Standing alone in the expanse of right field these past few weeks, surrounded by rows and rows of empty seats, the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon has come to appreciate the quirks of sports in 2020.
“It’s kind of a really intimate baseball game,” Blackmon says. “If Nolan makes a great barehanded play, I can be like, ‘Great job, Nolan!’ and he can hear you. There’s nobody else there, so you’re just playing for your teammates and we are having a great time doing that.”
Crouched at third base, within earshot of guests at home and teammates on the road, Nolan Arenado has reached a different conclusion.
“I don’t like that part at all,” says Arenado. “You can hear the other dugout chirp. You can hear your dugout chirp. I don’t like that part of it at all.”
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Blackmon and Arenado are the Rockies’ two best—and most important—players. The team has committed $368 million to them. They lead in the clubhouse. Arenado slugs home runs and dazzles in the field. Blackmon might be the most infuriating hitter for pitchers in the sport. In those halcyon years when baseball could stage an All-Star Game, Arenado and Blackmon were fixtures. As they go, so goes Colorado. And just about the only thing they can agree on is that they like when the Rockies are winning.
Which the Rockies have been doing in 2020, if at a slightly less prodigious pace than they were in early August. A recent skid has returned Colorado, at 13–13, to third place in a packed National League West, which the franchise has never won in its 27 years of existence. But with expanded playoffs, the Rockies have a real chance to play in October.
Colorado was not expected to contend this year, even by as plugged-in of an insider as Arenado. The Rockies lost 91 games in 2019 and compiled an NL-worst 5.56 ERA, then signed no major league free agents and made no trades in the offseason. Arenado, who believed the team had promised him when it inked his extension that it would contend every year, expressed his frustration.
“I want to win,” he told SI in February. “If we win here, that’s why I signed, right? To win here. But if we’re not gonna win, I’d rather play for a winner. I don’t care where it is. I’d rather win a World Series than have my number retired.”
Then the pandemic hit. When the sport resumed in July, the Rockies had actually gotten worse: Centerfielder Ian Desmond opted out of the season. The reconfigured schedule gave them the fifth-worst draw: not just having to face the Dodgers but also the upstart Padres, the defending AL champion Astros and an A’s team hot on their heels. Colorado seemed destined for its second straight season out of the playoffs.
But then something surprising happened. The season began. And the Rockies began winning.
Rockies’ starting pitchers have quietly been the best in the league, by Baseball Reference WAR. Shortstop Trevor Story is hitting .290 and slugging .561. Arenado has been streaky but believes he has finally found his power stroke. And Blackmon, who is hitting .417, is inspiring spirited debates about asterisks in record books.
The two cornerstones were drafted a year apart, Blackmon in the second round out of Georgia Tech in 2008 and Arenado in the second round out of El Toro (Lake Forest, Calif.) High in ’09. They did not immediately hit it off.
“He had cankles,” Blackmon told SI last year. I was like, I don't see it. This guy's gonna have to move to first because of his big, fat, slow feet, and he's not gonna have enough power."
But their friendship began to blossom when they got a sense of one another’s work ethic. Now they balance each other well: Arenado is all emotion, Blackmon is all intellect. Arenado, 29, is the wunderkind from the West Coast. Blackmon, 34, is the late bloomer from the East Coast. Blackmon prefers to appear in control at all times; no one ever wonders what Arenado is thinking. When Blackmon feels himself dragging, he can rely on Arenado to bring energy. And when Arenado struggles to keep perspective, Blackmon can help keep him grounded.
A few years ago, in the midst of a brief slump, Arenado became convinced he would never hit again. I’ve lost my swing, he moaned. After days of this, Blackmon casually approached him in the training room.
“I know what’s wrong with your swing,” he said.
“What?” Arenado asked hungrily.
Blackmon paused. “You know what? You can’t even handle it right now, because of where you’re at emotionally, so I’m not even going to tell you. You figure it out yourself.”
Blackmon laughs when he recounts the story. There was nothing wrong with Arenado. “I just realized I’d rather him be mad at me than think about baseball all the time,” he says.
Last Thursday was the team’s first break in 13 days, and its last before a 20-game stretch. Blackmon spent his off-day fishing. Arenado spent his watching the Dodgers-Padres game, nursing a sense of jealousy at L.A. right fielder Mookie Betts’s three home runs. “I’m in quarantine,” Arenado explains. “There’s nothing on TV except shows and movies.” Blackmon recently lamented that he had lost his work-life balance. Arenado is not entirely sure what that term means. “I’m sure there’s other things he cares about,” Blackmon says, “But I wouldn’t know.”
Blackmon noted that the day off lowered his resting heart rate a dozen beats, to 49 from the low 60s. The rest gave Arenado nothing but an increased desire to get back to the field. But, he added, “[Blackmon is] constantly running bases. His body’s gotta be tired. I’ve taken a lot more right turns toward the dugout than he has recently.”
After each win, Colorado elects a player of the game. Blackmon, with his league-leading average, has won half a dozen times. Arenado has only won once or twice. There too, of course, they contrast: Blackmon performs what Story describes only as an “awkward” dance, hands above his head. Arenado just blushes. The reactions are different. But the emotion is the same, because the Rockies have won.