YOU OFTEN hear a major league clubhouse before you step into it. Thumping bass lines rumble through the closed door and echo down the concrete tunnel. Frequently, however, the music in the Reds' clubhouse qualifies—by big league standards, anyway—as easy listening. One May afternoon at New York's Citi Field, "Meet Virginia" by Train led into "Free Falling" by Tom Petty, which gave way to "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. By the time a weirdly slow version of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" trickled out of the iPod speaker in the visitors' clubhouse, Brandon Phillips had had enough. "What the f--- is this, man?" the second baseman shouted.
This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2013 issue
Of course Phillips knew exactly what it was: another playlist curated by Bronson Arroyo, the only Red who has been with the team as long as Phillips has. Arroyo, 36, might be the major leaguer whose musical tastes most tend toward the premillennial. ("They don't even know who Pete Townshend is, bro!" he says of his teammates, aghast.) But that is far from the only superlative for which Arroyo would contend in an MLB yearbook.
He would also be in the running for best hair (his blond locks skim his jersey's shoulders), strangest diet (he consumes seven small meals a day), oldest cellphone (a Samsung acquired in 2006 that flips open), most likely to perform in a rock club immediately after a playoff game (which he did following Game 3 of the 2012 NLDS, in a venue across the street from Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark), least likely to be found on a treadmill ("I run less than any major league pitcher," he says) and slowest fastball by a nonknuckleballing righthander (his heater, such as it is, averages 86.9 mph).
"I've always been a bit against the grain when it comes to—well, everything I do," Arroyo says. In fact, almost everything about Arroyo suggests one of those flaky pitchers who enter the league, exasperate teammates and management with their oddball ways and are soon teaching high school P.E. But this is far from the case. For one thing, despite the fact that Arroyo carries just 195 pounds on his 6'4" frame, he might win another MLB superlative: most durable. Since 2005 he has pitched 1,8312/3 innings, more than anyone else but the Yankees' CC Sabathia and the Nationals' Dan Haren, and reached 200 innings in every season save one, 2011, when he reached 199. For another thing, Arroyo's peculiarities have made him not an outcast on his team but a leader. The Reds thrive off his easygoing nature ("He doesn't worry about the gnat while the lion's eating him up," says righthander Homer Bailey) and admire the things that make him unusual. Most of them, anyway. "That's my boy," says Phillips, a three-time All-Star, "[but] his clubhouse music is terrible. Whatever he plays, it sucks. Everything else is good."
"Yeah, I run a lot of stuff in there," Arroyo says. "If we throw a team party, I'm the guy throwing it, coming up with the theme, everything. Dressing up the rookies in costumes, that's me."
In an industry that values conformity, Arroyo has carved out an unusual life and career that work not only for him but also for his teammates. "People just see him as a good-time Charlie, which he is," says Reds manager Dusty Baker, "but on the other hand he's very, very dedicated, takes pride in his job. He's his own man [but] conforms to the rules of the team."
Arroyo does what he thinks is right. Others have come to see that, but they didn't always.
ALMOST ALL the Idiots are gone now. 'Tek, Petey, Schill, Wake, Johnny, Manny: retired, retired, retired, retired, virtually retired, can't quite concede that he should be retired. Of the 50 players who helped the 2004 Red Sox end the franchise's curse of 85 seasons without a championship, only three remain in the big leagues: David Ortiz, still an All-Star designated hitter for Boston at 37; Kevin Youkilis, the oft-injured 34-year-old Yankees third baseman; and Bronson Arroyo.
"I don't know how long Youkilis will hang on," Arroyo says. "I think his body plays a little older than he is. He's younger than me. I think Ortiz can DH for a while. Probably going to come down to me and Papi, who can last longer."
Back in '04, none of the Red Sox could have imagined that Arroyo, then 27, would be one of the last of them standing—least of all Curt Schilling, the burly veteran ace. After one early spring training outing in which Arroyo threw three shutout innings against the Yankees, he celebrated a bit too vigorously in the local bars. The next morning he told a team trainer that instead of running sprints he preferred to ride an exercise bike. "The trainer sold me out and told Curt," Arroyo recalls. "Curt came in, and he was just chewing me apart, saying, 'Byung-Hyun Kim is trying to hand you the fifth spot in the rotation, you're f------ it up by being a young punk.' But he didn't know me."
Schilling knew Arroyo better by the end of the season—Arroyo went 10--9 with a 4.03 ERA—but the ace still didn't believe in him. "He'd see me in the hot tub after the game and say, 'Look at this little skinny guy. Can you believe this little wet rat right there?' " Arroyo says. "He told me, 'You'll never throw 230 innings with that body.' "
Two years later, his first after the Red Sox traded him to the Reds, Arroyo reached 233 innings with one start to go. He had a friend take a photograph of his still slight frame, naked save for a strategically placed sanitary sock on which he had inscribed 230+ with a black marker. He had the photo enlarged at a Walgreens and sent to the Red Sox clubhouse. "Dear Curt," Arroyo wrote in the accompanying note. "You told me in 2004 that I could never throw 230 innings with this body. You should know better than anyone that it's not how much you weigh, it's what you've got hanging between your legs."
Schilling, who kept Arroyo's gift in his locker for a time, was not alone in doubting Arroyo's durability. "When I first saw him coming into the league, with the Pirates, I didn't think this guy was going to be around for more than a couple of years," says Baker.
Says Arroyo, "I used to get, 'He don't give a f---. I think that guy's smoking a bowl and playing guitar on the beach, and he doesn't really care about this game.' What they didn't understand was, I was already beating them to the punch."
