Commentary

New world of hope awaits Chapman

Confident Cuban pitching phenom dreams of fortune and fame as major leaguer

Updated: November 1, 2009, 1:05 AM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

BARCELONA, Spain -- As he sits under a starry night on the patio of a restaurant, Aroldis Chapman plays with a small, hand-held video camera used to record his workout from earlier that day. He punches at buttons with his unusually long, lean fingers -- which give the pitching phenom an advantage when spinning a curveball. Once Chapman discovers how to watch video on the camera, he is awestruck by the images of himself throwing a bullpen session. He stares for a few moments without saying a word.

Chapman then becomes enthralled with someone's iPhone, his current obsession. He wonders aloud how he can get one. Chapman swipes at the screen and asks if it's possible to download a chat application so he can converse with friends -- new ones from Spain, and old ones from Cuba. He looks at the iPhone with lust, like covetous major league scouts look at him.

"We can go to the United States and then buy an unblocked iPhone," says a friend. "But it will be a little bit more expensive."

There's an inherent innocence and endearing sweetness to the 21-year-old Chapman. The world, so big now since he defected from the Cuban national team almost a month ago, comes at him full force, like one of his 100 mph fastballs. Yet he can hardly get enough of it. His appetite for all new things is immense.

Chapman often eats two steaks at a time for dinner. He plays video games until the early hours of the morning. He sleeps each day past noon. He enjoys going to discos. He likes designer jeans and big clunky watches that conspicuously sit on his wrist like a wall clock.

He's awestruck by fast, fancy cars. He likes long, thick gold chains that hang around his thin neck. He listens to his agent's fiancée's iPod for hours.

Chapman is fascinated by technology. Mostly, he enjoys the things he's never had.

Chapman is almost certainly the 21 years old he claims to be. He has the passport and the youthful bravado to prove it.

"I want to be the best pitcher in the world," he brashly proclaims. "I'm not yet. But with work I can be."

Chapman wants it all and soon he will be able to get it. At some point a major league team will give him a contract somewhere in the $40 million to $100 million range. But will he be better for it? Will all the newness the world offers overwhelm and change him?

After failing in his first attempt to defect in the spring of 2008, Chapman on July 1 walked out of his hotel in Rotterdam, Netherlands -- where the Cuban national team was playing in the World Port Tournament -- climbed into the passenger seat of a car driven by an acquaintance, and was whisked away. In Cuba, he left behind his father, mother, two sisters, girlfriend and newborn baby, whom he's never seen in person. Immediately, Chapman became the most coveted amateur baseball player in the world.

In the ensuing moments after his defection, a conflict for the ages began -- the fight for Chapman's soul.

"What was I supposed to do?"

The sun had begun to set on Playa Blanca, on the southeast coast of Cuba, one particular day in March 2008 when two blue lights first appeared on the horizon, swirling in the air like beacons from a lighthouse. From a distance, inside a small, shanty-like beach house, it was not clear what the lights were, but even a first-time defector like Aroldis Chapman knew the blue lights weren't a good sign.

A few days earlier, an acquaintance of Chapman's from near his hometown of Cayo Mambi, in the province of Holguin, had approached him and offered a chance at millions of dollars, riches that Chapman couldn't even imagine. Chapman lived with five family members in a small, three-room house with a roof that often leaked after a strong rainfall.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
Courtesy of Edwin Leonel MejiaA family friend is surrounded by Chapman's family -- his father, Juan Alberto Chapman Benett; his mother, Maria Caridad De La Cruz; and his two sisters, Yusmila and Yurixan.
Though Chapman was a budding star in the Cuban National Series for the Holguin Sabuesos and for the Cuban national team, he was not treated like one. In Holguin, Chapman spent his off days watching television on his family's old 34-inch set. When he was bored, he'd borrow his friend's bike, a rickety thing with bent wheels and broken pedals.

Chapman comes from a humble upbringing. Juan Alberto Chapman Benett and his wife, Maria Caridad De La Cruz, always hoped for great things from their son Albertin, whom they named after a Cuban movie star. But mostly everybody called Albertin by his middle name Aroldis (pronounced "AH-roll-dis"), which had been an uncle's name.

Chapman's father was a boxing trainer and then later worked for the city. His mother did not work. Chapman's paternal grandparents had emigrated from Jamaica to Cuba in order to get a better education, but even that move was not enough to turn the family's fortunes. The Chapmans, whose last name can be traced to English settlers in Jamaica in the late 1600s, were not a prominent family.

It did not take long for Aroldis Chapman to be intrigued by the acquaintance's plan to defect.

The man told Chapman he would need to get in a car, travel south to Playa Blanca and then wait in a beach house until nightfall. At that point, Chapman and several others, under the blanket of darkness, would get into a boat and sail to another country, toward freedom. From there, Chapman would be free to establish citizenship and play in the major leagues.

