DETROIT — Nolan Arenado keeps thinking about the right turn. Not the sudden way his Rockies tenure ended, although he still thinks about that, too: After eight years and eight Gold Gloves, he played his final season in Denver in empty ballparks as the team limped to another losing record. The Rockies never won the division while he was there. They never made it past the NLDS. They never showed the commitment to winning he believes they promised him. Then, after two years of icy relations between their star third baseman and their GM, the Rockies traded Arenado to the Cardinals.
Now, as he returns Thursday to Coors Field for the first time since he left, he is thinking about scoring a run there, maybe because he has homered, maybe because one of his new teammates has driven him in. He will round third and cross home plate. He will high-five whoever is nearby. To his left will be the Rockies’ dugout. He will turn right.
“As I'm getting closer, I'm starting to get a little more nervous about it,” he says. “It’s gonna be weird.”
There will be so many weird moments this weekend. He will undress in the visitors’ clubhouse. He will pull on his road grays. He will hear his name announced as part of the opposing team’s lineup. He wonders if the crowd will cheer.
“I hope so,” he says. “I think they understand what I did and they appreciate what I did. You’re gonna get some fans that’ll probably be upset. I think they're gonna appreciate it. I hope so.”
He hopes they will not blame him for his role in the divorce. The Rockies were the only organization he had ever known, the team that took him in the second round of the 2009 draft and then signed him to an eight-year, $260 million extension in ’19. He thought he would win the World Series as a Rockie, finish his career as a Rockie, go into the Hall of Fame as a Rockie.
That season, Colorado went 71–91. That offseason, GM Jeff Bridich made no trades and signed no major league free agents.
Arenado stopped short of publicly demanding to be moved. But he told Sports Illustrated the following spring, “I want to win. 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.”
So when friends began congratulating him on Jan. 29 on the deal that would ship him to St. Louis, his first reaction was: Shut up! The news had leaked before the trade was official. He refused to get excited before the commissioner’s office had approved the transaction. Not until Feb. 1, when the teams finally completed the swap—Arenado for lefty Austin Gomber and four young prospects—did Arenado celebrate.
Now he gushes about his new home. “There’s things I miss about Colorado, but I love where I'm at,” he says. “I love it. I haven't looked back once. And do I miss Colorado, the city of Denver and all that, for sure. I miss all that. At the end, you know, it's hard to say. I miss some people there. There's some people I do miss a lot, but besides that, I'm very happy with where I’m at.”
In spring training, he wasn’t so sure. He had been the king of the rock pile. In Denver, he had instituted a rule that no one could discuss fantasy football before August, because “it’s baseball season.” He had the prime batting-cage time, 2 p.m. He spent hours in the training room, watching other games on TV and hanging out with the staff. Now he was not entirely sure where the bathroom was. No one was interested in his rules. He planned his cage time around catcher Yadier Molina’s preferences. He still does not know all the trainers’ names.
And the Cardinals would not stop talking about the Cardinal Way. Players wear a sport jacket and a collared shirt on road trips. They encourage one another to carry themselves properly. Every day in spring training, they practiced moving a runner from second to third, hitting the cutoff man, taking the extra base. Again? Arenado started to wonder. Didn’t we do this yesterday?
Then the season began. “We’ve literally won games because of those little things,” he says proudly. “They’ve brainwashed me. They conformed me.”
He takes notes on the routines of Molina, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, righty Adam Wainwright. “I’m not the older player on the team,” Arenado says. “I like being surrounded by guys who've done way more than me in this game. I can learn from them, watch them and feel young again, and push harder, because I don't want to let those guys down.”
He beams as he says all this, sitting on the dugout bench at Comerica Park. He is putting together one of the best seasons of his career—.267/.320/.513 with 16 home runs, 52 RBIs and 2.4 WAR—and left fielder Tyler O’Neill has been even better, but the rest of the team has struggled. The Cardinals will lose this game, part of a five-game losing streak. They have turned things around with a three-game sweep at home against the woeful Diamondbacks, which helps send them to Coors in third place, with a 40–41 record. But Arenado feels certain they are days from a reversal. “We haven't played our best baseball as of late, but we're still right there,” he says. “We haven't turned it on yet, but I believe we will, and I think we have a great chance to win this division.” He expects the team to be a buyer at the trade deadline.
St. Louis’s poor stretch has left it eight games back of first. The Rockies, at 34–47, are 17 games back. They face among the most challenging situations in the sport, even after Bridich and the team “mutually agreed” that he should not work there anymore. The altitude exhausts everyone who encounters it. Players spend the first few days of every road trip reacclimating to sea level, then return home and find themselves unable to breathe. The thin air means more slugfests, which means more standing on the field, waiting for the game to end. And the game itself is different. Pitches break nearly 20% less in Denver; pitchers have to develop separate home and road arsenals, and hitters have to create separate databases of opponents’ movement.
The Rockies also play in a division full of better, richer teams that don’t particularly care about them. Arenado was stunned early this season, when in the early innings of an otherwise unremarkable Cubs game, the crowd rose to its feet for a crucial at bat. He finds his heart beating faster for games against Chicago and the Brewers. He can barely put the feeling into words. “It’s sick,” he says finally.
Even without a rivalry, he is looking forward to this weekend. The Rockies’ new third baseman is Arenado’s cousin Josh Fuentes. They expect some 40 family members to attend the four-game series. Arenado hopes to hit a few of his old favorites: Snooze for breakfast, Elway’s for dinner. He will drive around the city he knows by heart. He will try to help the Cardinals win. He may score a run at Coors, just as he has done 386 times before, fifth-most in history. He will round third and cross home plate. He will high-five whoever is nearby. Then he will turn right.
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