Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman remains a mystery -- and a risk
Chapman, 21, is a rarity: a left-handed pitcher who throws 100 miles per hour
The Yankees and Red Sox have been mentioned as teams in on the bidding
He recently changed agents to Hendricks brothers, who also rep Kendry Morales
What's it worth? Aroldis Chapman had tossed the question around in his mind more times than he could count. What was it worth to leave everything he had ever known for all that he didn't, he would wonder -- but never aloud.
Talking, Chapman figured out, was what had gotten him in trouble the first time. In his initial defection attempt, there were too many people involved, which meant too much talk, and too much talk meant too much risk. Cuban authorities had caught wind of his escape before he had even set foot offshore.
This time he knew better than to breathe a word of his plan to anyone, including his pregnant girlfriend, who rested beside him for what could be the last time in a long time.
"What would you do," he asked her, "if I didn't come back?"
Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas' hands circled the baby in her belly.
"Stop talking nonsense," she said.
Days later, Ashanti Brianna Chapman was born, but Aroldis was already gone from Holguín. For good.
What's it worth to forgo holding your baby or hearing her laugh? "I knew I wouldn't meet my daughter for a long time, but I thought it was what I had to do," Chapman says now. "I made my decision."
On July 1, the 21-year-old had been in his Rotterdam hotel room no more than an hour after the team had landed for the World Port Tournament when he grabbed a pack of cigarettes and told his roommate he was going for a smoke. He felt for his passport in his pocket and headed out the hotel doors to where a car waited for him, just as planned. He jumped in the passenger seat and closed the door. By shutting that door, he opened countless others, to an eventual bidding war in which several major league teams, virtually sight unseen, are now deciding whether to ante up millions in hopes that Chapman will be that rarity: the heralded Cuban defector who lives up to his tantalizing hype.
Nearly two years earlier, at the age of 19, Chapman had announced his arrival by pitching a standout game in the second round of the 2007 World Cup in Taipei. He followed that up with a stellar outing in the semis seven days later. He was a scout's dream: Here stood a 6-foot-4, 185-pound, teenage lefty who had just struck out 20 batters in 15 innings over two starts.
"He's a left-handed pitcher who throws 100 miles per hour," says one international scout with two decades of experience. "You can travel the world and not find that."
A year and a half after Chapman's World Cup appearance, MLB scouts had their radar guns trained on him at the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Mexico and the U.S. They had all seen or heard about his show in Japan and now they longed for an encore. Also trained on him were the watchful eyes of those looking to help him defect -- and those of the Cuban authorities making sure he didn't.
Before he had thrown his first pitch of the Classic, the legend of Aroldis Chapman had been created. And, some would argue, so had the myth.
What's it worth to drop the familiar for the unknown? Chapman has spent most of his life confronting that question. It had popped up a dozen years before he would defect, when the neighborhood kids in the province of Holguín (north of Guantanamo, on the island's eastern shore), short one player for their baseball game, spied nine-year-old Aroldis. His long, lanky limbs suggested "first baseman," and they asked what seemed like the most innocuous of questions: Wanna play?
Aroldis' father, Juan Alberto Chapman Benett, trained boxers. He and his son had spent hours on end learning how to throw punches, not baseballs. But nine innings after filling in at first base, the little pugilist was forever a pelotero (baseball player).
The freshly minted ballplayer soon began dreaming of making Cuba's vaunted national team. Like almost every other kid on the island, he looked up to right-hander Jose Contreras, whom Cuban leader Fidel Castro dubbed El Titan de Bronce (the Bronze Titan) after he struck out 13 batters in 18 innings -- on one day's rest -- to beat the U.S. in the 1999 Pan Am Games championship. But unlike almost every other kid, Aroldis showed the ability to match his aspirations. Cuba did what it usually does with athletic potential and sent him to a school where he learned about math and science along with base running and situational hitting. His height and his reach made him a natural fit for first base, his primary position ever since he picked up a baseball. All of that changed one day in 2003 when, at age 15, Aroldis took infield practice.
His throws had always smacked the glove harder than most. But on this day, as he scooped up the ball and launched it across the field just as always did, a passing pitching coach noticed that Aroldis had an awfully strong arm to be mainly tossing the ball back to the pitcher between plays. The coaches pulled Aroldis to the side and told him he would be taking the mound. By the following day, he was a pitcher.
What's it worth to get Chapman off the island and into the majors? The smugglers who offered to help him defect that spring day in 2008 could only imagine. Six years earlier, in 2002, Contreras received the most money ever given to a Cuban when the New York Yankees signed him for $31 million over four years -- and that was during a time when the Yankees said they were cutting payroll. For all that Contreras was in Cuba -- righty, powerful, proven --Chapman countered with his left-handedness, youth and projection. So what if he had just come off a losing season, finishing 6-7 in Cuba's highest league, the National Series? He could do what only a precious few current big leaguers (Randy Johnson, CC Sabathia and Billy Wagner) can: throw a left-handed, triple-digit fastball.
It was worth it for Aroldis Chapman to try to get out.
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