The new general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers had the drive to make it in baseball, even when it was behind the wheel of a beat-up, old automobile.
Matt Arnold was just a junior at UCSB in 2000 when he began motoring to his first gig as an intern with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His 1977 Chevy Cheyenne would often race the sunrise on his trip back home.
“I was basically commuting from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles every day, through L.A. traffic,” he said. “That’s definitely not something I want to do again.”
His second season of baseball was spent with the Texas Rangers, “helping the coaches and players in whatever they needed.” Five more years followed with the Cincinnati Reds.
“At the time, there was much-less specialization across the game,” Arnold said. “You had to wear a lot of hats. I was the baseball operations assistant when I went to Cincinnati. I did a lot of everything.”
And then he hit the road again in 2006 with his latest old car when he was hired as a pro scout by the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I was still living in Cincinnati,” Arnold recalled. “You can get everywhere from there … To Alabama in eight hours … To Michigan … To Washington, D.C. … Over to Iowa. These are all within driving distance, right?
“I drove everywhere. We’re talking 50,000 miles a year in my little, green, Nissan Gremlin, with the bumper falling off and the window cracked. A power bar was melted into the front seat somewhere.”
He soaked it all in, learning from the old scouts that he’d sidle up to behind the backstops.
“It was a little bit of a leap to go from the front office out into the field, but it was a good experience,” he said. “I met so many people on the road. I learned how to evaluate from so many different people, writing hundreds of reports.”
Arnold’s travels even took him to Mexico to check out a slugger from Cuba. The only area large enough for the tryout presented several unique obstacles.
“I worked him out in a graveyard,” he said. “He was hitting balls off headstones. You’ve got to go where the players are.
“It is a challenge, working a guy out in a graveyard when there’s no track record and no stats to go by. You’ve got to know what you’re looking at, and that comes from experience. It’s hard to simulate that.”
It was all about “grinding” — a term he learned at UCSB. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in economics but also angled his studies toward a future in athletics.
“Jon Spaventa, Jim Romeo and Al Ferrer … Those guys were super-influential for me there,” Arnold said. “I would stay after the classes I took from them in my sports management minor and listen to them and pick their brains.”
He did it so well that UCSB named him as its Sport Management Student of the Year in 2000.
“I was pretty passionate about trying to work in sports,” Arnold said. “I just didn’t know what that looked like and had no idea about how to get into it. I just had to find a way to get there. Those guys were incredible for me.
“They gave me that advice: ‘You’ve got to grind when you don’t necessarily have a separator.’ I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I worked overtime and learned as much as I could from as many different people as I could until the opportunity presented itself.”
The Rays gave him his biggest break. General manager Erik Neander noticed the long hours that Arnold was logging and promoted him to scouting director, and then to director of player personnel.
“He had the work ethic of an intern trying to break into the game,” Neander said. “That’s never left him. Those things have been constant, no matter his role.”
Arnold also had a knack of seeing the value of a prospect beyond his toolset.
“I learned to look for how guys interact with their teammates, and what kind of leadership skills they have, what they bring to the clubhouse,” he said. “If you’re not going to be a very good teammate, you’d better be a really, really good player.
“How do they handle themselves with failure? How do they respond as a pitcher when they get hit around?”
David Stearns also took notice of Arnold, hiring him as one of his top lieutenants when he became the Brewers’ general manager in 2015.
“We immediately hit it off,” Arnold said. “I was fortunate to come into a real good opportunity.”
He combined the front-office education he got in the analytics of the game to what he’d seen behind the backstop during his travels as a scout.
“I think he’s ahead of the game in that regard,” Brewers’ bench coach Pat Murphy said. “The numbers to him are a resource, but his ability to relate to people is what’s incredible.”
It’s helped the Brewers advance to the playoffs three years in a row for the first time in club history.
“It’s something we’re really proud of,” Arnold said. “The Cardinals are always going to be tough. The Reds were really good last year.
“Our division is still really good, but we think we’re right there.”
Other baseball teams are taking notice of the up-and-coming mastermind from UCSB. The Los Angeles Angels interviewed Arnold for their general manager’s job during the offseason. Several other clubs made their own overtures.
The Brewers decided to act after the New York Mets began making inquiries about Stearns. They named him as president of baseball operations and promoted Arnold into his old position as GM and senior vice-president.
“We’ve operated in a partnership mentality for some time now, so I don’t really see much changing from a day-to-day perspective,” Stearns said. “I think we’re going to move forward much in the way we have, which is really working together on everything we do.
“That’s been one of the really rewarding aspects for both of us.”
Arnold does marvel about how far that 1977 Chevy Cheyenne and the little, green, Nissan Gremlin wound up taking him in two decades.
“Everybody takes their own pathway,” he said. “The thing that comes to mind is that you should just put yourself into play.”
And if you put in enough miles, you’ve got a chance of making it before the next sunrise.