Great article by Jorge Ortiz of USA Today...
Cuban defector Chapman, 22, sparks hype, hope for Reds
By Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, the father of three young kids, was extolling the joys of having a family when he asked new teammate Aroldis Chapman six lockers away about his relatives.
Chapman, a left-hander who signed a six-year, $30.25 million contract seven months after defecting in July, said his family stayed in his native Cuba.
"You don't have anybody here?" asked Cueto, who hails from the Dominican Republic.
"No, I'm by myself here."
"You have to bring your family. It's good to be with your family, your mom. Do you have any kids?"
"A girl. I haven't met her."
"You haven't met her?"
"No, because she was born right when I was leaving."
Then the starting pitchers, centerpieces of the Reds' plans to bolster their rotation and build around youth, showed each other cellphone pictures of their kids.
Their Spanish-language conversation captures some of the challenges Chapman faces in living up to the Reds' hopes and the considerable hype building around him.
Baseball fans have been hearing about his 100-mph fastball since last year's World Baseball Classic, when Chapman pitched for the Cuban national team.
Many have followed the saga of the promising pitcher who walked away from his past during an amateur tournament in the Netherlands, became a free agent and landed with the Reds, a small-market team that stunned observers by outbidding the competition.
Frequently mentioned but less appreciated are the off-field difficulties inherent in making such a drastic life change: learning a new language and culture, adjusting to new food and surroundings, plus accepting that a family reunion might be a long time in coming.
Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez left Cuba with his wife and kids in 2007, but the rest of his family stayed behind, and he still feels their absence.
"You wonder how well they're eating back home, what they lack for," Ramirez says. "And you always need your dad's embrace, your mom's caress. We have everything, but we miss those little things that are more important."
Chapman left his girlfriend, Raidelmis Mendosa, and their 8-month-old daughter, Ashanti Brianna, in addition to his parents and two older sisters.
"At first it was hard not to see them, because I had never spent so much time away from my house. I had always lived with them," Chapman, 22, says in Spanish. "But I'm getting used to it now. When I'm alone and start thinking about my family, I can call them. I'm getting accustomed to being independent."
The Reds have tried to make the transition easier by assigning former major league reliever and Class A pitching coach Tony Fossas, also a Cuban native, to serve as Chapman's "guardian" and interpreter during spring training.
The club's numerous Hispanic players — including first-base prospect Yonder Alonso, who left Cuba at 11 — also provide a support system. And it helps that manager Dusty Baker speaks Spanish.
"It also helps I played with a number of Cuban players," Baker says. "I think I understand the culture possibly as well or better than most people around."
Ultimately, it's up to Chapman to assimilate. English still is a foreign concept, but he seems increasingly comfortable with his teammates, even those who don't speak Spanish. He has also embraced some of the trappings of American life, including rap music, fancy shoes and iPhones. He has yet to buy a car.
"Not everybody has a car in Cuba," Chapman says. "It's not like here where teenagers have cars. Life's very different. There, if you need to go someplace, you take the bus. Here, you jump in your car."
Major league changes
Impressive spring workouts have caught his teammates' attention and buoyed Chapman's spirits and probably his chances of making the team, although early indications are he will open the season in the minors to ease his adjustment.
Chapman pitched a scoreless inning in an intrasquad game Thursday, his first game action in more than eight months, and will make his Cactus League debut Monday against the Kansas City Royals.
He's facing significant changes from the type of game he's used to.
"In Cuba, you get ready to play 90 games. Here, you get ready for 162," says Royals catcher Brayan Pena, who defected at 17. "In Cuba, the starters pitch every six days. Here, it's every five. He's got the talent. He just needs to learn the game here, study opposing hitters, watch lots of video, read the scouting reports. You don't have that in Cuba."
Chapman already has debunked some of the early perceptions about him, including questions about his secondary pitches and receptiveness to coaching.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, who is building the club around a foundation of young pitching in hopes of ending a stretch of nine consecutive losing seasons, suggests those doubts might have been spread by teams competing for his services. Jocketty points out that, besides the crackling fastball, Chapman has shown a sharp slider and an improved curve and changeup.
Fossas says Chapman fixed a flaw in his mechanics after a quick glance at the television.
"He told me he'd never seen himself on video, but one time in Cuba he was watching the news and he saw himself make one pitch, and based on that he was able to correct his mechanics," Fossas says. "That was the big difference between what we'd heard, that he didn't throw strikes, and what we're seeing now."
For all of the raves, there have been some stumbles.
Chapman displayed little maturity in a WBC game against Japan when, upset over ball-strike calls, he visibly fumed on the mound. His stats for the tournament: a 0-1 record and a 5.68 ERA in 6⅓ innings over two starts.
Even Ramirez, who played with Chapman for two years on the Cuban national team and predicts he'll become a star in short order, says Chapman will have to learn to control his emotions on the field.
"He can't get upset with the umpires," Ramirez says. "That's something he'll need to deal with, because the strike zone here is tighter."
In November, Chapman fired his original agent, Edwin Mejia, who helped him establish residency in the small European country of Andorra to facilitate his free agency. He's represented by Hendricks Sports Management, which Mejia's agency, Athletes Premier International (API), sued in December, alleging "malicious interference." SI.com reported Tuesday that the parties have reached an out-of-court settlement.
The sudden switch in representation raised red flags around baseball, though perhaps not as much as photos that made the Internet rounds showing Chapman alongside lingerie-clad women at a Boston club. They were posted on the API Facebook page, and Chapman says the episode marked the breaking point in a relationship that was starting to sour.
"People might have thought I was partying all the time," Chapman says. "I only went because his (Mejia's) friends invited him and they said they wanted to meet me. So I said OK and went, and look what happened."
If Chapman has been partying frequently, his lean, athletic body has yet to show the effects. At 6-4, 185 pounds, and with huge hands, he has the kind of build that can fling high-velocity fastballs with little apparent effort.
His youth and fresh arm set him apart from previous Cuban pitchers who reached the majors past their prime, such as Jose Contreras, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Rene Arocha, all of whom logged heavy innings before defecting.
Chapman, who converted from first base to pitching at 15, threw 341⅔ innings in four-plus seasons in Cuba's National Series, making him less prone to future injury. His overall record was 24-21 with a 3.72 ERA and two strikeout titles but also 210 walks.
"When Dr. (Timothy) Kremchek did the physical and did the MRI of the shoulder and the elbow, he said it was unbelievable how pristine it was," Jocketty says.
Chapman's mind is relatively fresh as well, at least when it comes to life in the USA, where he has lived for about five months. His biggest surprise has been his newfound freedom to express his thoughts without fear of governmental repercussion.
"It's a relief not to have to worry that this guy might be watching you or that the other one might be listening to what you say so he can pass it along," Chapman says. "I don't have to worry about that anymore."