Monday, November 20, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

How Rays' Chris Archer became one of baseball's leading faces


Chris Archer had been working on this game plan for a while.

Once he heard that the Rays' trip to Cuba would coincide with the historic U.S. presidential visit, he was trying to find a way, any way, to meet Barack Obama, whom he considers "the pinnacle of people," a barrier-breaker like Jackie Robinson.

He made a pitch on Twitter, suggesting they "grab some Cubano cuisine" together, his treat. He worked the ESPN angle, knowing they both would be doing TV segments. He scoped out the stadium, exploring if there would be a chance to connect pregame.

Archer didn't just want a gratuitous wave. Wasn't interested in a photo, or an autograph. He wanted the chance to talk.

"Because if I do get the opportunity for a 10-second interaction, I don't want it to be (posing for a selfie) — I want it to be engagement, because that's just not who I am," Archer said. "Even though a picture lasts a lifetime, the experience means way more."

And what an experience it was.

Archer had ducked into the Estadio Latinoamericano clubhouse a few minutes before the March 22 game, and when he came out he saw that teammate Taylor Motter had led an unexpected dash of Rays toward Obama's seats behind home plate.

Archer ran back inside to grab the Matt Moore glove he promised to deliver if the opportunity arose then sprinted over, hoping to finally say hello.

Turned out he needed no introduction.

That Obama complimented him on how he carried himself and how well he spoke, and that he teased him about needing pitching tips from Luis Tiant, was staggering enough.

But what really struck Archer the most was the simple fact the Obama knew who he was, calling out to him, "Hey, Arch . …"

"That's the thing," Archer said. "I never thought about meeting Obama and him addressing me as my baseball nickname — Arch. Never in my mind. Even when the possibility was there."

Actually, that's the thing. There are a lot of people who now know Archer's name.

The 27-year-old All-Star pitcher with the fascinating mixed-race backstory, indefatigable charitable spirit and charming personality has become one of the faces not just of the Rays but all of Major League Baseball.

"From our perspective," commissioner Rob Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times, "Chris Archer may be the sort of ideal major-league player — he's articulate, he's inquisitive, he's community-minded and he loves the game. You just can't ask for a better package than that."

Archer has earned that praise on many fronts.

He is involved in several youth-oriented causes, from starring in a national TV spot for the Boys & Girls Clubs to become a leading man for the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program to speaking at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and making unannounced visits to All Children's Hospital. He has served as an MLB ambassador on trips to South Africa and Taiwan, with a goal of visiting the other four continents. He did postseason TV work to rave reviews for ESPN, which is already angling to have him back. He established his own Archway Foundation. And he emerged last season as an elite pitcher, making his first American League All-Star team.

"From the first day you met Chris, you could tell that he's smart, he's well-read, he's articulate, he's handsome, he's athletic, he's big-hearted, he's charitable," longtime agent Mark Pieper said. "The list of things that you could use to describe Chris Archer goes on and on. There's just so much you can say about him.

"What's happened is that his success on the field has kind of caught up to who he is off the field. What I mean by that is that he is extremely successful off the field in terms of the way he handles his life and the things he wants to do. But now he is an All-Star caliber pitcher. And it's the combination of that success and his mind-set from off the field that has created the Chris Archer that we know today."

Archer is, as you can tell after just a few minutes of hearing him talk, a little different from the typical baseball player. For example, he openly — and, to some old-timers, somewhat sacrilegiously — says that winning baseball games is not what matters most but is a vehicle to provide him a larger platform from which he can help others.

"I want to inspire people to live out and fulfill their dreams," he said. "And if people are more willing to listen because I throw baseballs for a living, I'm going to use it."

Archer's views are shaped by his background. Born to a white mother and black father who weren't in position to raise him, Archer was instead adopted and nurtured by his maternal grandparents — whom he calls mom and dad — in small-town North Carolina, drawing more than a few long looks and fostering a deep bond.

"My mom told me when I was younger, what makes you different is what makes you unique. So it makes you special," Archer said. "So I think that's more the drive whenever I'm speaking to a child, because I'm going in there and probably not giving the same speeches as other athletes — work hard and you can do this and you can become an athlete.

"I'm actually telling them not to think about that, because the chance of that is so low. What are you passionate about? What do you love? Attack it whole-heartedly. Doctor. Lawyer. Journalist. That's why I go everywhere. … Because everybody needs a little motivation and understanding that you can accomplish your goals if you attack them whole-heartedly."

It could seem like too much, especially during the season where some have suggested Archer might be better off focusing on pitching and not worry so much about saving the world.

But he has an interesting perspective — that without any familial obligations, he spends no more time doing good than others who are golfing, fishing, playing video games, watching hours of Netflix or scrolling Instagram.

