Need a LHP who throws 100 MPH?
Aroldis Chapman can name few of MLB's stars, but he'll soon join their ranks
This story appears in the August 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine. To see Outside the Lines' coverage of Chapman -- also by Jorge Arangure Jr -- please click here.
A black sport utility vehicle darts in and out of Barcelona traffic, maneuvering around pedestrians and racing past aggressive taxis during rush hour. Inside the SUV, Aroldis Chapman looks like a bobblehead as he bounces with each hard turn. He stares out the window at this majestic city, his home since he defected from Cuba last month. One particular structure, Las Arenas in Plaza de España -- the famed bullring in the middle of the city --piques his curiosity.
When he hears that this relic is being transformed into an entertainment complex, Chapman nods. He, too, is undergoing a transformation: from a poor amateur baseball player to an iPod-wearing, hip-hop-loving, commercial entity complete with entourage and publicity firm.
"Is this the place where they have the running of the bulls?" Chapman asks in Spanish. He's told that happens in Pamplona. "Man, I don't understand that," he says, shaking his head. "Those people are crazy." Someone in the car jokes that perhaps Chapman is loco for leaving Cuba's league, the Serie Nacional, to face the likes of Albert Pujols, who may be even scarier than a bull. "Pujols?" he says. "Who is that?"
Chapman, who had little TV access to professional games back in Cuba, knows even less about major league baseball than major league baseball knows about him. The one thing MLB scouts do know is that this 21-year-old prospect can fling a baseball harder than any other lefthanded pitcher in the world. Like this year's No. 1 draft pick, righthander Stephen Strasburg, Chapman has been clocked at an astounding 102 mph, which could earn him the largest contract ever given to a Cuban defector. "He's not major league ready," says one National League scout who's seen Chapman several times. "At the same time, how many guys throw 100 mph? And for-real 100 mph, not just because the scoreboard is jacked."
Chapman's handlers in the nascent sports agency Athletes Premier International see him as a transcendent figure, a player for the ages who can spark interest in America, Latin America and perhaps even in Europe, which is likely to become his new home. Edwin Leonel Mejia, Chapman's agent, won't confirm that the pitcher will establish residency in Barcelona, but since that's where he lives and trains, it seems like a safe assumption. He's been here since he walked out of the Cuban national team's hotel during a tournament in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Prior to a TV taping with ESPN in late July, Chapman's first major interview since leaving Cuba, Mejia reminds him to mention his love of soccer superpower FC Barcelona, envisioning a future commercial partnership. One of Chapman's first purchases after arriving in town was a Barcelona jersey with his name and his No. 52 on the back. "I really like FC Barcelona and athletes like Messi," Chapman says with a toothy grin when the camera rolls. "I'd really like to meet them."
The marketing of Aroldis Chapman, to major league teams and to the world, has begun.
On the outskirts of Barcelona, Chapman starts a bullpen session at Viladecans Baseball Stadium, where Cuba's gold medal-winning team played in the 1992 Olympics. It's now the home of a local semipro club. The kid is a sight to see, a 6'4", 185-pound bundle of elongated fingers, arms and legs. The baseball comes out of his hand like a rock snapped out of a slingshot, pounding the catcher's glove with great force, causing a loud "thwack" that echoes throughout the empty stadium.
At this point, the baseball world mostly considers Chapman a thrower rather than a pitcher. During the workout, his fastballs land in the middle of the strike zone, but when he begins to unleash his breaking stuff, several coaches move away from the backstop to avoid getting hit by balls bouncing off the catcher. The curveballs that do hit their target, however, drop several inches. Like many Cuban pitchers, Chapman has a vast repertoire: two-seam fastball, cut fastball, curve, slider, splitter and two or three kinds of changeups. But unlike many Cuban pitchers who throw a lot of junk (see: Liván and Orlando Hernández), the flamethrowing Chapman needs to master only one or two off-speed pitches to be effective in the majors. Right now scouts rate his secondary pitches as merely average, which is understandable considering he began to throw them less than five years ago.
As a young kid, Chapman was a boxer, trained by his father. He started playing baseball at age 11 and was a first baseman until 15, when his team one day needed someone to take the mound. He rarely played first base again. "In Cuba, the first thing they teach you is how to throw the fastball," he says. "I was a fast learner."
By age 17, Chapman was Cuba's best pitching prospect. His coaches spent a lot of time developing his talent, and he became a regular on the national team and a star in the Serie Nacional. Though his career record was a tepid 24-21, Chapman twice led the league in strikeouts. But his ERA has jumped the past three seasons, from a career-best 2.77 in 2006-07 to 3.94 last season. "He is a premium arm but doesn't yet have the polish to be a star in the major leagues, which is what you would be paying for," says one American League team executive. "His command would have to dramatically improve. He can do that, but there will be no more blowing away every hitter who comes to the plate."
Still, Chapman's velocity is intoxicating. Nearly all of baseball's big-money teams -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Cubs -- figure to at least kick the tires once he officially becomes a free agent. One high-ranking executive of a club that has interest says that before entering the bidding he'll need a lot more information, including Chapman's injury history, maturity level, family situation and proof of age. And, of course, big league scouts want to see him throw in person.
