“This pitcher who was so bad that he wanted to quit is now revenant and savior—the revenant who haunts Baltimore and the savior for Cubs fans, who yearn for their team’s first World Series title since 1908.”
It’s a word I learned first as a small child, and grew to understand the definition of not long after. But I never believed in the word. I’d never witnessed “serendipity.” It just didn’t seem real.
But as Jake Arrieta tossed the second no-hitter of his short-yet-storied career on Thursday evening, I realized something. I was witnessing this fabled serendipity, right before my eyes. The entire baseball world was witnessing it. Jake Arrieta and the Cubs were a serendipitous union.
It became clearer to me that hidden beneath the nuances of Arrieta’s success story is an allegory, and it’s to a bigger story. The Cubs’ story. On a smaller and more concentrated stage, the outcome of Arrieta’s journey can serve to represent the destiny of the franchise he is a part of.
“I’m thinking about not playing anymore after this seasonm” Arrieta is quoted as saying in a profile by SI’s Tom Verudcci. Arrieta had begun to wonder if his dream and his goal were truly his destiny. “I knew I got [to the majors] for a reason, and I was confused about why I was changing that now.”
If the Cubs could have quit baseball, they probably would have too, a very long time ago.
After the hiring of a baseball savior whose resume included freeing the Boston Red Sox from their similarly cursed fate, Theo Epstein was the first legitimate ray of light that Cubs fans saw in what felt like decades. He implemented a total rebuild on the North Side, and revamped the infrastructure of a dusty franchise that was no closer to reaching it’s goal than Arrieta was his. The Plan, as it was coined, was to take five years.
But asking for the stoic patience of a fanbase that has waited for over a century to be redeemed is a huge request. For Cubs fans, their patience began to wear just as thin as their hope had over the last decade. And somewhere in Baltimore, Arrieta continued to struggle with lingering self-doubt.
The years rolled on. 2011. The Cubs finish in fifth place, 25 games back of first place. Arrieta posts a 5.05 ERA in Baltimore, the highest among qualifying AL starting pitchers.
2012. Cubs finish in fifth place again, this time 36 games back of first place. Arrieta finishes the season with 6.20 ERA. Again, the highest among qualifying AL starting pitchers.
2013. Cubs finish in fifth place once more, 31 games back of first place.Arrieta played his final stretch in Baltimore, posting a 7.23 ERA in 23 innings.
2014. Arrieta would arrive on the scene in Chicago, asking humbly to be nothing more than what every man truly wants to be: himself. “Look, man, I’ve been through a lot,” Arrieta told pitching coach Chris Bosio upon their meeting. “All I want to do is come over there and be myself and be a winner.”
Fast forward two years, and Arrieta has done just that. The resume is endless, and The Beast behind baseball’s own legend of the phoenix was simply waiting to be unleashed. NL Cy Young Award winner. 24 straight quality starts. A dominant second half run that is not likely to be rivaled during his lifetime. Two no-hitters. To say that Arrieta has reached his goal feels like a vast understatement. He’s transcended his goal.
And now it’s the Cubs’ turn.
They will need Arrieta to achieve their goal as much as he needed them to achieve his. The Cubs brought Arrieta out of his darkness, and now it’s time for him to lead them out of theirs in return. But in this sense, it isn’t necessarily in regards to production on the field that I’m speaking of. There is something the Cubs need from Arrieta that lies in the periphery of his dominance that is directly linked to the Cubs’ success.
What Arrieta is now is a symbol to this team and this fanbase; an icon of focus, perseverance, and re-emergence. A lens through which the Cubs view their potential and their destiny. Every hardship in life serves a larger purpose, to teach us a lesson, and for Arrieta, Baltimore was no different. “I learned so much. It got me to this point.” Arrieta said of his time with the Orioles. Arrieta now brings to a franchise that has patiently waited its turn, just as Arrieta did, the wisdom he’s incurred over those four long years in Baltimore. Perhaps this is yet again, some sort of serendipity.
“To me the most impressive thing with him is his mental focus,” GM Jed Hoyer told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. “It’s just unbelievable… I think he’s so present during games, he’s just so focused on every single pitch, making it a quality pitch, he’s such a good competitor on top of everything else, he’s just not giving pitches away.”
Arrieta’s studiousness was present during his time in Baltimore, but it didn’t affect his performance the way it has in Chicago. These two elements of well tailored coaching coupled with his fitness and mental makeup must live harmoniously. One cannot simply sustain the level of Arrieta’s dominance we see without the other.
“We screw up. We’re human.” Arrieta told Verducci “But what I think is, How close can I get to perfection? And if we try to be perfect, we can drive ourselves crazy, but we can be great. We can be close to perfect.” Arrieta wasn’t given the proper environment to manifest that thought the way he needed to in Baltimore.
For the Cubs, they are not that same team they were finishing in fifth place just a few years ago. The Plan is coming to fruition, and at a rapid pace, colliding with the talent that Epstein and Co. are collecting from the outside market to create a near-unstoppable force.
Arrieta’s drive, focus, and desire to continue to raise the bar for himself are what aided in making him the Jake Arrieta we know today, and the same perseverance will help this Cubs team continue to break through barriers and reach new heights as they have been each day so far this season. “Even when I had a 5 [ERA] in Baltimore, I expected to get to this point at some point. I visualized throwing no hitters.” Arrieta told the media postgame on Thursday “You have conviction in what you’re throwing and good things can happen.”
Arrieta doesn’t simply serve as an individual on this team, he has emerged as leader of it. “He deserves everything he gets, because he works for it. He pushes me. He pushes other guys to work harder and get better and challenge ourselves,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo told CSN’s Patrick Mooney. Arrieta’s dominance serves as an example of what Joe Maddon attempts to cultivate within this team everyday.
“These guys are good baseball players.” Maddon told the media at the start of Spring Training. “They’re very good. The most important thing is for me to get them to start thinking properly. The other stuff will take care of itself. With good health and with repetition, the guys will play well this year. The only threat to us is us, and how we’re thinking.”
Arrieta and the Cubs have faced their struggles together, and with the help of each other, they will set out to overcome what has felt nearly impossible for 108 years. But nothing is impossible, we’ve been shown that. With Arrieta, the Cubs can complete their journey.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.