The Rockies slick-fielding third baseman, has a major-league golf game.
The Arizona sun has barely had time to heat up the Colorado Rockies’ spring training facility at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, and third baseman Nolan Arenado has already worked up an early-morning sweat in the batting cage. His bat joins him as he enters the team’s posh clubhouse to talk golf. And he spends the 30 minutes of our conversation constantly gripping, squeezing and re-gripping it in much the same way Sergio Garcia or Kevin Na incessantly fidget with their clubs.
Despite the restless energy, Arenado was a rock-steady performer for the Rockies in 2013. He had a respectable batting average and turned his leather mitt into gold, becoming the first rookie third baseman from the National League to win Rawlings’ prestigious Gold Glove Award. The playful, sometimes antsy 23-year-old appears to be just a few short bounces away from stardom in Major League Baseball.
When Arenado pulls the Nike-made 7-iron from his bag, he transforms into a Silver Slugger. “It’s the club I hit best,” he says. Arenado learned to play golf as a youngster growing up in Lake Forest, Calif. His interest in the sport diminished as his love of baseball blossomed. Then, three years ago, when he was promoted to the Rockies’ Double AA team in Tulsa, the golf bug bit him again and it bit him hard.
“I had a lot of bad rounds but it was fun to start playing again, really get into it and fight to get that good round,” says Arenado, who’s best score to date is an 82 but feels confident he’ll break 80 much sooner than later. “If I’m on with my driver I feel like I’ll have a good round, but if my driver is off I’m in trouble, that’s for sure. And if I don’t practice putting before I go out, I’m in trouble.”
Speed on the greens is one thing, but speed on the basepaths is quite another. With only two stolen bases last year, it’s highly unlikely Arenado will ever join baseball’s 30-30 club for home runs and stolen bases. But a .300 batting average and 300- yard drives aren’t a bad pair. Rockies’ Senior Vice-President of Major League Operations Bill Geivett expects Arenado to approach the former; he’s already witnessed the latter.
Last December, Geivett, Arenado and Oakland A’s third base coach (and former Rockies coach) Mike Gallego played a round at Yorba Linda Country Club in California. At the par-3 seventh hole, Gallego and Geivett went into “scouting” mode.
“We said, ‘Let’s eyeball this thing and see what we’ve got here with our boy,’” Geivett says. “He holds off an 8-iron from about 165 yards, and that ball took off like a guy who plays. To watch him naturally hold off, keep the face open, square to the target . . . we looked at each other and said, ‘This guy can play.’
“He’s got great feel. Some of the things you see in his baseball swing, you see in his golf swing. He can hit the ball a long way and when he hits the middle of the club face, it definitely looks like a guy who’s an upper-end player.”
Arenado’s trip to the upper-end of baseball began as a shortsop at El Toro High School. But his plans to attend Arizona State on a baseball scholarship changed after he was selected 59th overall in Major League Baseball’s 2009 amateur draft. He immediately signed a professional contract, and last April he made his major-league debut with the Rockies.
In his second game, he started at third against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, less than an hour’s drive from his hometown. He got his first three hits in the majors—including a two-run home run—much to the pleasure of the scores of friends and family in attendance.
Those included his parents. Millie and Fernando Arenado share a love affair with sports that is reflected on the birth certificates of their three sons. The eldest, Cousy, is named after Hall of Fame basketball player Bob Cousy. The youngest, Jonah, was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 16th round of the 2013 MLB draft. His middle name is Brooks—after Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. Nolan is named after Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
“Yeah, I got issues,” Fernando Arenado playfully confesses when asked about his sons’ names. “His mother and I used to play co-ed softball together. I played short or third, and she played second. They’d always make fun of me and say Nolan got his arm from her.
“He’s living my dreams, and I’m very grateful and thankful. I always knew he was special with the glove. He made plays other kids his age didn’t make.”
Fernando Arenado taught his middle son how to play golf and enjoys beating him “just to keep him grounded,” he says. “But he drives the heck out of the ball, hits the 6-iron 200 yards. It’s crazy.”
Arenado’s steady golf partner is his long-time friend, Trayce Thompson, a prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization whose brother, Klay, is a rising star guard for the Golden State Warriors. Their father, Mychal, played 13 seasons in the National Basketball Association.
Thompson and Arenado stage their own off-season golf “tour” with other playing partners, complete with friendly wagering, rankings and team nicknames.
“Nolan and I are ‘El Futuro’—we’re the future,” Thompson says. “This year we dominated. It’s competitive, but more for bragging rights. Nolan had a very good off-season and ended up with our No. 1 ranking. But he grew up in a very competitive atmosphere and is always trying to get the next step on everybody.”
The Rockies are counting on Arenado to take the next step at the plate. He coupled his .267 average with 10 homers and 52 runs batted in last season. Decent stats but not the power numbers teams crave from a corner infielder.
Geivett believes Arenado’s offensive numbers will improve in 2014 because he’ll be more familiar and comfortable facing pitching at the major-league level. The improvements in his hitting didn’t go unnoticed during spring training. “I don’t think everybody realizes there’s a true middle-ofthe- order run production guy in there,” Geivett says.
Bat in hand, Arenado appears ready to step up at the plate, but he flashes a giddy grin at the mention of Robinson—considered the greatest fielding third baseman in history.
Arenado met Robinson last winter at the Gold Glove awards dinner in New York. Nicknamed the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” Robinson won 16 Gold Gloves during his 23-year career.
Arenado had only 11 errors in 411 fielding chances in 2013. “I haven’t seen Nolan play, but I’m certainly going to keep an eye on him now,” Robinson says. “If you win a Gold Glove, that’s pretty special. To win one in your first year in the big leagues, that’s impressive.”
Winning a Gold Glove as a rookie bodes well for what both Arenado and the Rockies hope will develop into a long relationship. “They see me as a guy that has to work hard to get better,” Arenado says. “I think they’re happy that I play hard. One day I want to be one of those guys that’s known as a good all-around ballplayer and sets a standard for the game. Winning the Gold Glove shows that hard work pays off.”
That hard work has precluded his playing golf in Colorado, but he intends on getting out this year.
“I stopped playing golf when I was younger because I always thought it messed up my baseball swing,” he says. “Ultimately, I don’t think it’s that way any more. Baseball messes up my golf swing, more than anything.”