders and Groke, after games, he comments supportively on his teammates’ performances (like here and here). He is, in effect, assuming the roles held by Helton and González.
Why Does It Matter?
At this point, you’re probably asking, “So what? It’s not like Arenado is the first player to have mentors and then become one himself.” Absolutely. But I would argue this evolution is significant for two reasons.
First, he’s taking what he learned from Helton and González and making it uniquely his own, reflecting who he is and where the Rockies are headed. Unlike Helton and González, he is emerging as the team leader in the prime of his career, not when he is nearing retirement. He is a peer, not a parent. His leadership rests on pushing himself and his teammates to do better. He is driven, in part, by his desire not to repeat the hard lessons of the Wild Card Game. His winter conversations with Blackmon and LeMahieu illustrate the degree to which the loss nagged all of them.
Second, as Arenado assumes a leadership role and has a voice in making decisions, he becomes more personally invested in the Rockies. They become his team. Consider his comment in a pre-All Star Game interview:
“I wouldn’t say I hear a clock ticking [toward free agency]. I just want to win because I want to win. That simple. I have been to the playoffs once for one game. I want more than that. And I want it in a Rockie uniform.”
“I want it in a Rockies uniform.”
These are not the words of someone looking to leave, but they are the words of someone looking to win. Again, Arenado is articulating his terms for staying in Colorado.
This is why his emotional investment matters — and Arenado’s growing into a leadership role is another manifestation of that commitment. What would be more satisfying? Going into the post-season as a Yankee with a stable of well paid (clean-shaven) players and a long history of post-season play, or doing it with the Rockies, a team that’s never consistently seen post-season success, yet helped him become the player he is and has made him the face of the franchise?
I don’t know what will happen when Arenado’s contract ends, but I do know that he has a deep attachment to the Rockies. Nolan Arenado is an emotional baseball player — it’s part of what makes him special. He is trying to lead this team to the place he wants to be.