The plan seemed simple enough. Chapman said yes.

But as the blue lights began to get closer to the beach house, Chapman could see that they were mounted on top of a white, boxy car -- the familiar Lada, an export vehicle from Russia, Cuba's longtime ideological cousin -- often driven by police. Eventually, the police arrived and rounded up everybody, including the star baseball player.

"The first thing I thought," Chapman says, "was that my career was over."

The police took Chapman to his house, but soon afterward he was summoned to a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana. Chapman did not know what to expect. He feared the worst.

I knew that if they didn't allow me to play anymore, I would leave Cuba immediately. I mean what was I supposed to do? Baseball is the only thing I know.

-- Aroldis Chapman, after his first attempt to defect was thwarted
"I knew that if they didn't allow me to play anymore, I would leave Cuba immediately," Chapman says. "I mean, what was I supposed to do? Baseball is the only thing I know."

Instead, Chapman got a conditional reprieve. Castro suspended Chapman for the remainder of the National Series season and also kept him off Cuba's national team for the Beijing Olympics. But surprisingly, Chapman was allowed to return to the National Series this season and rejoin the national team in time for the World Baseball Classic.

No official reason was given for the decision, though it's widely believed that Castro, and his brother Fidel -- both from Holguin -- did not want to weaken their beloved hometown Sabuesos for too long. Also, without Chapman, Cuba's chances in the WBC seemed dim. So Chapman was brought back.

But that hardly appeased him. Though the government did not take away his career, Chapman did not emerge from the meeting feeling victorious. Instead, he became more determined to get out. He no longer wanted to be at the mercy of government men who hardly cared about his well-being while denying him the things in life he felt he deserved.

Soon after that day, Chapman made the decision to do everything he could to defect. He would remain loyal to the government and to his team until the perfect day arrived when he could leave.

Perhaps it was then, before his actual escape, when the fight for Chapman's soul began.

"I might never see them again"

In the spring of this year, the Cuban national team gathered in Havana to prepare for the World Port Tournament, a minor event that would serve as a precursor to the World Baseball Cup in September in Spain.

From the team that had been embarrassingly eliminated in the second round of the WBC, only five players traveled to the tournament in Rotterdam, and Chapman was among them.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
AP Photo/Gregory BullAroldis Chapman, who pitched for Cuba in the WBC, reportedly has thrown a 102-mph fastball.
Not that Chapman had distinguished himself at the WBC, either. Faced with a tight strike zone, Chapman crumbled against Japan and allowed three runs in just 2 1/3 innings. But Chapman was still considered the team's ace and was scheduled to pitch Cuba's first game in Holland.

By this time, Chapman had no plans to pitch. He was going to defect in Rotterdam.

"I thought that in that tournament it would be easier [to defect]," Chapman says. "There would be less security."

After the incident in Playa Blanca, men often approached Chapman and promised they could take him to freedom. Chapman refused each time. Though he's not certain, Chapman believes the police intercepted a cell phone call from one of the 10 people scheduled to leave that night on the boat. Chapman knew that with more people involved in the plot, the better chance there was of getting caught. So he told no one in Cuba of his plan, not even his family, nor his pregnant girlfriend of two years, Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas.

To fully mask his plan, Chapman prepared for the tournament as if he were actually going to pitch. Often during the middle of practice, Chapman wistfully looked at teammates and made sure to take in scenes that he could save in his memory.

"I thought more about spending time with my teammates because I might never see them again," Chapman says.

When the Cuban team boarded a plane for Holland on July 1, Chapman's stomach began to roil with nerves. He thought about the family he would leave behind. He thought about what his parents and sisters would think. Mostly, he worried about his girlfriend and their baby, Ashanti Brianna, who had been born just three days earlier on June 28 while Chapman was practicing in Havana.

Raidelmis and Chapman had met at a party almost two years ago. He had charmed her with a joke and the two instantly became a couple.

Chapman often calls her his wife even though they aren't legally married. Chapman says the best thing he could do for his new family was to defect.

"[The baby's birth] helped me to become more committed to the sport," he says. "I had to double my effort."

What complicated matters was that Chapman was not sure what day in Holland he would defect. Since he had not confided in others, Chapman did not have a solid plan.

The team passed through customs after arriving in Holland. For reasons that remain unexplained, the Cuban Baseball Federation did not follow protocol and confiscate players' passports. Instead, players held on to their passports as they arrived at the Domina Hotel in Rotterdam. Chapman had his opening.

With his passport, Chapman had two distinct advantages: He could prove his identity, and he could also establish residency more easily in another country, which was a key requirement in becoming a free agent.

The Cuban team arrived at the hotel, had lunch and then individually posed for tournament credential photos. Chapman then went upstairs to room 227 to hang out with his roommate, pitcher Vladimir Garcia.

