NEW YORK – Aroldis Chapman simply left his room at the Domina Hotel in Rotterdam last July and went down to the lobby. The Cuban pitcher's defection during a tournament in the Netherlands lacked any of the drama a movie scriptwriter would want. "It was pretty straightforward," he recalled. "I just walked out of the hotel, got in the car and left."
Separated from his parents, sisters, girlfriend and an infant daughter he's never seen, the 21-year-old left-hander with a 100 mph fastball embarked for a career in the major leagues.He is being courted by the New York Yankees and Mets, the Boston Red Sox and likely other clubs. Team executives say figures of $15 million to $50 million have been mentioned, but no one really is sure of a possible price for a pitcher who has never been on a U.S. professional team.
"He's a once-every-40-years player," says Chapman's agent, Edwin Mejia.Chapman was all blinged out during a 45-minute interview Thursday at the office of The Associated Press, wearing a large, shiny watch and gleaming earrings. He gained attention during the World Baseball Classic in March, when he pitched well against Australia and badly against Japan.
Then he contacted a friend from Cuba before the World Port Tournament, an event that included the national teams of Cuba and the Netherlands, and Japanese and Taiwanese teams that mixed minor leaguers and industrial players.
Afraid of leaks, he didn't tell any of his family members — not even pregnant girlfriend Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas — that he intended to defect."I only spent one hour at the hotel thinking about what to do. I made the decision, stepped away from the hotel and got into the car," he said. "Everything was planned from a few months before the tournament. I discussed the idea with a friend and made the decision to do it — never thought about doing it during the Classic. It was something that I was seeking before the Classic, but I didn't want to do it in the Classic."
He spoke by telephone with his family within a day of his defection, and he's spoken with them frequently. His daughter, Ashanti Brianna, was born a few days before he walked out of the Rotterdam hotel and started a journey that led him through Spain and to tiny Andorra in the Pyrenees, where Chapman established the residency that allowed him to become a free agent under baseball's rules. If he had become a U.S. resident, he would have become subject to the amateur draft.
Cuban pitchers have been successful in the major leagues, although none has risen to the elite group in recent years. Half-brothers Livan Hernandez, with a record of 156-151, and Orlando Hernandez (90-65), and Jose Contreras (71-63) have achieved the most fame in the past decade.
When asked which pitcher he most resembles, Chapman didn't pick one of his countrymen but instead said 6-foot-10 left-hander Randy Johnson. Chapman got a short taste of what the major leagues are like when he sat in the stands last month for Game 6 of the AL championship series at Yankee Stadium.
"I would think of what pitch would I throw this batter and things of that sort," he said. "There were many that were the same as what I was thinking. There were a few that weren't, but not all pitchers are the same and some think differently. I can maybe depend on my fastball a little more than some other pitchers."
He showed a raw talent at the WBC, where he was 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA over two appearances. He struck out eight but walked four in 6 1-3 innings, allowing four runs and six hits. While his stats were mediocre, he fastball impressed. He says he also throws a curveball, slider, changeup and splitter.
"My best pitch is my fastball," he said confidently. "It's probably the most difficult pitch to hit. In my case, batters have very little reaction time." Yet, he knows there is work to be done.
"I feel that I need to improve a bit my control, but not so in the execution of the pitches," he said. "I feel that I have sufficient repertoire to pitch in the major leagues. I don't foresee problems to play in the major leagues."
Yet, he knows he'll have to prove himself again on the spring training fields of Florida or Arizona. "If a team wants me to go to the minors to get ready and prepare, that's what I'm going to do and I will show that I should be pitching in the major leagues," he said.
He was a first baseman primarily until he was 15 or 16, when a school pitching coach suggested a change. By the 2005 season, he was 18 and pitching for Holguin in the Cuban national league. Chapman is expecting one very big difference in the major leagues — one he's already noticed while in New York the past few weeks.
"I don't like the cold," he said. "But as along as you warm up properly and you build up a nice sweat and keep your body warm, your arm warm and loose, you should be fine." As far as the fans, he says they're pretty much the same, except for the language.
"They're loud. They yell things at you," he said. "I just don't know what they're saying here.
Source: By RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer
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