Jake Arrieta returns to Wrigley, pays tribute to former Cubs teammates, fans

They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Yet the Cubs knew what they had in Jake Arrieta — they had to, as anyone with two eyes and a brain did — and chose to sail into the wide blue yonder without him.

Without the most instrumental player in their spectacular rise to World Series glory. Without the most important starting pitcher in the history of the franchise.

Those are distinctions worth mentioning from time to time, aren’t they? Especially when the Bunyanesque right-hander just so happens to have five times the victories and about half the ERA of the man who essentially replaced him, Yu Darvish.

Making his return to Wrigley Field Tuesday with his new team, Arrieta sat in the visitors’ dugout, a red-and-white No. 49 on his chest and black Kith shades on his unforgettable face, and spoke of good times old and new.

Jake Arrieta and Cubs manager Joe Maddon enjoying a nice moment before Tuesday's game. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

“Would it have been great if I signed here? Yes,” he said. “Am I happy with the way things worked out ultimately, signing [for three years and $75 million] with the Phillies? Absolutely.”

Arrieta, 32, reminisced about his greatest achievements — the Cy Young season, the no-hitters, the dazzling postseason victories — over his four and a half years with the Cubs. He talked about missing his “brothers” in blue and noted again how special Cubs fans are to him.

“To have 40,000-plus here each and every night, bitter cold or humid heat, it meant a lot to us and it meant a lot to me and my family,” he said.

He even had kind words for Darvish, calling him a “tremendous pitcher” who has been “put in a difficult situation.”

If Arrieta has hard feelings for the Cubs, who made only a half-hearted — at best — effort to re-sign him, it’s awfully hard to tell. Then again, when did Arrieta ever give himself away? Always cool. Always confident. Always ready to take the ball for a big game.

And always a fan of Chicago, and it of him. A return to the city was filled with fun for Arrieta and his family even before the start of this three-game series. They strolled through Millennium Park, dined at Cindy’s Rooftop and Maple & Ash, spent time with friends. Needless to say, he was recognized everywhere.

“It kind of felt like it did when I played here,” he said.

A tribute to Arrieta played on the video board above left field after the first inning. It showed him with a 2013 mullet, a reminder that the hair on his head once stood out more than the beard on his face. It showed him doing push-ups in the outfield grass, taking an on-field Gatorade bath, taking a clubhouse champagne bath, riding in a championship parade, brandishing the World Series trophy.

After it ended — “Thank you, Jake Arrieta” on the screen — he stood outside the dugout and waved his cap to every corner of the ballpark, the crowd standing and cheering until the pitcher disappeared down the steps and resumed his post-Cubs existence.

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Alas, Arrieta won’t be taking his 5-3 record and 2.66 ERA to the mound in this series. What a shame, right? Such a spectacle that would be.

“I can’t believe you’re ducking the Cubbies,” Anthony Rizzo chided him in a text message.

To which Arrieta replied: “I’m just trying to help you guys catch Milwaukee.”

Could he have delivered a more perfect comeback? Call it Arrieta’s latest victory. There will be many more.