GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Baseball’s version of the Cuban revolution began July 1, 2009, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, of all places. Aroldis Chapman walked out of a hotel where he was staying for an international tournament, jumped into a car, fled to freedom and birthed a half-billion-dollar industry.
Long before Chapman, of course, Cuban baseball players defected to the United States with occasional success. His arrival was different. He possessed a left arm that eventually would throw a baseball harder than any human being ever had been clocked. His finest years weren’t behind him, either. Chapman was the young potential superstar whose $30 million contract alerted a generation of tremendous players that riches awaited them.
Teams have guaranteed $500.5 million to the 13 highest-paid Cuban players since Chapman arrived. From Jose Abreu to Yoan Moncada, Yasiel Puig to Yasmany Tomas, Yoenis Cespedes to Jorge Soler, the influx of Cubans has changed baseball. None thanks him, exactly, because, Chapman said, “You don’t talk about what you did or what you left behind.” Which, it was pointed out to Chapman, is rather sad.
“No,” he said, “that’s Cuban.”
More than five years after Chapman arrived here with Cincinnati – a city as unlikely as Rotterdam to etch itself into his career tableau – he still exudes the mystery that shrouded him when he arrived. He’s 27, at the height of his baseball powers, coming off one of the finest relief seasons in history, fueled by a fastball whose average velocity topped 100 mph. He’s also the target of lawsuits and the subject of an Eli Saslow story last year that showed him to be a bored, late-sleeping, Marlboro Red-smoking shut-in, the sort whose professional achievement is even more impressive considering.
For all of the personal drama, nothing compared to what happened a year ago Friday. Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez rocketed a fastball back up the middle and hit Chapman square in the face. The ball ricocheted all the way off the field, the sound sickening, like a rotten melon being dropped. Chapman fell to the ground and kicked his legs. Fearing the worst was easy. Considering how bad the incident looked, Chapman’s Instagram photo of staples running from ear to ear was quite encouraging, if a little gory.
Chapman won’t talk about it. Not the line drive – “el golpe,” or the blow, as his translator, Reds trainer Tomas Vera, called it – nor its aftereffects. “It’s over,” Vera said. “He’s good.” And while it’s over, and he may be good, it was still one of the defining moments of his life, something with an unanswered question. All those years of inflicting fear in others with the sheer velocity at which Chapman threw, here was the script flipped, the speed back at him, bones in his face broken, only to step back on the mound and do what he does better than he’d ever done.
“That’s because he’s him,” Vera explained. “He’s a completely different human being. He’s not like us. It takes a special human being to accept what happened to him.”
Nearly four years ago, Marlon Byrd took a 93-mph Alfredo Aceves fastball to the face. Getting hit, he said, wasn’t the worst part.
“Me not being able to see out of my left eye for 10 minutes was,” said Byrd, the Reds’ new left fielder. “This is how I look at it: We either go out there and do our job, or someone else will. This is what we have to do. We’re ballplayers.”
It’s how Chapman cares to define himself today. He remains a physical specimen: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, not the lean-and-lithe kid who arrived with the Reds in 2010 but a muscled man bearing the look of someone who can throw at supersonic speeds. Once doctors extracted the staples from his head, Chapman returned May 11 and proceeded to strike out the side, one of a dozen times he would in 2014. In only two of his 54 appearances did Chapman not record a strikeout. He totaled 106 punchouts, his strikeout rate of 17.67 per nine innings a major league record, and after his second outing, he didn’t allow a home run.
“Every player wants to be the best,” Chapman said. “Every day I want to be the best. Every day I have to do something better. Every day I want something more, more, more.”
More won’t be on the radar gun. Chapman doesn’t believe he can throw any harder – his next Lamborghini will stick with the time-tested MPH105 license plate instead of an MPH106 – but that, at this point, would just be showing off. Between Chapman and Craig Kimbrel – he of the career 1.43 ERA over 289 innings – baseball has seen perhaps its finest three-season stretches from any relief pitcher. They are peers, equals, two anomalies at a time when hard throwers’ elbow ligaments snap with regularity.
Other pieces of Chapman’s life, he said, are on the upswing as well. “I have my family,” he said. “I’ve got everything. I enjoy every minute. I can’t ask for more in life.” And on Oct. 16, according to court documents reviewed by Yahoo Sports, Chapman and the men who filed a civil lawsuit against him accusing that he helped Cuban authorities jail them to avoid penalties for trying to defect agreed to a joint motion to dismiss, almost always indication of a settlement.
If that means he can finally focus on baseball, all the better for Chapman. He’ll run into Puig, Tomas, Soler and others, all scions of his decision, and try to strike them out just like he does every other hitter.
“I always work to be the best,” Chapman said. “Every year I work with my mind set on that. Can I do it again? I don’t know. You can’t predict that. You have to be on the field. And that will tell you if it’s true.”
So far, his fastball hasn’t lied. It’s hard and raw and pure, no subterfuge to it, no mystery about it. Just a pitch that sparked a revolution.
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