Professional athletes have always had difficulty telling themselves it’s time to retire, but fewer than ever seem to know when enough is enough.
You can blame Tom Brady for that. He won a Super Bowl last season at 43, turns a year older next month and apparently plans on playing and living forever. Suddenly, lots of athletes in their competitive golden years think that if they stop eating tomatoes, as Brady did, they can play at a high level into their 40s. This has to be killing the BLT lobby.
No one knows if Brady has discovered some nutritional secret to being able to play longer than everybody else or if he’d be just as successful on a diet of Big Macs. It doesn’t matter. Everybody thinks it’s the former.
This brings us to Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who is 35 and struggling to do what he used to do so well. I don’t know if he has looked to Brady for inspiration, but Arrieta has been a big fan of cutting-edge diets and exercise programs throughout his career. If he was being reticent during his 2015 Cy Young season, all a reporter had to say was, “Where can a guy get some decent kale juice in this town?” and Arrieta wouldn’t shut up. Brady’s success at an advanced age and his disavowal of some common foods — I’m talking to you, strawberries and eggplants — resonates with a certain kind of athlete.
The problem for Arrieta is that there doesn’t appear to be a secret recipe to stop the steady decline of his career (though maybe going on the 10-day injured list will delay it a bit). Since that magical 2015 season, when he had a 1.77 earned-run average and led the National League in victories, starts, complete games and shutouts, he has gotten worse every year. His ERA is an elevator that only goes up: from 1.77 to 3.10 to 3.53 to 3.96 to 4.64 to 5.08 to this season’s 6.30.
Former Cubs president Theo Epstein saw the decline happening fairly early and was smart enough to make Arrieta a contract offer he could refuse in 2018. Jake went to the Phillies, where the downturn accelerated. With Epstein gone, the Cubs reverted to their age-old habit of nostalgia when they signed Arrieta to a one-year contract before this season.
And it looked good for a while, didn’t it? He was the Jake of old in his first five starts, with an ERA of 2.57. But he went downhill after that. In his last two starts, he hasn’t made it out of the second inning, including an outing Tuesday in which he gave up seven earned runs and was pulled after 55 pitches.
Afterward, Arrieta was stubborn in the face of evidence, and reporters’ questions, that more than suggested he might be on his last legs as a productive pitcher.
“There is still a lot left in the tank,” he said. “No question about that. The stuff plays. The execution is not there. It hasn’t been for a while, but I’ve been in similar situations in my career. I’ve been in worse situations than this.”
Athletes are taught to never quit. It’s an excellent mindset when you’re down 20 points in the fourth quarter of a basketball game. It’s problematic when you’re past your prime and hurting your team. The loss Tuesday was the Cubs’ 11th in a row. Arrieta clearly isn’t the team’s only problem, but that doesn’t make him any less a problem.
“I have all the tools,” he insisted. “I know what needs to be done.”
It’s not easy giving up the thing you do best, especially at an age considered young by any standard except pro sports. We see it all the time, with athletes trying to hang on because they have no idea what else to do with their lives. There are always a few Olympians who refuse to leave the stage, but at least they can argue they don’t make the ridiculous money that athletes in the major sports do. Arrieta has made more than $100 million in his 12-year career. With a bit of belt-tightening, I think he’ll be OK.
He got knocked out of Tuesday’s game so early he could have watched Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It might have given him ideas. Suns point guard Chris Paul, who is 36, scored 32 points and had nine assists in a victory over the Bucks.
If it inspires Arrieta to play better, great. If it inspires him but he can’t play better, then maybe the facts are exactly what they seem to be: evidence that it’s time.