It was the best year of his life. Ask him about 2017 and Nolan Arenado will tell you it was a magical time to be Nolan Arenado. In fact, if it were up to him, he might describe this past year as the dopest, sickest, sweetest time ever to be Nolan Arenado.
He started the spring by winning a gold medal with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Over the course of the summer, he led the Rockies to their first playoff appearance in eight years. And by fall, he’d finished fourth in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting, putting him in the barroom discussion for the best baseball player on Earth right now. In between, he was an All-Star, he hit a game-winning homer on Father’s Day—a photo of Arenado with a stream of blood pouring down his face, an injury sustained during the celebratory melee, became an iconic image for the season—and he made, like, a thousand dope, sick, sweet plays at third base, which earned him the Platinum Glove as his league’s best fielder. He also made nearly $12 million, hit 37 home runs, surfed Laguna Beach, signed a lease on a new 12,000-square-foot workout space, and bought his own DJ equipment. “Dude,” he says in his Southern California, surfer-bro tone that makes sentences sound like questions, “I think about what’s happened in my life and I can’t believe it.”
There’s a chill in the air this morning when Arenado rolls up the large garage door that separates his indoor batting cage from a parking lot out back where he often plays catch with his former Little League buddy, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson. He’s still damp from his weights workout, his gray hat turned backward, a patchy beard framing his handsome 26-year-old face.
On this day in late January, the coastal fog slowly lifts, the apex of Saddleback Mountain still masked in a white haze. Arenado’s workout facility in Lake Forest, California—his hometown, just outside Irvine—is in one of those industrial areas, beige boxes set like Lego pieces atop a monotonous asphalt landscape. It’s exactly the type of place you wouldn’t think to look for a guy whose next contract will probably exceed the GDP of some small island nations.
Arenado spends at least five days a week at his Shangri-La during the offseason, driving the 20 minutes north from his home in Dana Point in his pre-owned Range Rover. When he arrives, sometimes he’ll unlock the door and pause for a moment in the entryway, a young man unbelieving of what he’s accomplished in such a short time. “I only ever wanted to be a baseball player, so for me, this is really, really cool,” he says. “Like, this is what I’ve worked so hard for.” He’ll put in at least four hours, then spend a couple more in one of the two offices up front watching television on the couch, talking to his father, or trying to figure out how to work his Pioneer DJ DDJ-SR2. “This thing is awesome,” he says of the turntable, which he plans to bring with him to the Coors Field clubhouse this year. “I like to fade music, like one song fades into another? Like that,” he says. Arenado feeds his songs through speakers in his batting cage. “You make your own playlist, so I have my own style of music: clean rap, Spanish music, old-school.”
“I can’t play rap that curses everywhere because I’ll get in trouble,” he says. “I’m not going to blast rap that says the N-word and ‘F this’ and ‘F that,’ because my dad’s office is right there. He’d be pissed.”
But mostly he likes to hit and field and throw and lift weights and get away from anything that might resemble a normal person’s life. Because, dude, nothing in Nolan Arenado’s life is normal anymore.
Ask him about 2017, and Nolan Arenado might tell you about how hard it was to be Nolan Arenado. He might talk about all the bad things, the patently un-awesome times. He might tell you he hit .161 during the World Baseball Classic, with a team-high 11 strikeouts. He’ll tell you about the disappointment of having the best statistical season of his five-year career, how he kept checking his phone last fall when the MVP finalists were about to be announced, only to learn he wasn’t on the list. But mostly, he’ll tell you about October 4, when what could have been the greatest moment of his professional career turned into fuel for this year.
If you’re a baseball fan, you probably remember. After a 162-game season in which the Rockies won 87 games and clinched the National League’s last wild-card berth, the team dropped a one-game playoff, 11-8, against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix. Twenty-six weeks of regular-season baseball, hundreds of hours of work—all of it obliterated in 234 minutes.
After the game, while the Diamondbacks were celebrating on the field, Arenado slipped into the clubhouse. He showered and commiserated with his teammates. Then he changed his clothes, grabbed his glove, and…left. He didn’t pack his cleats or collect his bats, didn’t care about whatever he’d left behind. He was done. He didn’t return to Denver on the team plane; he stayed behind with his parents at the condo he owns in Scottsdale.
For nearly a week, he stewed while his parents watched. “Nolan was devastated,” his mother, Millie Arenado, says. “He takes every loss hard, but they’ve been nothing like that one. It was like he was distraught.” She sat him down and looked him in the eyes. “I told him he needed to keep everything in perspective,” she remembers. “I said to him, ‘You’re blessed to do what you’re doing. No matter what, you’re so blessed.’ ”
“It’s not like I’m going to jump off a cliff, Mom,” Arenado said.
