Saying goodbye – and thanks – to Jake Arrieta

The breaking news yesterday that the Cubs have reportedly signed four-time All-Star pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal filled me with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, there was pure joy. The Cubs had thrown the mighty counterpunch we in Wrigleyville Nation had all been waiting for. They’d not only stood up to the offseason moves of their primary challengers to the National League Central throne, the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals; they’d bested them. Check. And check mate.

But with that glee came a dash of melancholy. Because realistically I knew that the Darvish signing confirmed what we’d all long suspected: The Cubs are saying goodbye to Jake Arrieta. Sure, Arrieta is still out there for the taking to the highest bidder. But’s let’s face it: That won’t be the Cubs. There’s no room left in the Cubs’ rotation. And the team has already broken open the piggy bank for Darvish. That leaves Arrieta undoubtedly wearing another team’s uniform in 2018.

This then seems like the appropriate time to give Arrieta a proper salute, to express my gratitude for all that he did in his 4-1/2 years as a Cub and all the great memories he gave to me. So, here it goes…My brush with Jake Arrieta: The day that made a legend.

On June 12, 2015, a raw, foggy Friday afternoon, the Cubs lost 5-4 in extra innings to the Cincinnati Reds. It was a forgettable game, if you’re a Cubs fan. I know, I was there. For most of it. After Cubs’ starter Jason Hammel surrendered three runs in the top of the first, Chicago improbably came back against Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto to tie the score 4-4. Only to lose, on an unearned run, in the tenth inning.

By the time the game mercifully ended, about four and a half hours after it started, I was thawing out at a nearby watering hole.

With the loss, the Cubs’ record was still a respectable 32-27. Good for third place in the NL Central. The season was still early but the Cubs were finally starting to show that Theo Epstein’s rebuilding effort might actually pay off. Just not yet. They still trailed the villainous St. Louis Cardinals by seven games. Most baseball experts saw them as still a year away from making a realistic move towards being a playoff contender. And the game earlier that day showed why. Shortstop Addison Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant each committed their eighth errors of the young season that day. They were still young and raw, and they still had a lot of room for growth.

My buddy Jimmy Gordon and I were about to call it a night, but he convinced me that we should get one last drink. We didn’t need one more drink. There had been plenty already. Yet we kept on until we stumbled into Roadhouse 66, a tavern on Clark Street just down from the Cubby Bear and the Irish Oak. Neither of us had ever stepped foot in the bar before.

Of all the bars in Wrigleyville I have no idea what brought us into this one. But looking back at it now, I see that the moment we stepped foot in Roadhouse 66 the earth’s axis shifted ever so slightly. It probably wasn’t detectable, but it happened. Of that I am sure. Because what happened after that night is the stuff of baseball legend. And it all started the moment I nudged Jimmy and pointed to a bearded man, sitting at a table near the front of the bar. That’s when I uttered the three words that would forever change the course of my life as a Cubs fan: “That’s Jake Arrieta!”

Jake-Arrieta-Pitching-NakedOkay, we were a little sauced. Maybe a lot sauced. Arrieta and his beard are easily recognizable today. Heck, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2016 Body Issue wearing nothing other than his now-famous facial hair and a carefully placed baseball mitt. But in June 2015, he was kind of a nobody.

I’d followed the Cubs closely enough to know who he was and what he looked like even then. The Cubs had acquired him in a trade from the Orioles in 2013. In Baltimore, he’d never lived up to expectations. He’d shown some early promise with the Cubs, going 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 2014, when Chicago only won 73 games and finished last in the NL Central.  In 2015, he’d gotten off to a solid if unspectacular start. When we saw him, he had a 6-4 record and a 3.16 ERA. Not bad. But not the stuff that legends are made of.

Still, there was one thing for certain: there was no way I was going home that night without Arrieta’s autograph. The line was not long. We waited maybe 10 minutes. The photo was a bonus. You see me holding a beer in one hand and a plastic bag with a T-shirt in the other. Arrieta is wearing a blue Chicago Atomics T-shirt, a throwback to the city’s first NBA team. We’re both smiling though my smile is quite a bit wider than his. That picture would be my Facebook profile picture through the rest of the 2015 season all the way through the 2016 World Series championship.

What happened after that photo was taken is kind of miraculous. Arrieta went on a now historic run, going 15-2 and posting an unearthly ERA of 1.11 during that span. He pitched a no-hitter and led the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since 2008. For the season, he finished with a 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA, earning him the Cy Young Award. He carried the Cubs on his finely toned back to the playoffs, where he shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 in the Wildcard Game for the team’s first postseason victory since 2003 and he posted a victory against their arch-nemesis, the Cardinals, to help lead the North Siders improbably into the National League Championship Series, when they ran out of gas against the hateful New York Mets.

Yes, the stuff that legends are made of. And it all started with a serendipitous stroll into a Wrigleyville drinking establishment.

The next year wasn’t too shabby, either. In 2016, Arrieta went 18-8 with another no-hitter and a 3.10 ERA. Then he went 2-0 in the World Series to help the Cubs win their first championship since 1908. It’s hard to imagine the Cubs taking that title without him.

By Arrieta-post-photo-with-yours-truly standards, 2017 was a letdown. He went 14-10 with a very human 3.53 ERA. More in line with his pre-photo days. Maybe I’m to blame. I’d removed the photo as my Facebook profile picture after his political tweet following the election of Donald Trump as president.

The tweet – “Time for Hollywood to pony up and head for the border #illhelpyoupack #beatit” -  was a reference to celebrities claiming they would move out of the United States if Trump got elected. Arrieta later claimed that the tweet wasn’t partisan or bigoted, and particularly wasn’t pro-Trump or anti-Hillary, but pro-USA. In fact, he said, he didn’t even vote. That comment bothered me even more. How do you claim to be pro-USA and not even vote? All of it, the mixing of politics and the way he rubbed it in, well, it just didn’t sit well with me. So, I made my own silent political statement by taking down the photo of him as my Facebook profile picture.

All of which is to say that I have decidedly mixed feelings about saying goodbye to Arrieta now that he’s presumably moving on to another team and greater riches. We all were pretty sure this day would come. One can see why the Cubs didn’t want to pay him the kind of money he was asking. He’ll be 32 on Opening Day. In pitching years, he’s not yet over the hill. But he’s no spring chicken. And while he had his moments in 2017, his career arc seems to be on a downward trend. It’s not like when the Cubs let Greg Maddux get away the year after he won his first Cy Young Award. Yes, the handwriting was on the wall. Ultimately, I think the Cubs made the right move in not signing Arrieta.

Still, it will be hard to see Arrieta wearing another team’s uniform. Let’s all pray that he will not end up a Brewer or, god forbid, a Cardinal. It’s hard enough seeing Dexter Fowler with that evil redbird on his jersey.

With his otherworldly second-half performance in 2015 and the two critical victories in the 2016 World Series, Arrieta helped to lift the Cubs to a height they hadn’t reached since 1908. For that alone he deserves a special place in Cubs’ lore. Because he did what no one – not Ernie Banks or Ron Santo or Ryne Sandberg or Andre Dawson – had done before. He helped turn the Cubs from Lovable Losers into Lovable Winners, which is why I will forever treasure that photo with him and all the great memories that followed it. Even if the photo is not likely to ever make it back as my Facebook profile picture.

Randy Richardson is the co-author, along with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate, of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy, due from Eckhartz Press this spring.