Nolan Arenado is a name every baseball fan should know. At the season’s midpoint he led the majors in RBI, and he fields as well as anyone. But the Colorado Rockies’ third baseman tends to be overlooked, one reason being he plays in the Mountain time zone on a last-place team.
Another reason: he plays his home games at an altitude that elevates a player’s production even as it suppresses his chances of winning (impossible to assemble a good pitching staff in Denver). But in the case of the 24-year-old Arenado, the Coors Field effect seems irrelevant. Of his 24 home runs, 15 have been on the road.
Statistically, Arenado is very close to Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier, who won the fan vote to start at third base in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark. Arenado was added as a reserve, and he’s part of what makes the Midsummer Classic an annual coming-out party for young talent.
Among this era’s impressive array of rising baseball stars (20 All-Stars 25 or younger) are some appealing and colorful personalities. Bryce Harper is one, and Arenado is another.
Arenado gracefully accepts kidding from Latin American teammates who call him a “Fake Latino.” He acquired this unflattering nickname because he speaks almost no Spanish, even though his father, Fernando, was born in Cuba and his mother, Millie, is the daughter of Puerto Ricans.
Fernando, who had been a businessman in Cuba, waited tables and washed dishes in Los Angeles before eventually attaining a middle-class existence for his family. He decided it was more important for his kids to assimilate into American culture than to speak his native tongue. The boy was named for Nolan Ryan, Fernando’s favorite ballplayer.
Not that the Rockies’ All-Star runs from his heritage. “The love of the game and the way I play comes from my family, the Latin side more than anything,” he told USA Today. “I was born in America and played high school in America, but at the same time my family, my cousins, the way we play the game, it’s all Latin.”
His first baseball experience came with his dad, who played the game in junior college and still teaches hitting. Nolan Arenado’s brother Jonah is in the San Francisco Giants’ farm system.
In his rookie season, 2013, Arenado was kidded – not so gently – by teammates, including veteran All-Star Troy Tulowitzki, for a physique that was flabby, with 235 pounds padding a 6-2 frame.
Since then Arenado has solidified at 210 pounds. He takes his turn in the weight room but also conditions himself by surfing at San Clemente Beach.
Along with his training methods, his ballplaying has steadily improved, offensively and defensively, though it was quite good from the beginning. His home run total rose from 10 his rookie season to 18 in 2014, setting up his explosion of this half-season.
His power production is worthy of Home Run Derby, but Arenado was overlooked again. He was happy enough not to be chosen. “Everyone says it could ruin your swing,” he pointed out. Indeed, many prior participants in the popular All-Star side show complained of injuring themselves or ungrooving their swings.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss likes where Arenado is now: “a more mature hitter. He’s more under control in the box. He’s got his legs underneath him.”
Still, Arenado’s glove outshines the bat. He was the first National League rookie to win a Gold Glove, and he won another one last year as a sophomore. His acrobatics at third base evoke comparisons to Brooks Robinson in the 1970s.
Arenado has the reach and dive of Robinson but also the Ken Caminiti knack for running down twisting loopers and bloopers over his back and into the stands.
Weiss himself is an expert on infield play, having been an All-Star shortstop, and he may be correct with this admittedly biased synopsis: “You take the best tools you’ve ever seen at third base from all the different guys, you put them all into one, and that’s Nolan Arenado.”
He’s almost enough to lift the gloom that has shrouded the Rockies for the worst five-year run in the club’s history.
“If we don’t win games, something is going to change,” Arenado said, hoping the team’s 4-game win streak heading into the break signals the change. He’s concerned about the expected trade of his infield neighbor, shortstop Tulowitzki, he of a recent 21-game hitting streak. “I’m going to be upset,” Arenado told The Denver Post. “He’s taught me the game.”
But he added, “I can’t sit here and be negative. Baseball is a negative enough game as it is.”
What’s inspiring about Arenado is that he shows how to play the game brilliantly and display a sunny disposition day after day even in the most negative of environments.
The Post’s Mark Kiszla captured the significance of Arenado: “On any given summer night, when he flashes leather at third base that would do Brooks Robinson proud or bashes a home run deep into the seats, Arenado alone can be worth the price of admission.”