Back home in California this offseason, the freshness of the loss haunted him. He’d often go to his batting cage; between reps with his trainer, he’d text Charlie Blackmon or DJ LeMahieu, two of his closest teammates. They’d talk about what they were doing, how their workouts were going, what their families were up to. Invariably, though, the conversation would turn to that night in Phoenix. The Rockies had put up four runs in the first four innings against Zack Greinke, one of the league’s best pitchers. Arenado had hit a home run later in the game. After a few texts, one of the guys would finally peck out the words each of them was thinking: How did we score eight runs and lose?
The loss was a double gut punch for Arenado because of the series that would’ve followed. The Rockies’ next opponent would have been the Dodgers, the team Arenado watched as a kid and the organization he had hoped would draft him out of high school in 2009. He’d already let his mind drift to his first playoff game at Dodger Stadium—the place he’d seen countless games with his family. This time, it would have been his mom and dad and two brothers (the youngest, Jonah, is an infielder in the San Francisco Giants organization) and cousins and old coaches and friends there to watch him. The moment would have been another step toward validating an already outsize career, of Arenado finally having his name become synonymous with playoff baseball.
“That would have been so sick,” he says of the series that never happened. Over the winter, he’d hit and lift and think about that loss. He’d replay parts of the game in his mind. He’d blow past the home run he’d hit in the eighth to bring the Rockies within two runs of the D-backs and instead think about his four hitless at-bats. He’d relive his last swing, with one on and two out in the ninth inning, the one that sent that grounder to the second baseman and ended Colorado’s year.
“After all those losing seasons, he finally got to the playoffs, and it was over like that,” his father, Fernando Arenado, says. “I still don’t know if he’s processed what happened.”
So afterward, he hit and he threw and he planned his next season. Regardless of how much work he put in over the winter, the pain he felt that night in Arizona metastasized inside him. His father told him to take some time off, to put down the bat and get away. You don’t need an injury with the team you have coming back next season, Fernando would say. Arenado didn’t listen. “I hate losing,” he says. “I hate being bad.”
You never see this part of Nolan Arenado, because he doesn’t want you to see it. You can have him for nine months of the year. He wants the other three to himself. You won’t see him playing Wiffle ball at the park near his parents’ home, the same grassy stretch where his Little League teams competed and he earned a reputation in the neighborhood as a ferociously competitive kid. You won’t see him playing pingpong with his cousins or ordering a Nike care package for a friend who just passed the California bar exam. You won’t see him stealing his youngest brother’s baseball glove to use during the season. You won’t see him paying his parents’ mortgage or searching the internet for a Rolex watch to buy his father. You won’t see him with his girlfriend, who owns a small jewelry business. And you won’t see him lost among the Pacific waves, a sunbaked twentysomething bobbing on his board. This is a life that isn’t narrated on Twitter or documented on an Instagram feed near you. “He doesn’t want that last, tiny shred of privacy to disappear,” his mother says. “He doesn’t need that extra noise in his life.”
“I don’t want to lose myself,” Arenado says, though he admits his agent’s player-relations manager wants him to start an Instagram account, which she’s volunteered to run. “I don’t need to be worried about what the outside world thinks. You post a picture, and someone is going to say something. Someone’s ugly. You look terrible. I don’t need that stuff. Baseball’s so stressful—you have to perform in front of everyone—and I don’t want my offseason to be stressful too.”
“He doesn’t need the criticism,” his mother says. “He’s hard enough on himself.”
Growing up in Lake Forest, Arenado was one of those preternaturally athletic kids who could do anything on a field and make it look easy. That reputation followed him just as closely as another, less pleasant, descriptor: Namely, little Nolan could be a total asshole.
If something didn’t go his way—when his team lost or he popped out or made an error—he would explode. He treated each failure as if it threatened his very existence, as if it proved he wasn’t good enough. He’d pout. He’d throw his helmet. He’d slam his bat on the ground. He’d chuck his glove. When he was pitching and the umpire called a ball on a borderline pitch, he’d stomp a cleat into the dirt. A game might be going great, but then Nolan would pop out and fling his bat, prompting Fernando to ground his son on the car ride home.
When Nolan was nine or 10, a Little League umpire mailed the Arenados a book on how the Amish trained their horses. The implication was clear: Nolan was a thoroughbred who needed to be broken.
In high school, as an overweight shortstop who could smoke the ball around the field, he learned to channel his rage—but just a little. “Nolan was super competitive, and at a young age, it’s hard to handle those emotions,” says Matt Chapman, third baseman for the Oakland A’s, who backed up Arenado at shortstop when the two were teammates at El Toro High School. “He’d throw his helmet or get angry, and if the coach took him out, I’d get to play.”
