The odds of Jake Arrieta coming back next season feel like the kind of lottery ticket the Cubs cashed in when they traded for a pitcher with a 5.46 career ERA and watched that Triple-A guy blossom into a Cy Young Award winner.
Arrieta puts his trust in super-agent Scott Boras to handle the negotiations, understands how team president Theo Epstein runs baseball operations and knows the end is probably near on the North Side.
This will be another draining October, from the physical demands in recovering from a Grade 1 hamstring strain, to the emotional stress in the dugout while watching what could be an instant classic playoff series against the Washington Nationals, to the mental checklist before he goes home to Austin, Texas, to weigh his options as a free agent and map out the rest of his life with his family.
Splitting Games 1 and 2 at Nationals Park means Arrieta will get another chance to perform in front of 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field. That Game 4 start on Tuesday means Arrieta will be either trying to end this National League Division Series or extend the season for the defending champs by nine more innings.
“If these are my last experiences in this uniform,” Arrieta said, “I’m just trying to take it all in and really look around a little bit more and kind of get those mental snapshots and those memories for down the road, things that I’ll be able to reflect on in a year, or five or 10 years, however long it is.
“The further you get away from the World Series, I feel like the more you actually think about it. So it’s just being at Wrigley, taking everything in, trying to hear everything the fans are saying, look around as much as I can, because Wrigley’s the best there is.”
Showing no signs of pressure or anxiety, the Cubs did a Sunday Funday at Wrigley Field, with brunch tables and an omelet station set up behind home plate and the Detroit Lions-Carolina Panthers game showing on the huge video board.
First base coach Brandon Hyde and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist played with their sons in the outfield, letting them take batting practice and try to hit balls into the bleachers. The Cubs wore gray T-shirts with No. 41 and John Lackey’s silhouette on the front, framed by the pitcher’s one-liners like “Didn’t come here for a haircut” and “I’m always one more out closer to a beer,” etc.
The Cubs have a unique vibe that Arrieta helped create with his enormous confidence, freethinking approach and fearless attitude. This environment will inevitably change once he is gone.
Arrieta joined a team that would finish with 96 losses in the middle of the 2013 season, way back when the Cubs didn’t really have any idea when they would be able to compete.
It never would have happened this quickly or dramatically without Arrieta. Since that flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles, the Cubs have won the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 and two division titles while competing in seven playoff rounds.
During that time, Arrieta is 68-31 with a 2.73 ERA and two no-hitters in 128 starts for the Cubs, plus dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2015 wild-card game and beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.
“If I have to play somewhere else,” Arrieta said, “I’m going to try and remember as much as I can about Wrigley and Chicago. It’s a huge part of my life.”
Arrieta pointed out how much time his 6-year-old son, Cooper, and 4-year-old daughter, Palmer, have spent growing up in Chicago, knowing what he did for this franchise, how much the Cubs meant to his career and that in the end this is still a business.
Arrieta has also made it clear that he doesn’t want to leave without earning another World Series ring.
“Regardless of what happens, I’m always going to feel like a Cub,” Arrieta said. “At least a part of me is going to feel like a Cub, wherever I end up. It’s just a really special part of our lives."