GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Bronson Arroyo pitched the first two innings of a baseball game here Sunday. The sub-85 fastballs, the daring curveballs, the floppy blond hair, the gangly gait, the guard-gate left leg, the whole thing. And it was good. Far as these things go, it was really good.
He is, at 40 years old and having not thrown a real pitch in about 2 ½ years, endeavoring to win a place in the Cincinnati Reds rotation, a relatively thin group that earlier in the day sent one of its sturdier members — Anthony DeSclafani — to Cincinnati to have his elbow examined. That meant there could be as many as three vacancies here, behind Brandon Finnegan and Scott Feldman, and this is where we’ll remind you there were but two poorer rotations in the National League last year.
This is what a rebuild looks and feels like sometimes, when a franchise swerves toward the future and winds up with a lapful of Circle K coffee. You’re still maybe heading in the right direction, except the ride just got a little less comfortable. And a lot mustier. Baseball doesn’t end well when everything had to go right, because most of the time hardly anything goes right. The real trick is what you do with that.
Well, for one, when Bronson Arroyo calls, you say sure why the hell not. Well, first you ask how his shoulder and elbow feel, then you say why the hell not. Oh, and how much.
“That’s why I told them I’d play for whatever you put on a piece of paper,” he said. “I don’t even know what I’m going to make. It’s probably the minimum, but I don’t even know. It doesn’t matter.”
He is one grounded dude. This will work or it won’t. And he seems OK with that. If he has to walk off again, he’ll go willingly, happy for the ride, thankful for the years. He’ll take the memories, maybe put them to a soulful guitar riff some day, but make it upbeat, something you could bob your head to. He’ll have survived — and better than just that — for a lot of seasons sneaking fastballs in through the cover of darkness, fastballs commanded to act natural, to mix in, when the rest of the world was looking for 95. He was clever long before old age and brittle ligaments commanded it, though he could not contain a smile when reminded of the last time his fastballs did blow hitters away.
“I was 9,” he said.
He was sitting in an empty clubhouse. He pitched his two scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, walked out of the stadium through a door in the center-field fence and hopped a shuttle bus a couple blocks back to the Reds’ facility. He popped out his red contact lenses, which made him look a little less like a reedy dragon. A long time had passed since he’d thrown without pain or fear of pain. He was pleased. The majority of the Brewers he faced had made their outs from their front foots, fooled by leg swing and arm angle and a ball that just never seemed to get there. He’s willing to have the hitters tell him whether he belongs still, that being preferable to standing on a mound and pointing to a shoulder or an elbow and going home for good.
Besides, he’d like to help. He is honored when the young fellas come to him like he once did to John Burkett, and the Reds always were good to him, back when he was producing 200-some innings for them every year, even now when he’s a guy who might not have one more in him. Whatever comes, you know? But he couldn’t not try.
“What you don’t realize is it has embodied everything you are,” he said. “It’s not you and it. You become your life’s work. You can’t separate the painting from the painter.”
An apt metaphor for the pitcher who estimated he’d gotten his six outs that afternoon with a fastball that might’ve peaked at 85.
“It’s hard to give it up in that way,” he said of the injuries, including Tommy John surgery, “without giving it every little bit.
“There’s this fine line. We tend to think that players are going to hang on to this game with a death grip. When it ends, you assume there’ll be some chaos. Some misgivings. I think you can do both. You can hang on to it with a death grip and still leave peacefully. When I’m done I know I’ll be completely content.”
Earlier, he’d tried to explain how he’d managed with below average velocity for so many years, and how he could continue to perform with the same. Mike Maddux, the pitching coach, had once used the analogy of cars on a distant highway. Assuming those cars remained clustered, you couldn’t determine if they were going 50 mph or 80. From there, a pitcher creates gaps, he said. A little faster. A little slower. A little deception. A little darkness.
“It doesn’t matter where you start,” Arroyo said.
All of which sounded like a reasonable way to think of Arroyo anymore. Yeah, he’s 40. Yeah, he hasn’t done this in a while. Yeah, it all looks better from a distance.
And maybe that’s exactly what he’s got going for him, the painter and the painting.