How Chris Archer, complete with a 5-plus ERA, is setting an example everybody can follow

Tim BrownMLB columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8849/" data-ylk="slk:Chris Archer">Chris Archer</a> #24 of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/pittsburgh/" data-ylk="slk:Pittsburgh Pirates">Pittsburgh Pirates</a> looks on before the game against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/milwaukee/" data-ylk="slk:Milwaukee Brewers">Milwaukee Brewers</a> on Sept. 21. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Chris Archer #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on before the game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 21. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

COMPTON, Calif. — A five ERA will bring you to places, man. A five ERA kicks and spits and leaves jagged marks in places you didn’t even know existed. A five ERA finds you laying rage on top of helplessness on top of hesitation, finds you throwing straight through your shoulder while giving chase to shadows, finds you in that place and looking for footprints that match your shoe size, wondering how you got there.

Chris Archer is working on that.

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He’d tied back his dreadlocks with a headband. He wore a gray Pittsburgh Pirates jersey, No. 24. Someone handed him a microphone. 

He looked up Saturday afternoon into bleachers spattered by a morning rain, into the faces of little boys and girls in Dodgers caps and Angels shorts and Raiders shirts, and he told them that’s how baseball goes sometimes. That’s how life goes. 

A bad season, he said, is like that rain this morning. He needed to grow, he said. So the clouds came and the thunder rumbled and what came in sheets was that five ERA, that bum shoulder and that season that ended in August.

“It’s all about how you respond to things,” he told children whose feet dangled a foot above the floor, whose parents probably knew a thing or two themselves about five ERAs.

Now, he told them, he wanted them to get out on that field, all 250 of them, and run and laugh and swing hard, and he wanted them to learn one thing. Any one thing, it didn’t matter.

“One,” he said. “Whatever it is.”

He smiled and waved them on. The bleachers cleared to the sound of tiny Keds and Cons and Nikes pattering and squeaking, boys and girls headed toward a green field accessorized with colorful bats and new balls. It would be a glorious day at Major League Baseball’s Youth Academy here, at a Play Ball event put to a DJ’s music and a sandlot’s joy.

Archer turned 31 in September. He’d done All-Star seasons, 19-loss seasons, 250-strikeout seasons, 200-inning seasons and now a 5.19-ERA season. Little ballplayers rushed past him in their wobbly caps and billowing T-shirts and floppy ponytails to, had they been listening, had it made any sense to them at all, learn their second thing that morning, after what to do when the five ERA comes.

Darrell Miller, director of the Compton academy and former big-league catcher, stood at a chain-link gate and greeted families as they arrived. If they hadn’t pre-registered, he pointed them to the right place. If they wondered what this was all about, he told them what it was all about, starting with education and citizenship and baseball and softball, ending with what it would cost them: “The price is zero,” he said. “Which is free.”

He nodded at the lanky figure in the Pirates road grays.

“It validates what we’re trying to do here in the inner city,” he said. “That influence is priceless. He’s what you want to be. That’s what it looks like and sounds like and feels like.”

Chris Archer #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the first inning on Aug. 20, 2019. (Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Chris Archer #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the first inning on Aug. 20, 2019. (Justin Berl/Getty Images)

If that sounds like a lot, if that sounds like a lot more than just baseball, then sure, it is. Archer has done these events regularly for years, since the minor leagues even, scheduling days around the baseball calendar, dropping in on a whim, this time driving across town on a dreary Saturday morning. The kids who didn’t look and sound a little like him in Raleigh or Tampa or Cleveland or L.A., they looked and sounded a lot like him here. Some days he was the All Star, whatever cred that brought. Other days, hey, us five-ERAers gotta stick together, ya know? Every day, he looked them in the eye so they knew they’d been seen and heard, that they mattered to whatever world is out there. He’d take every picture, sign every T-shirt, shake hands with every mom and every dad, because it was easy and he liked it, because who wouldn’t like this mess of kids running every direction, balls flying, hearts bursting?

“Their eyes open … ,” Archer said. He grinned to say, that’s it, that’s the whole point. Their eyes open.

He is in Southern California for the offseason, living a couple miles from the beach, trekking north to Westlake Village to heal — and better understand — his body. On the advice of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, he’s become a regular at Live Athletics, a facility run by Zach Ray, a doctor of physical therapy. Archer finished his worst season on the injured list with a sore pitching shoulder. Also, and perhaps more daunting, he was on the injured list at the end of his worst season, no way to fix it.

So, he wondered, where had this come from? What, exactly, had he been fighting since the trade to Pittsburgh? Across 33 starts, what amounts to a full season, he was 6-12 with a 4.92 ERA. What was he trying to prove? And to whom?

“Dealing with the past season,” he said, “I had to re-evaluate all of that. I had to look inward.”

His shoulder healed. He is throwing again, easy. His head is clearer. The disaster that was 2019, the places a five ERA took him, those could not be misspent.  

“I already know that I’m great,” he said. “Now it’s getting back to being comfortable being me and doing what I do. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to anybody. I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been.”

He stood Saturday morning in the middle of it all, all of them, all of him, beneath rain clouds to which he was indifferent.

“I just feel free,” he said. “I feel I’m closer to them” — he waved his arms at the blur of small, teetering, untethered humans — “and I am my old essence. I feel that free and unjudged and comfortable. I know what that feels like now.”

Then he excused himself. All the five-ERAers were going to have a dance contest. He couldn’t miss that.

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