By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Jake Arrieta never really had an appropriate nickname during his time with the Chicago Cubs.
Yeah, “Snake” was on the back of his Players Weekend jersey and a tracksuit during one of manager Joe Maddon’s themed road trips. But almost every Jake of a certain age is casually called “Snake” because of the easy rhyme and homage to the wrestling legend. Former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer was also “the Snake,” and the nickname in sports goes back to non-Jake former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler.
Cubs broadcasts and conversations hardly used the moniker for Arrieta, who almost seemed too serious on the mound to have time for the fun of wordplay. “Snake” has never really been of that Jake.
“Beast,” his wife, Brittany, told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “That’s our nickname for him. I would not like to face him if I were a baseball player. You don’t know what’s going through his mind. You can’t even get the guy to flinch.
“Not everybody can pull off that beard. His back and chest and face are all hairy. We have a werewolf in the family. And it’s like his eyes are locked in on you.”
Apt, sure. But that’s a familial nickname for him that never made its way to pop culture.
While his real name is household in baseball circles and in Chicago, the lack of much of an Arrieta brand or a title for it was always fitting for him, because he has always seemed like a throwback (with a modern twist) to a sort of protagonist of Westerns that had no name or one that was otherwise negligible. He was often emotionless to the point of questioning the possession of a central nervous system. He was thoughtful in interviews without being prone to tangents and also quietly observant, stoic without being aloof. Arrieta could stare a hole in you while wearing a onesie covered in mustaches to a press conference about one of his two no-hitters. He might as well have pitched in an oilskin duster while smoking a cigarillo … if it didn’t affect his Pilates.
Arrieta is currently a free agent and, with the Cubs agreeing to a six-year deal right-hander Yu Darvish over the weekend, won’t be pitching for the North Siders this season. He’ll mosey elsewhere, pitch stone-faced in maybe Milwaukee or Minneapolis or D.C.
Replacing Arrieta with the top free agent on the market mitigates much of the typical nostalgic pain that comes with saying goodbye to a pillar of a franchise, let alone a major reason the Cubs have a World Series title for the first time in any of our lives. When Dexter Fowler signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2017 season, there was more heartache while still an understanding of the business of baseball and best wishes for such a likable guy. Besides the ugh of going to the team’s biggest rival, the Cubs didn’t go out and make a splash in Fowler’s stead to ease the blow of reality.
Arrieta’s departure was assumed while he was still pitching for the Cubs, and the 2017 playoffs involved knowing we were watching a former Cy Young winner perform for that team for the last few times. Maybe once Arrieta puts pen to paper next to another general manager, it will feel different, but it otherwise feels procedural at this point.
Which is a shame, because Jake Arrieta is one of the most important Cubs ever. I’ll say that despite all the ghosts of Wrigley Field that might hold special places in a lot of hearts. They didn’t end the longest championship drought in major sports.
His acquisition along with Pedro Strop in the trade that sent Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013 — forever wiping away the Brock-for-Broglio egg on the franchise’s face — is a chapter in itself of the fireside stories of the Great Cubs Rise to tell children decades from now. “Remember how the Cubs got Arrieta?” will be chuckled about on barstools across Chicagoland by people who don’t actually remember because they weren’t even born yet when it happened.
What Arrieta became in a Cubs uniform is the stuff of lazy movie scripts. Considered a bust in Baltimore, contemplating quitting the game, he became one of the league’s most feared pitchers for years and won two games in the 2016 World Series.
His ERA in 128 starts as a Cub was 2.73. Individual trophies led to team trophies. There’s no World Series parade in 2016 without Arrieta.
And without much to-do, he just goes away now. We have to be objective about this, particularly as the Cubs are primed for more championships. Darvish makes the Cubs better than the current Arrieta probably does. It doesn’t mean the objectivity doesn’t taste sour.
Arrieta was blunt about this last August.
“It’s completely business, so I get it,” he told USA Today. “They haven’t offered me anything because they know if they do, it’s probably not something I would accept, so why make the offer? I get it.
“If you let that stuff bother you, you don’t completely understand the sport, because that’s part of it. They have to do what’s in the best interest of the organization in the long-term. Is that spending money on me or getting a guy like (Jose) Quintana? They’re going to try to establish a rotation without spending $30 million-plus a season, and maybe sign another bat. Who knows what they do?
“I understand. No hard feelings at all.’’
Arrieta is a champion and consummate pro who at the moment is talked of in commodity terms. What’s he worth? Turning 32 before Opening Day, is he on the “wrong side” of whatever the line of demarcation is for predicted productivity? How much less than Darvish in money and/or years will he get?
Maybe the fans in his new town will come up with a better nickname than “Snake.” Until then, Jake Arrieta will have to settle for just being known as “winner.”
And one of the best damn things to ever happen to Cubs baseball.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.