May 2, 2010: Chasing his dream a lonely pursuit for Chapman

Cuban pitching phenom Aroldis Chapman confronts both batters and the reality that he may never see his family again

May 2, 2010

Morgan Campbell, Sports Reporter

BUFFALO, N.Y.—Baseball’s the easy part for Aroldis Chapman.

The Cuban pitching prodigy has dominated stateside batters, totalling 22 strikeouts against just 14 hits in his first 21 innings with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

But learning how to live without his family is much more difficult.

Aroldis Chapman meets with the media before a game in Buffalo.

Last July, Chapman walked away from Cuba’s national team and into the most intense bidding war ever waged over a Cuban free agent, eventually joining the Cincinnati Reds for six years and $30 million (U.S.). The cash allows him to dress more nicely than his Triple-A teammates but it doesn’t make him any less lonely for the loved ones left behind in communist Cuba.

He speaks with his family daily but hasn’t seen them since last June, and has only glimpsed his 10-month-old daughter, Ashanti Brianna, in photos emailed by his girlfriend.

It hurts, but Chapman acknowledges that when he chose to chase his major-league dreams, he also chose estrangement.

“It’s tough to live without them. I’m practically alone in this country and that makes it really hard,” said Chapman, addressing media in Buffalo before Monday’s start against the Bisons. “But that’s life. I’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Right now he’s moving full speed toward the major leagues.

Blue Jays shortstop prospect Adeiny Hechavarria saw Chapman’s potential in Cuba’s National Series, when he was a rookie with Santiago and Chapman a rising star with Holguin. Hechavarria drilled a line drive past Chapman’s ear the first time they faced off, but he knew the lanky left-hander had special talent.

“He has a lot of tools and a lot of velocity,” Hechavarria said. “Facing him was very difficult.”

Indianapolis Indians third baseman Pedro Alvarez agrees.

Ten days ago, Alvarez stepped in against Chapman and before he could even swing, the fireballing southpaw had him down 0-2 with a changeup and a knee-buckling 93-m.p.h. slider.

Behind those two pitches Chapman didn’t even need his triple-digit heat — he struck Alvarez out staring at a 99-m.p.h. fastball.

Those three pitches displayed the raw ability that has made Chapman Cuba’s hottest prospect in years, and the growing control that earned him eight-figure contract offers from several teams, including the Jays.

Louisville manager Rick Sweet marvels at how quickly Chapman has adapted to a new league and lifestyle.

“He picks up things, he learns fast and he’s been a very good worker,” Sweet said. “This has got to be an unbelievable shock to him and he has handled it very well.”

Before the opener of every Bats series, Chapman addresses media members accompanied by mentor, translator and team trainer Tomas Vera, and he exudes the same cool with reporters as he exhibits on the mound, parrying prickly questions and answering the rest easily.

His poise isn’t surprising. Playing high-level baseball under the Castro regime inured him to intense scrutiny, and the last two years have provided enough drama to last a career.

An attempt to leave Cuba in March 2008 ended with his arrest, a face-to-face reprimand from President Raul Castro and a national team suspension that kept him out of the Beijing Olympics.

Reinstated in time for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Chapman flashed the fluid pitching motion and 102-m.p.h. fastball that made pro scouts drool, and in July he successfully fled. During a tournament in Holland, he ducked out of the team hotel and into a friend’s waiting car and escaped to Spain.

From there he signed with Edwin Mejia, an unknown agent who had no other major-league clients, but who helped Chapman become a free agent.

Then, in November, Chapman abruptly dumped Mejia in favour of Rodney Fernandez, an employee of powerful agents Randy and Alan Hendricks. That agency fired Fernandez in February, when police investigated him in connection with the siphoning of $300,000 from the bank account of Angels star and Cuban expat Kendry Morales.

Chapman, however, remains with the Hendricks brothers and Mejia remains silent about how things ended with his former client.

“I wish Chapman success and hope he experiences good health,” Mejia said in a Facebook message. “Clearly, our efforts were vital to his becoming a(n) MLB pitcher.”

Similarly, Chapman no longer discusses details of his departure from Cuba, and when reporters ask about it, Sweet steers the conversation back to the baseball diamond.

There, Chapman has posted a 1.29 ERA, but he has also walked 12 batters in four appearances.

“In my first start there were pitches that worked well and some that were out of control,” Chapman said. “My last start was a lot better and up until now it has gone well. . . . I feel good about the pitches I have. The slider, the changeup, I have a lot of confidence in them.”

Copyright ©2010 Toronto Star

2 Responses to “May 2, 2010: Chasing his dream a lonely pursuit for Chapman”
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  1. […] after hitting 103 m.p.h. in his big-league debut last September, Cincinnati Reds southpaw Aroldis Chapman had been clocked as high as 106 m.p.h. in the first month of 2011 before poor control cut his […]

  2. […] A few months after he signed with the Reds he was apprenticing with Cincinnati’s triple-A affiliate and I drove to Buffalo to interview him about his transition to life in the U.S. […]

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