"I started to think about everything, my family, the people I left behind, my friends," Chapman says. "I was thinking I would never see them again. That's when I made up my mind."

[+] EnlargeAroldis Champman- Girlfriend and Baby
Courtesy of Edwin Leonel MejiaAroldis Chapman hopes to be reunited with his girlfriend, Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas, and his daughter, Ashanti Brianna, who remain in Cuba.
Moments later, Chapman told Garcia that he was heading downstairs for a smoke. Chapman walked out of the room carrying just his passport and a pack of cigarettes. At some point during his short time at the hotel, Chapman called a friend with whom he had not spoken in some time, but whom he knew would be in Holland for the tournament. The friend told Chapman that he and another person would be waiting in a car outside the hotel.

Upon getting to the lobby, Chapman, expecting a crowd, noticed there was nobody to thwart his escape. Wearing a blue polo and blue, standard-issue adidas warm-up pants, Chapman then waited five minutes for his friends to arrive, walked out the hotel door without any interference, and hopped into the car.

It took two days for Chapman, with the whole baseball world wondering where he was, to get the nerve to call his girlfriend from Holland. Raidelmis worried she would never see Chapman again. He reassured her they would someday be reunited.

Chapman did not have the courage to speak to his parents until the day after he had spoken to his girlfriend.

"They did feel a little upset because of what I had done, but if I was fine, they were going to be fine," Chapman says.

Though his nerves still rankled him, Chapman spent his first four days of freedom partying in Amsterdam. The third day after Chapman's defection, Pedro*, a childhood friend from Cuba who was now living in the United States, arrived in Holland. Pedro was a junior college player who was being advised by Edwin Leonel Mejia, an agent with the relatively new firm of Athletes Premier International. Mejia arrived on Chapman's fourth day in Holland. On that day, Chapman signed a contract with Mejia, who was then certified by the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The next day, Chapman, Mejia, Pedro, Pedro's father (who also knew Chapman) and a bodyguard squeezed into a car and drove 22 hours straight through France to get to Barcelona, stopping only for meals.

What a sight it was for people along the French countryside to see dark-skinned Latino men hop out of a car to ask for a place to eat. Chapman chuckles at the thought of it. For those precious moments, freedom tasted like a baguette.

It was official: Chapman was a free agent.

"It almost doesn't seem real"

A small, gray sedan crackles onto the gravel parking lot of the Viladecans Baseball Stadium, a former Olympic stadium in a Barcelona suburb, on a late July afternoon. Three men are packed into the backseat. A husky man is driving the car. From the front passenger seat, Chapman emerges, listening to an iPod.

Chapman travels with the same group of people every day: Mejia, Pedro, Pedro's father and a bodyguard the group sarcastically calls "GPS" because of his tendency to frequently get lost. It's a tight-knit group -- all of them are Cuban, except for Mejia -- though outside forces are already threatening to break up this entourage.

A few days before ESPN's visit to Barcelona, an agent's representative arrived at Chapman's workout and tried to slip the pitcher a note. It was the first time an agent had been bold enough to send someone in person to speak to Chapman. Usually, agents or one of their minions call one of Chapman's friends. So far, Chapman has spurned all overtures from other agents and he promises to remain loyal to Mejia.

Aroldis Chapman
Courtesy of Jorge Arangure Jr.Aroldis Chapman is confident that he will be a successful major league pitcher.
Friends say loyalty is one of Chapman's best virtues. The first phone call Chapman made after his defection was to Pedro.

"It almost doesn't seem real he's here," Pedro says.

In fact, it was Pedro who first convinced Chapman to play organized baseball. One day Pedro's team needed a first baseman, so he called Chapman, who until then had been a boxer.

"He's loved baseball ever since," Pedro says.

Chapman trusts his friend unconditionally. The two are rarely apart. Without Pedro's endorsement, Chapman would have never picked Mejia, who has never represented a player on a major league team's 40-man roster. Chapman's relationship with Mejia seems safe as long as Pedro remains loyal to Mejia.

To protect Chapman, and really to protect himself as well, Mejia decided not to move Chapman to the Dominican Republic, where most defectors usually go.

"We didn't want him bothered," Mejia says. "We didn't want him harassed. We didn't want the poachers to be bothering him."

But temptation is everywhere. Chapman mostly practices in isolation, yet people around Viladecans Stadium began to show up once they found out ESPN was attending the workout. Chapman and Pedro quickly become distracted by two girls who end up in the dugout. The two Cubans chuckle and make jokes, like two underclassmen at a high school dance.

A year from now, there will be more people, more poachers, more girls, more money, more toys, more cars, more food, more everything. Really, the fight for Chapman's soul has only just begun.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

*Editor's Note: Pedro's name has been changed to protect his family in Cuba.