Team Chapman says that MLB reps can visit him in Barcelona, but that he doesn't plan to work out for them. And Mejia, a relative unknown who hooked up with Chapman post-defection through a Cuban friend, says the phenom doesn't want to start his career in the minors. But if a club is to cough up $30 million or more, Team Chapman may have to adjust. "I would be shocked if people did not have to see this guy pitch before they invested," says an AL executive. "We don't exactly have access to scout the games in Cuba. So why would he not want to throw?" That's a question that will need to be answered. As for the other issues, Chapman has a passport that lists him as 21, and he claims to have never been seriously injured. His four years in the Serie Nacional indicate a healthy run, with his innings increasing to a high of 132e last season. But his maturity level was questioned after his meltdown against Japan in this year's World Baseball Classic (three runs, three walks in just 2e innings). Several times, he walked around the mound in anger after ball-strike calls. "I wasn't accustomed to this style of umpiring," Chapman says. "I think Cuban ballplayers have one defect that we must improve: We argue too much about pitches."
Even more complicated than his demeanor is Chapman's family situation. Back in Cuba he has a newborn daughter, Ashanti Brianna, with his girlfriend of two years, Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas. The baby was born on June 28, three days before Chapman defected, and he has never met her. He also left behind his parents, Juan Alberto Chapman Benett and Maria Caridad De La Cruz, and two sisters, Yusmila and Yurixan. "I miss them a great deal, but you have to know how to recover and move on," says Aroldis, who hopes one day to be reunited with all of them. "I took this step and had to move forward. I can't go back."
On July 1, the day Chapman defected, the Cuban national team arrived in Rotterdam, passed through customs and headed to the Domina Hotel shortly after 1 p.m. For reasons unknown, the Cuban Baseball Federation did not confiscate passports. "Allowing players to hold their passports all the way to the hotel is a major departure from prior Cuban security protocol," says Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has represented several Cuban players. "In the past, they would be forced to surrender their passports as soon as they cleared customs."
Once at the hotel, the team had lunch. At around 2 p.m., Chapman went to Room 227, said hello to roommate Vladimir García and told him he was going down to the lobby to have a cigarette. The entire time, Chapman kept his passport in his pocket. Because this was a minor tournament, he figured security would be minimal, but being able to keep his passport was an unexpected bonus.
This wasn't his first attempt to defect. In March 2008, Chapman was caught in Cuba before he could get on a boat. As punishment, he was left off the Olympic team that won the silver medal in Beijing. But in Rotterdam, there was no extra security monitoring him. After five minutes in the lobby, he simply walked out the door, got into the passenger seat of a car (he won't say who was driving) and sped away a free man. Days later, Chapman, Mejia and two other friends drove 15 hours to Barcelona. With his passport, Chapman was easily able to pass from the Netherlands to Belgium to France to Spain. "I think God helped me because they didn't collect the passports," he says.
Chapman's passport, issued on April 18, 2007, appears authentic. It's a road map of his playing career. A green sheet of paper affixed inside reflects his participation in the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil, when he debuted for the Cuban national team. And there's a red-white-and-blue sheet issued on Feb. 17, 2009, that reads: "09 World Baseball Classic. Cuba Delegation (Team Member)." Most important for Chapman, the passport should expedite the process for his free agency.
For now, the man without a country practices two hours a day, five days a week at Viladecans Stadium. When he was with the Cuban national team, Chapman and his teammates did calisthenics in a choreographed synchronicity worthy of a Broadway musical. On this July day at Viladecans, he stretches solo -- a striking scene that truly demonstrates how he no longer represents anyone or anything other than himself.
Never before has such a prospect from Cuba arrived at such a tender age. For that reason alone, Chapman could land a deal that eclipses countryman José Contreras' $32 million contract, the record for a Cuban player. When the Yankees gave Contreras that deal, in February 2003, he was much more established than Chapman. Contreras was also 31 and past his prime.
Although Chapman considers himself a shy, introverted person, his charisma is obvious, which could lead to endorsement opportunities. During the WBC, he wasn't allowed to give interviews, but he would smile at reporters and sign autographs for fans. In Barcelona, though nervous at first, he quickly became comfortable in front of a camera. He is always polite, thanks people for their time and shakes their hands.
Very soon Chapman will gain legal residency outside the United States, which will allow Mejia to apply formally for free agency. After an MLB investigation confirms Chapman's age and residency, Mejia can then inform all 30 teams of the pitcher's availability -- and the bidding will begin. If all goes well, perhaps as early as next season Chapman will pitch against the likes of Pujols, Big Papi and, yes, even that shortstop on the Yankees. Or maybe he'll be Derek Jeter's teammate. No matter where Chapman winds up, he has one clear goal in mind:
"I want to be the best pitcher in the world."
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can read his thrice-weekly blog on Latina baseball, La Esquina, by clicking here.
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