CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tommy Hunter was FaceTiming Jake Arrieta this past week around the same time Dave Hollins was calling Matt Klentak.
The four-month process that culminated Tuesday with Arrieta’s wearing a Phillies jersey included a slew of characters and elements. But the deal — a three-year contract worth $75 million — reached the finish line with pushes from two unlikely sources: Hunter, the team’s ping-pong-champion reliever, and Hollins, the third baseman for the pennant-winning 1993 Phillies.
Hunter urged his friend Arrieta to follow him to Philadelphia after Hunter signed in December. Hollins, now a Phillies scout, told the general manager what a pitcher such as Arrieta could bring. And both sales pitches were successful.
“I was coming hard in the paint, man,” Hunter said.
Hunter and Arrieta met in college, when they spent a summer on the U.S. national team before they were selected in the 2007 draft. They would team again five years later, when Texas dealt Hunter to the Baltimore Orioles. Their friendship grew in Baltimore, and their wives became close. It was also with the Orioles that their careers were tested.
The pitchers started the 2012 season in Baltimore’s starting rotation but found themselves in the minor leagues by summer after their ERAs had ballooned to more than 6.00. Six years later, they would join the Phillies by signing the biggest contracts of their lives just three months apart. But those life-altering millions likely never felt further away than they did that summer.
Hunter and Arrieta rallied from the minors and returned to finish the season with Baltimore. Arrieta would be traded a year later to the Cubs, and his career would skyrocket there. Hunter joined Arrieta in Chicago for the end of the 2015 season before the friends separated again.
Hunter emerged last season with Tampa Bay as a shutdown reliever, earning an $18 million contract from the Phillies. He called Arrieta throughout the offseason, urging him to consider the Phillies as he remained without a team.
“Hey, don’t leave it out,” Hunter told his friend.
Hollins was a key player on the 1993 Phillies as they rolled to the trade deadline and searched for another starting pitcher. The team had discussions with Seattle about Randy Johnson and talked to Atlanta about Kent Mercker. Lee Thomas, the general manager, thought the asking prices were too high. No deal was made, and the Phillies players were frustrated.
That wacky, wonderful bunch of throwbacks thought a deal for Johnson was close. Imagine Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson pitching in the World Series for the Phillies eight years before the duo did the same thing for Arizona. Perhaps Hollins was reminded of that summer when he called Klentak last week after conversations began to pick up between the Phillies and Arrieta.
“His message to me was, ‘Matt, don’t underestimate the impact that signing a guy like Jake Arrieta will have on that clubhouse,’ ” Klentak said. “He was speaking from an ex-player perspective, what he experienced as a player, particularly as a young player and what it means to have a superstar walk through the door. He said, ‘It’s hard to describe, but it takes the burden off the young guys who might be feeling extra pressure. It gives guys somebody to follow. I just want to make sure that you know that.’ It was very well received. I told Dave how much I appreciated that.”
Klentak opened Arrieta’s introductory news conference by thanking Hollins. That conversation, Klentak told the crowd, helped push this deal “over the edge.” In the back of that room sat Hunter, who had organized a group of teammates to attend. Hunter also was responsible for finding a uniform number for Arrieta, as he surveyed the clubhouse for a player willing to relinquish his digits to Arrieta.
Hunter, 31, had joined the Phillies just three months earlier but already had a large presence in the clubhouse. He’s loud and personable, and he defeated five teammates to win the “2018 Phillies Ping Pong World Championship.”
Arrieta contacted him Sunday morning to say he was coming to the Phillies. Their wives later texted and realized how few Phillies were born before 1990. When did we get old, they asked. Hunter’s courting worked. His friend was joining him in Philly.
“He’s excited. I’m excited. We’re all excited. I think everybody in here is pretty excited,” Hunter said. “It just gives you an inclination that management is also excited right now as well. You can try to tell people the good things about him and tell the bad things as well and let them make the decisions, but ultimately it’s up to the people that are in charge of it to get this done, and they did it.”
Hunter stashes his ping-pong trophy in the empty locker adjacent to his stall. The players were seeded by Gabe Kapler in a 36-player field. Hunter was in a league of his own. His games often turned into clinics as the pitcher discussed the fine details of ping-pong strategy while he finished off another foe.
Hunter carried his trophy Monday through the clubhouse, yelling, “The champ is here,” as he mimicked Muhammad Ali. Arrieta, the friend he urged to join the Phillies, might be the first to challenge his throne.
“He can step in line like everybody else,” Hunter said. “Back of the bus, kid.”