DENVER — Bobbing his head and smacking his glove, Nolan Arenado flittered around third base like a Little Leaguer after too many Red Vines.
Former Sky Sox manager Tommy Runnells fungo’ed another ground ball in Arenado’s direction. Scoop, throw. More bobbing, more grooving. Wipe off the dirt. Repeat.
“He just loves the game,” said Vinny Castilla, a Rockies special assistant and their gold standard among third basemen. “He has a passion for it. He wants to play all the time.”
Tired of the gloom and doom clouding another dismal Rockies July? Bummed over EmailGate and the incompetency that rules the front office?
Watch the kid at third. He plays like one. In times like these, a little youth goes a long way. On their current pace, the Rockies are on the Road to 100 (losses). Over on the hot corner, Arenado, 23, is back to playing like the Hot 100 is thumping through his head. If the Rockies are ever going to be relevant in the NL West — next year, or the year after that — Arenado’s development remains a central part of the equation.
Aside from pride and contract bonuses, what is there left to play for?
“Every day I feel like I have something to play for. I know when it’s going bad it doesn’t seem like that, but it’s true,” Arenado said Monday. “For one, we don’t want to be in last place. Let’s play for a .500 record. Let’s play for something. Obviously the playoffs are a long ways away.
“But we still have a chance to play for something. Let’s try not to let this thing keep falling down.”
After a pause, he added, “As it looks right now, it’s not looking good.”
Back in May, it looked good for Arenado to make the All-Star game before he can rent a car. He had a 28-game hitting streak, which remains baseball’s longest this season, and stood as the leading vote-getter among NL third baseman. Then, crack. On a hard slide into second base, Arenado sustained a broken finger.
Peace, All-Star game.
The stolen opportunity stung more than he first allowed. From his family’s home in Southern California, Arenado watched through a TV set as Charlie Blackmon and Troy Tulowitzki represented the Rockies at the All-Star game in Minneapolis.
“I wanted to support my teammates. But, yeah, obviously it sucked,” Arenado said. “I wanted to be there with them.”
This year, the injury prevented Arenado from playing opposite the third baseman he admires most, Rangers All-Star Adrian Beltre.
“I grew up watching him play when he was with the Dodgers,” Arenado said, like any kid with a baseball idol.
Not long after the injury in May, I asked Arenado when he expected to return.
“I don’t know. Maybe August,” he said. “Hope not.”
After a rehab stop in Colorado Springs, Arenado returned to the Rockies lineup the first week of July.
“Now it’s kind of like spring training again,” he said.
The Rockies right now are a baseball bumblefart. Unless Tulo wins the MVP award or is traded to a contender, this season will be remembered for Dick Monfort’s liberal use of electronic mail. Cross your purple foam fingers it is remembered as the season that forced ownership to make changes in the front office, too.
For their part, players seem to be detached from, or simply ignoring, the growing divide between ownership and disillusioned Rockies fans.
“I honestly had no idea what he said until we had a meeting about it, where we talked about it. I didn’t know anything,” Arenado told me. “I don’t think he meant what he said (in ill-advised email responses to fans). He has a good heart and he means well. For people to look at him in a bad way, I don’t think it’s right. I think people just need to accept his apology and let it be. We love our fans. We need their support.
“We’re fortunate to have great Rockies fans here. That’s why we should keep playing hard, to appreciate these fans. I don’t want them going home saying, ‘Arenado doesn’t play hard. Arenado doesn’t care.’ I want them saying the opposite of that.”
Bobbing, smacking, grooving. For all their problems, the endearing youth of the 23-year-old third baseman isn’t one. Is he a reason to watch? That, too.