Jake Arrieta, speaking immediately after he no-hit a major-league team for the second time in less than eight months, said that he “felt a little off” the whole night. And you know what? He was absolutely right. He was off. Arrieta walked four Cincinnati Reds, threw far more pitches than his manager probably intended for him, and tossed a no-hitter anyway. Again. We should all be so lucky.
Except it wasn’t luck. It absolutely was not luck. And it wasn’t really talent, either. The extraordinary thing about Jake Arrieta is not that he is talented, though of course he is that, in spades. But lots of people, and especially lots of people in the major leagues, are talented. In the panoply of things that astound about Arrieta’s rise over the last two years, talent is way down the list. No, the extraordinary thing about Jake Arrieta is that he woke up one day and decided he was going to be this good. And then that he did it, by dint of a work ethic that is well past the border of maniac.
We all wish, to one degree or another, that we could be judged and accounted for on the basis of what we believe our true self and true talent to be, not on the basis of whatever small glimpse of that self emerges in the moments that matter. We wish that we could re-do the job interview during which we couldn’t get our words quite right and in fact also accidentally spilled not-particularly-good coffee on the interviewer’s lap. We wish we could re-take the two key tests we took, bleary-eyed, on cold Saturday mornings in high school, and which thereafter ludicrously overdetermined our future. And at the bar, we wish we hadn’t chosen this stupid shirt to wear as we catch the eye of the captivating stranger across the room.
But life gives us only a few opportunities to prove ourselves, small moments where we can put ourselves up for judgement and evaluation to the world. And the self that emerges in those moments isn’t always one that we wish we’d let out. And yet, that’s how life seems to work. We are ever falling just short of what we dream for ourselves. Except Jake Arrieta isn’t, right now. Because all that I just wrote is not true for Jake Arrieta. In fact, almost none of it is. Arrieta has found a way, through unceasing hard work and an uncompromising belief in his potential to be great, to put himself in a position wherein even a lesser version of his true self is still extraordinary. He was extraordinary tonight.
About six months ago, I was sitting in the old, cramped interview room at Wrigley Field, waiting for Joe Maddon to arrive for a standard gameday press conference. Sitting is a nice word for what I was doing, actually, because crouching probably describes it better. And I was crouching, not sitting, because the only seat available for a junior reporter like me was not a seat at all but rather a strange-looking machine, long and narrow, and pushed sheer against the cinderblock wall in the corner. I didn’t know what it was, at that point, but I parked myself on it anyway because there was nowhere else to be. Then, suddenly, a dark mountain loomed over me.
It was Jake Arrieta. He was there to do his gameday Pilates work. I don’t think he looked at me once as he sat down on the machine, headphones in his ears. He didn’t have to, because I’d moved out of the way before I’d even noticed fully which name belonged to the elemental presence that had so clearly arrived in the room. And there, ten inches from me, Jake Arrieta worked out for the next half-hour, ignoring me as firmly as he did absolutely every other human soul in the room, his eyes stared straight forward, fixed on some far-off place.
“I envisioned pitching like this,” said Arrieta tonight. I have to imagine he meant, by his use of the past tense, that day six months ago on the Pilates machine, when his gaze never once wavered from the thing that was not there. I have to imagine he meant all those other times, too, when he was failing so grandly in Baltimore and wondering if he still had a place in the game. He must have been talking, too, about the days, because there were many, when he woke up before it was light out to put in time on the machine, and the nights he spent up with his wife worrying about what might come for them next. He must have meant so many times, actually, because it is only through the accumulation of an extraordinary body of work—hard, physical, manual work—that he got to the place that he achieved tonight. Transcendence.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.