“No one had the intensity like Nolan,” says Mike Gonzales, Arenado’s high school coach. “He’d go up there on every at-bat and expect to get a hit, and when it didn’t happen, he’d be totally shocked. Here he is, just a kid, and it’s like he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone by getting out. He put so much on his shoulders.”
It was, in retrospect, competitiveness run amok. “I was probably a little too sensitive,” Arenado says now. “I’d get flustered. I knew I had to clean it up because everyone was making fun of me. I’m sure it was embarrassing for my parents. I wish I wouldn’t have acted like that, but I was a kid and I wanted to win.” Still, even today Arenado isn’t beyond making a break for the tunnel behind the dugout if something goes wrong. If you see him carrying a bat, now you know what’s likely to happen.
On an early June night two years ago in San Diego, Matt Kemp hit a home run in the first inning that put the Padres up 3-0 against the Rockies. In the dugout between innings, a television camera caught Arenado yelling at his teammates, barking in catcher Nick Hundley’s face. Rockies manager Walt Weiss moved in, as did one of the coaches, Stu Cole. Arenado wasn’t having it. Not even halfway into the season, his team was almost 10 games out of first place. Now the Rockies had put themselves in a hole again. With the season already slipping away, Arenado’s face darkened as he screamed. Hundley pushed Arenado with his catcher’s mitt. Arenado pointed at his own heart. Pointed at the rest of the players in the dugout. He pointed at the field. For those 30 seconds, his rage was on full display. After the game, which the Rockies lost 4-0, Arenado said he was frustrated, that he should have slipped into the tunnel and let it out. “The boys know I love them,” he said of his teammates. “Just, losing is getting old.”
“Nolan takes every loss so personally, and that’s probably clouded how people have thought of him,” Millie says. “He wants nothing but to be the best teammate and son and brother, but people haven’t seen that all the time. He’s misunderstood. People have no idea what he’s gone through to be here, the disappointments.”
Arenado will never forget the time he was picked for the United States’ Junior Olympic 16U baseball team as a 15-year-old, only to have the offer rescinded as his dad was making flight arrangements. His mother won’t forget when her son was 14 and the family traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, for a tournament—then discovered the coach brought a kid from another team to play his position. That night in the hotel room, Millie said she wanted him to remember the pain of sitting on the bench. “That’s because,” she told her son, “it will never happen again.”
Arenado hit .517 his senior year, but scouts tended to focus on his measly five home runs. He could make all his plays from the left side of the infield, but the Phillies and Pirates saw him as a catcher. Under base running, his 2009 draft scouting report reads, “It’s not part of his game.” Under running speed: “He’s duck-footed and lumbers.” His high school coach will tell you that Arenado was a little chubby, that he was never even considered the best player in the area, that he didn’t make the varsity team until his sophomore year, and that he didn’t become a regular at shortstop until he was a junior.
“All these things made me want to prove everyone wrong,” Arenado says. Jon Lukens was the first scout from the Rockies to see Arenado, back in 2008. “The kid was thick-legged,” Lukens remembers. Though Arenado had spent his time away from the field feasting on chili dogs and Wienerschnitzel, he also had an uncanny ability to line baseballs to the opposite field in ways even some pros couldn’t. Eventually, Rockies scouts recommended that the organization draft the teenager. “I’d be lying if I said I could see the player Nolan would become,” Lukens says. “But there was still a really good player in there.”
The Rockies and Dodgers were Arenado’s preferred teams. Both clubs wanted to give Arenado a shot at third base if he could get his weight under control. In May 2009, as he watched names come off the draft board, a renewed feeling of being disrespected washed over him. “I knew I was better,” he says of the players selected ahead of him. The Rockies took Arenado with the 59th overall pick, the 25th high schooler selected. When Blackmon saw the lumbering teenager on a baseball field for the first time, he wondered why the general manager wasted a draft pick.
After Arenado’s first full season in the low minors, where he hit .308 with 12 home runs for the Asheville Tourists, he went to California to work with Troy Tulowitzki, then the franchise shortstop. During the few weeks Arenado spent with Tulowitzki outside San Jose, he took in everything: his daily workout regimen, the way Tulowitzki hit off a tee, the food he ate, the time he went to bed, and the time he got up to do it all over again.