In essence, helping kids has become his hobby.

"It doesn't have to engulf my entire life — pitching, throwing baseballs," he said. "There's time for family. There's time for friends. There's time to be selfless and make other people smile. There's time for things that you enjoy doing."

When Manfred came to Port Charlotte last spring during his introductory tour of camps, Archer approached personally and offered to help promote the game, and the two still exchange emails. (Plus, Archer felt comfortable enough in January to poke Manfred, tweeting a copy of his Harvard Law School yearbook photo, featuring big glasses and bigger hair. "The only mistake he's every made, honestly," Manfred said, laughing.)

MLB was more than happy to engage with Archer.

"He's just a guy that's touching basically every base," said Tony Petitti, MLB's chief operating officer. "He's really engaged in getting kids to play, and giving back. He's a great guy in terms of on-air when we're reaching out to fans that way. Most importantly, his performance on the field. And he has the energy to do things off the field. So he's been great for us."

"I think that Chris is an ideal face for the game," Manfred said. "He would be one of a handful of players that we would always be happy being out front for us."

The Rays, happy to share, feel the same. Archer — signed to a long-term deal that keeps him under team control through 2021 and could be worth $45 million — fronts several of their advertising and promotional campaigns, such as the Big 22 ticket plan.

"We have so much pride in Chris," team president Brian Auld said. "More than anything, he made a significant commitment to us, as we did to him, in terms of the contract that we agreed upon. He is a key part of this franchise. He's going to be here for some time. So it's really, really heartening to see him represent the organization so well. And we hope that we do the same by him.

"He has a direct line to me, and we talk fairly frequently about ways we can make our team as player friendly as possible, and pretty much anything else that happens to be on his mind. I'm grateful for that, and I'm glad to have him secured for a long time because I think he's a tremendous leader and a tremendous representative of the club."

Archer's reputation, particularly for being well-spoken, is starting to precede him a bit.

So when ESPN was seeking a "new and fresh" face to provide a player's perspective on last year's playoffs, they didn't have to look long. Or even worry about details like a screen test.

Senior coordinating producer Phil Orlins recalled seeing Archer do a live shot on the All-Star selection show, noting how "effusive and engaging" he was, and knew he had his man. Archer worked the AL wild-card game in the booth then came back to do pre- and postgame work during three World Series games, getting rave reviews not only from fans but ESPN staffers and even other big-leaguers. (ESPN used him heavily in Cuba, too, following him around Havana and popping him onto the SportsCenter set, where he dazzled again.)

"I think he represented almost everything we were looking for," Orlins said. "Which is to say he was relatively young, he is obviously diverse, and mostly he just has an energy and a charisma about him and a willingness to engage with all people without any real feeling of ego or anything of that nature."

Orlins became more impressed after talking to Archer, noting his fearlessness to try things and curiosity about how their end of the business works. He was so sure Archer would star that he laughs when asked if he exceeded expectations, but allowed, "He has pretty much blown everybody away with what he has done."

Not only is ESPN eager to use him again this October if the Rays aren't playing, but Orlins joked, "if (manager) Kevin Cash is open to it, I'm interested in putting him on shows and games in between starts."

One area where Archer, though willing (albeit a bit picky) and certainly able, has yet to break through is with commercials and product endorsements.

Pieper, the agent, says they get, and make, pitches often, but the small Tampa Bay market "is a little bit of a challenge, though I think Chris is the kind of guy that can break through that hurdle."

Archer said he doesn't like to blame the market, saying "it's more of a baseball thing," noting the relative scarcity of national TV spots featuring players.

Regardless, it has been done before, teammate Evan Longoria's search for his New Era cap and work with Gillette two somewhat recent examples.

Archer — who is committed to healthy eating and fitness — is going to be selective in what companies he would align himself with.

For example, if he were going to do a McDonald's spot, it would be for the healthy menu items. For another, he mentioned his interest in the Boxed Water line since it doesn't use plastic bottles. (In another form of exposure, he is at least pondering the possibility of a tastefully posed shot in ESPN The Magazine's body issue, using a book, given his affinity for reading, as a properly placed prop.)

Talking to the president and making time with the first lady, touring the world repping MLB, killing it on the ESPN set, getting noticed anytime he goes out ("If I didn't have my hair, it would be a lot easier"), fronting ad campaigns.

It's nothing Archer would have dreamed of, and everything he could have hoped for.

"What motivates me the most is being the best version of myself possible in the game and outside the game," Archer said. "I think there is a lot of potential on both ends still there. I'll never rest when it comes to continuing to develop as a person and as a baseball player."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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