Arroyo started beating them there as a boy in Key West, under the tutelage of his father, Gus. "I grew up a little strange," Bronson says. Gus was a roofer by trade and a competitive powerlifter. He could bench-press 440 pounds. Gus, who emigrated from Cuba as a child, was not a baseball player, but when the young Bronson displayed an aptitude for the sport, Gus felt he could help the boy excel by training him as he himself trained.
"People thought his dad was nuts," says Perry Logan, a neighbor and childhood friend of Bronson's who also worked out with Gus and who pursued graduate studies in environmental health. "The gym was basically a slab of concrete in their backyard with a plywood box on top of it, probably 15 by 40, and people were like, 'What are you doing having a seven-year-old lifting weights in there?' "
The son took supplements and carbo loaded and lifted weights nearly every day, focusing on exercises that strengthened his legs and back. By the time he was eight he could squat 250 pounds. He has the videos to prove it.
Arroyo is certain that his early training regimen has helped him in two ways. First, it gave him a strength out of proportion to his slender build, a strength he maintains by performing a daily workout his father taught him. For at least 10 years Arroyo has done the routine to the Pearl Jam album Ten. "Guys are like, 'Bro, why do we have to listen to Vedder every day?' " he says. "I say, 'Because Vedder's talking to me, keeping me going. My f------ knees hurt, and I need to do these squats.' "
Second, his dad's training convinced him that he can pursue whatever outside interests he enjoys and still succeed as a major leaguer as long as he maintains a rigorous baseline routine. "What we did at that time made it easy for me to come to the ballpark every day, year after year after year, and look at this game in a positive light, not as a grind," Arroyo says.
He has not missed a start during his 13-year career: 344 and counting. In fact, the last time he missed a start, he was a child. "When I was nine I got shot in the leg with a spear gun that you shoot fish with, so I missed the second half of the season," he says. "That's the only time I can ever remember being down."
HOMER BAILEY might have the most difficult job in baseball. It isn't pitching; the 27-year-old has gradually developed into a quality starter, and on July 2 he threw his second no-hitter in nine months. No, Bailey's greatest challenge comes the day before he takes the mound, when he is responsible for charting Arroyo's start, recording the type and location of each pitch. Or trying to.
"I have to sit next to the video guy, and I'm going, What was that?" Bailey says. "Was that his fastball? Was that his sinker? Was it his changeup?"
Arroyo makes up for what he lacks in arm strength with deception. Although he technically throws five pitches—a four-seam fastball, a two-seamer, a sinker, a curveball and a changeup—even his catchers have no idea from what angle he will deliver them after his Rockette-high leg kick or at what speed. A graph of his release points in any given game looks like a half rainbow, and a chart of his velocities resembles the price profile of a Chinese tech stock.
Take Arroyo's July 22 start against the Giants in San Francisco. His 108 pitches varied from 65 mph to 90, and he released them from as high as seven feet off the ground and as low as 4½ feet. He emerged with his sixth career shutout and his 100th win as a Red.
Arroyo himself often doesn't know what he is going to throw until a split second before he throws it. "Maybe I've never thrown a fricking sidearm changeup, but you know what, I can't get this m----------- out, so I'm going to throw him a sidearm changeup and get him out," he explains. "To be honest with you, there ain't many people who have ever played this game who are going to keep up with me mentally, picking hitters apart with the s--- that I have." To Arroyo, a catcher's sign is not a command but a suggestion.
That might come off as arrogant, but it's actually something else: straightforward. "Bronson's one of those interesting people, when he says something, his words actually mean something," says Logan. "It's not bull----. When he says he's going to do something, or has done something, he's really going to do it or has done it."
The cumulative ERA of the Reds' rotation is 3.34, the National League's third best. Arroyo leads the staff in innings (138), and his 3.26 ERA represents a career best. His style might even help his generally hard-throwing fellow pitchers. "I always tell him, 'I love throwing behind you,' " says Bailey, whose fastball tops out at 97 mph. "By the third, fourth at bat, they finally catch on to your s---, and then it's my turn and they're all screwed up."
Arroyo believes that his lack of heat, and the resulting lack of stress on his arm, have contributed to his health—but he cannot stand to lose much more velocity. "If it goes down to a Jamie Moyer level, I don't think I can be successful," he says.
Still, says Baker, Arroyo "has a lot of miles left in him because the older he gets, and the more he's pitching against young, inexperienced hitters, the better it is for him." Arroyo thinks he can pitch for three years after this one, though he knows they might not be with the Reds, as his three-year, $35 million contract expires this winter. "Would love to find a way to keep him, and I think he's very happy in Cincinnati," says Reds general manager Walt Jocketty. "We'll do whatever we can."
Arroyo has not mapped out his postbaseball life, but a few options are obvious. He is a singer and self-taught guitar player, and though he has not released an album since 2005's Covering the Bases—a collection of covers that peaked at 123 on the Billboard 200 chart—he has been writing new pop-rock songs with his friend Eliot Sloan, the frontman for the band Blessid Union of Souls. "He's got a really good ear, man, and that's what I listen for," says Sloan. "He's got a raspiness to his voice, which is cool. I could immediately tell that he was listening to a lot of bands in the '90s, but he doesn't mimic. He's got his own style and twist on things."
One day, perhaps, it will be the songs of Bronson Arroyo that will assault Brandon Phillips's ears in the Reds' clubhouse. We can expect them to be candid, nuanced and wholly original.
UP, DOWN, ALL AROUND
Bronson Arroyo's particular brilliance comes at all speeds, at all angles. Sidearm, overhand or three quarters, the Reds' righty keeps everyone guessing. Below is a pitch-by-pitch breakdown, by miles per hour, of his July 22 start against the Giants.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
PITCH SPEED (IN MPH)
In his 21 starts this season Arroyo has thrown a dizzying array of pitches at a wide variety of speeds.