New world of hope awaits Chapman
Confident Cuban pitching phenom dreams of fortune and fame as major leaguer
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.
ESPN THE MAGAZINE
What does Aroldis Chapman know about the majors? How will he be showcased? Read more from Jorge Arangure Jr. about the Cuban left-hander in the August 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine by clicking here.
INSIDER: MORE ON CHAPMAN
"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.
“"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 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 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.
"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.
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