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Sports Saturday

No masking the truth: Jake Arrieta went out — his Cubs legacy be damned — in flames

By the end, Arrieta wasn’t as good as the no-names who populate the team’s current roster. But how will he be remembered?

Jake Arrieta’s end with the Cubs came hard and nastily.
Jake Arrieta’s end with the Cubs came hard and nastily.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The way I see it, the real problem with Jake Arrieta in 2021 wasn’t that he was anti-mask. It was that Cubs fans didn’t wear masks when he pitched. No, not on their mouths and noses. They needed masks to cover their poor eyes.

But I kid.

Baseball-wise, the real problem was that Arrieta — who signed for one year and $6 million for another Cubs go-round — wasn’t as good as the no-names who populate the team’s current roster. Wasn’t as good as a team bereft of talent that on Thursday completed an 0-7 homestand. Was arguably the very worst player on a team that was outscored by the White Sox and Brewers over those seven games by an almost unimaginable 40 runs.

Arrieta, 35, started the season with a 3-2 record and 2.57 ERA but was 2-9 with an 8.28 ERA after that. Wednesday, in his last start before being released, he gave up seven runs and eight hits in the opening inning of a 10-0 loss to the first-place Brewers. Sorry, did I say worst player on the Cubs? I think I meant worst player in the major leagues.

“Would I have liked to pitch better? Would I have liked to have pitched better throughout the season? Of course,” Arrieta said after the debacle — not his first — against the Brewers. “But now, the job description includes a lot more than just that.”

Now, there is no job description. Not mentoring young teammates. Certainly not taking the ball from manager/friend David Ross every fifth or sixth day. Arrieta the 2015 Cy Young winner, the 2016 World Series champion, the anti-vaxxer, the Trumper in a city largely unfriendly to that disposition has been fungoed into the abyss. He was booed at Wrigley Field more than once lately. He was kicked in the pants on his way out the door by lots of Cubs fans on social media.

This feels like a good time to point out something I’ve pointed out before, which is that much of the romance is gone from Cubdom. Fans who were certain they’d die happy if the team ever won a World Series turned out to be no different than fans from anyplace else. A championship doesn’t smooth the edges; it hardens them. Crappy play is met with anger and bitterness, not “Lovable Losers” and “wait ’til next year.”

This was driven home — rather crudely — after Wednesday’s game by ESPN 1000 host and NBC Sports Chicago personality David Kaplan, who makes no secret of his love for the Cubs. Speaking directly to Arrieta in an online video, Kaplan went full blast.

“Come on, Jake, you’ve got to be a prideful guy,” he said. “You were a great pitcher back in the day. Literally, you could not pitch in my 60-and-over league. That’s how awful you looked tonight. You are embarrassing your legacy. You are done.”

Literally, Arrieta could twist Kaplan and every other player in some dimestore league into a pretzel at the plate. That’s hardly relevant. Kaplan went on to call Arrieta a “civic embarrassment” in a video that included a good bit of profanity and had about as much to do with journalism as a tire iron has to do with macrame.

The “legacy” part made me shake my head. I’ve never bought into the idea that athletes owe a thing where their legacies are concerned to anyone but themselves. If they want to tarnish their legacies — whatever that even means — so what? Athletes hang on for too long for the exact reasons that made them as great as they were in the first place. Competitiveness. Ego. The love to play. The need to play. The absence of a clear picture of what no longer playing will be like.

“Six Great Athletes Who Tried to Kill Their Own Legacies.”

“Ten Athletes That Totally Ruined Their Legacy.”

Two of a bushel of stupid headlines above stupid stories I read before writing this.

Michael Jordan played for the Wizards. NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith for the Cardinals. Quarterbacks Joe Namath for the Rams, Johnny Unitas for the Chargers and Brett Favre for the Vikings. Best wide receiver ever Jerry Rice for the Seahawks. NBA stars Patrick Ewing for the Sonics and Magic, Hakeem Olajuwon for the Raptors and Shaquille O’Neal for the Cavaliers and Celtics. There are so many other examples.

Why did they do it? Because it was ingrained in who they were. They were always going to be the last ones to know — to accept — that they were done. That self-belief was why we admired them in the first place.

Same for Arrieta.

“If it was easy,” Arrieta said, presumably before learning of his release, “everybody would do it.”

Everybody can’t do it. Arrieta can’t anymore. Crap happens, and then you get old.