Arenado lost 25 pounds that offseason, then dropped more the next year. He added strength and flexibility. He asked coaches to smash balls to his left and to his right before games, to drop little rollers in front of him. He’d grab the ball barehanded; he’d do the fade-away jump made famous by Derek Jeter; he’d do the Tulo spin-and-throw. He never wanted to be surprised. Every play he made during a game, he’d done hundreds of times when hardly anyone was watching. “You’ve never seen someone work that hard in your life,” says Cole, the Rockies’ third base coach and fielding instructor. “Nolan wanted to show he was a big leaguer. Anyone who’d doubted him—they’d eventually come to regret it.”
When Bud Black, the Rockies’ manager, thinks about his superstar’s 2017 season, it’s not the game-winning home run against the Giants or any of those diving plays at third base that come to mind. It’s those moments after the game, win or lose, when Arenado stood in front of his locker.
“When I see him there and he untucks his shirt and takes his jersey off and his T-shirt’s all wet and his hair’s disheveled and his eye black is sort of running down his face and he’s just tired—that’s what I like,” Black says. “I see that look on him and I know he gave it everything he had.”
The previous years had been different; the young third baseman could feel it in the clubhouse almost from the first day of each of those seasons. As the losses piled up, Arenado would watch guys shower and take off, a stream of teammates heading for the door. “I like to stay around, talk about the game,” Arenado says. But no one wanted to talk. An 88-loss season became 96 losses the next year, then 94 losses after that. The 2016 season had been a particularly difficult one for Arenado. Though the Rockies’ 75 wins had been the most since he joined the team, the constant losing had finally taken its toll. “Going to the ballpark was awful,” Arenado says. “It wasn’t fun. We were playing to lose—like, to just get it over with.”
Weiss resigned after the 2016 season and was replaced by Black, a longtime manager and former big league pitcher. Black was known as a player’s manager, a man who had his guys’ backs, who trusted his team but demanded performance in return. With Black’s presence, the team got its lift.
After the first games this past year, Arenado noticed that a couple of players were sticking around the locker room and talking—rehashing key moments, describing how certain pitchers attacked them. A few weeks later, even more stayed. Arenado, Blackmon, LeMahieu, and first baseman Mark Reynolds were constants after games. They’d pop a few beers and talk for hours nearly every night. “The worst thing for me is going home and not talking it out, having it consume me,” Arenado says. “I think that’s why we did better, because we sat and hung out and talked. It’s healthy. If you hold something in, it’ll consume you. It was awesome. We were a team.”
“We had a tight group, and by winning and having that chemistry, it was easy to hang out,” LeMahieu says. “Last year, we had confidence. It wasn’t just hope. In the past we were hopeful we could do it, but looking around at that talent, there was a belief we were a different Rockies group than we had been in the past.”
On September 30, plastic sheets lined the clubhouse as players filed in to celebrate the team clinching its first playoff appearance since 2009. As Arenado jumped around the room and sprayed Champagne and beer into the air, it was as if he’d momentarily stepped outside himself. Everything had been worth it. “That was awesome,” Arenado says. “That was one of the best times of my life.”
He was tired of hearing about Coors Field, how anyone could hit there. So Nolan Arenado set a goal for 2017: He’d hit better on the road than he’d ever done before. And he did it.
When the MVP finalists were announced this past November and Arenado realized he had finished outside the top three, there were no slammed bats. There was no shouting. “It hurt for a while,” he admits, “but I had to get over it.” Instead of pouting, he drove to his batting cage in Lake Forest the next day and lifted weights and hit and threw.
Less than a month before he’d report to spring training in Arizona, Arenado swung his 32-ounce bat a few times, then stepped to the rubber plate to face his longtime trainer, Brian Strelitz, who stood behind a metal-framed screen a few dozen feet away. As Strelitz zipped baseballs toward home, Arenado smashed each one, the crack of bat on cowhide filling the room. He’d rest a few minutes, letting Thompson, the Dodgers outfielder, get in some swings. They switched off for a while, then hit off a tee. After about an hour, the pair went to the parking lot and played catch.
Arenado signed the lease on this space late last year, making 2017-’18 his first offseason with a dedicated workout space that belongs only to him. He and his father decorated it with framed jerseys from his career, including the dirt- and blood-stained one from Father’s Day when he hit the walk-off homer against the Giants that completed the first cycle (a single, double, triple, and home run in one game) of his career. There are dozens of photos hanging on the walls: Arenado with Hank Aaron; Arenado with Vin Scully. Above a photo of Arenado high-fiving Todd Helton is a small sign that reads, “Winners don’t wait for chances. They take them.”
In a room up front, near a suite of offices he shares with his dad, three trophy cases stand sentinel. One houses three of his five Gold Glove awards. Rings from Arenado’s three All-Star Game appearances are placed next to the only championship ring he owns, from his El Toro High sectional championship team. Next to a collection of his home-run balls from past years, Arenado has an autographed jersey from Tulowitzki. “Love you like a brother!” it reads. “Never lose that work ethic. It’s such an honor watching you play!!”
After they’re done throwing, Thompson packs up and leaves. Fernando is gone too. Arenado stays around for a couple more hours. He thinks about his turntable and the music he wants to play. He thinks about breaking in the latest glove he took from his little brother. He wonders how he could get an autographed jersey from Derek Jeter to hang on the wall in his office.
When it’s time to go, Arenado makes sure the back door is locked. He sets the security alarm up front. When he steps into the California sunlight, he squints his eyes. “It’s almost time for baseball,” he says. “Man, I can’t wait.”
When he returns to Denver this month, Arenado knows the talk surrounding him will most certainly center on his $29.5 million contract, which is set to expire this year. You don’t lead your team to its first playoff appearance in nearly a decade and cement yourself as one of the game’s best players without folks talking about money—namely, how much of it you might make. If the Rockies allow his contract to expire, Arenado and the team will be forced into an arbitrated agreement in 2019. If that season passes without a deal, Arenado will become an unrestricted free agent. Early estimates have him pegged for at least a $200 million payday, easily one of the richest contracts in baseball history. He will be 28 by then, a franchise cornerstone and a perennial MVP candidate—a future Hall of Famer suddenly available to the highest bidder.
Not that his next contract will be about money. This, after all, is a man who bought a used Chevrolet Tahoe and a pingpong table with the $625,000 signing bonus he got after high school. “Not to be arrogant,” he says, “but I’ve got money now. If baseball ended, I’d be OK for the rest of my life. I just want to go to the World Series and win.”
And that is the most frightening thing a fan of the purple and black can hear. In the organization’s 25 seasons, the team has made the playoffs only four times—tied for the sixth-fewest appearances among major league clubs during that span. The team won the National League pennant once, in 2007, when the Rockies were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series—and Arenado was still in high school. With that history in mind, it’s difficult to imagine Arenado in a Rockies uniform if the team doesn’t make the playoffs again this year.
Ask him about it and he is, not surprisingly, noncommittal about his future. But he does offer some clues to his thinking. “I’ll say this: I admire Derek Jeter,” he says. “I admire Todd Helton. Guys who stuck with an organization their whole careers. There’s something to be said for that, for sure. I’d agree there’s something to be said for that for me. But I also don’t want to be Todd in the fact of only going to the playoffs twice in a 17-year career. That’s not worth it to me. I want to win. I want to go to the playoffs, and that’s what drives me. We’ll see what happens.
“Tulo used to say, ‘I’ve won Gold Gloves, I’ve won Silver Sluggers, I finished top five in the MVP. I want to win now. I want a World Series trophy.’ I’m not taking the Gold Glove and all that for granted, but October? That’s what you think about as a kid. Dude, that’s what you want.”
In every way possible, this year is perhaps the most important in the team’s existence. There’s a core of good, young starting pitchers, and the team spent $106 million this past winter on three relievers, a position that’s central to any team’s success in the postseason. Then there’s the matter of Blackmon and LeMahieu—both All-Stars and batting champions—whose contracts are set to expire at the season’s end. Arenado’s told his parents he’s worried about what might happen next; if a Blackmon extension might mean the team couldn’t also afford to keep LeMahieu, one of the best second basemen in the game. And here’s the worst-case scenario: What if neither re-signs with the Rockies?
Arenado thinks back to his rookie year, with Tulowitzki and Helton and Carlos Gonzalez in the clubhouse. Tulowitzki showed him what it meant to be a big leaguer. Helton showed him what it was to be a legend in a city. Gonzalez supported him every step. All these years later, it’s Arenado who’s the attraction, the star, the franchise cornerstone.
“There’s a mutual interest, for sure” on a contract extension between the Rockies and him, Arenado says, then adds, “but negotiations are weird.”
“I think there’s been enough time spent with each other that both parties feel like [contract negotiations] are the best use of our time,” Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich says. “Anything we do in this realm, whether it’s for Nolan or anybody else, it’s definitely not going to be for public consumption until there’s resolution one way or the other. We have a keen understanding of the kind of player Nolan is and the type of player he is in our organization. Those things aren’t lost on us at all.”
So could Arenado move on from the team that drafted him? Could he leave one of the teams that believed he could play third base in the majors, the team where he became a superstar? “It won’t be easy, but this is a business,” Arenado says. “It is what it is. They’re going to do what’s best for the team, and I’ve got to do what’s best for my career, and I want to win. I love being a Rockie, but I don’t want to lose. I would like to win.”