By Josh Cook
On July 1, 2009 a 21-year-old Cuban pitcher with rocket for left arm walked out of a hotel in Rotterdam, Netherlands and stepped into a waiting car driven by a friend. Aroldis Chapman, arguably the best southpaw pitching prospect in the world, was defecting.
Chapman, who came from meager surroundings (he lived with five family members in a three-room house) in the communist country, had first tried to do so in spring of 2008, but those plans had been thwarted by Cuban police. That led to Cuban President Raul Castro requesting a meeting with Chapman and led to his suspension from Cuba’s baseball league and his being left off the country’s 2008 Olympic team. However he was allowed to return to Cuba’s National Series (its baseball league) in 2009 and play for the country’s national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, in which Cuba played in Mexico and California. A few months later, when Cuba was playing in the World Port Tournament in Holland, and a few days after the birth of his daughter (Ashanti Brianna) back in Cuba, Chapman defected...rather easily.
“I walked out easily, right through the hotel door, and I hopped into a car and left,” he told Spanish-language website cubaencuentro.com. “It was easy. Now the plan is to sign with a major league team.”
Chapman quickly established residency in Andorra and petitioned Major League Baseball to be granted free agent status.
He immediately became the hottest commodity on the MLB market in years. When fellow Cuban Jose Contreras defected in 2002 he signed a $32 million contract with the New York Yankees. Estimates said Chapman could garner a contract worth a similar amount, or maybe more, due to his youth, solid frame (6-foot-4, 185 pounds), live arm and the premium for left-handed pitching in the big leagues. That despite the fact that few outside of Cuba had seen Chapman other than the ‘09 World Baseball Classic, where he went 0-1 with a 5.68 earned run average and eight strikeouts in two starts and his fastball was clocked at 102 miles per hour.
The Yankees, and a handful of the other big-spending teams (the Boston Redo Sox, Los Angeles Angels and L.A. Dodgers), showed interest. The Red Sox were the first to bid, with a $15.5 million offer in December. The Florida Marlins offered around $16 million. The Toronto Blue Jays took the bidding up a notch, offering $23 million deal
However in a surprising, and somewhat last-minute, move the usually-thrifty, small-market Reds inked Chapman, beating out the Oakland A’s and an unnamed third team, to a six-year, $30.25 million contract.
“When you look at the size of the market where we are in Cincinnati, we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try and improve this franchise and make it better,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said at Chapman’s signing announcement in early January.
“At first I would like to learn about the way of living here in the United States,” Chapman said through his interpreter at that day in Cincinnati. “I will get used to the new culture of (the) life I will be living. I’d like to work very hard, recognize my shortcomings and become the best player I can be and also to learn English as soon as possible.”
Almost as soon as he signed some had Chapman penciled into the Reds’ rotation as the team’s fifth starter for the 2010 season. But no such guarantees were made when Cincinnati began Spring Training in Arizona in February.
“He can start anywhere,” Reds pitching coach Bryan Price told mlb.com in mid-February. “But we want to assess him and make sure wherever he starts, it’s the right place. It might be Cincinnati. It might be someplace else in our system. I don’t know that yet. I think this kid could go into a ballgame tomorrow and be ready to compete. He’s extremely athletic. He’s a quicker learn. His stuff is better now, in my opinion, than it was in the WBC - at least from a command and delivery standpoint. I’m looking forward to seeing him pitch and learn.”
Chapman pitched well for the Reds during Spring Training - going 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA while striking out 15 in 10 2/3 innings. However in late March he was sidelined eight days by back spasms, which hampered his chances of being Cincinnati’s fifth starter and all but assured him of starting the season in the minor leagues. On April 2 he was optioned to the Bats.
“We felt competition-wise, that’s where he should be,” Jocketty told mlb.com that day. “We just felt competition and environment, and so forth, were better. Plus, they’ve got some long bus rides in (Double-A affiliate) Carolina.”
A few days later Chapman, who had turned 22 in February, met with the Louisville media for the first time. Dressed in a blue short-sleeve shirt, carrying a designer bag and sporting a large gold watch and gold chains around his wrist and neck, Chapman was flanked by manager Rick Sweet and Bats trainer Tomas Vera, who would also serve as the pitcher’s translator while in Louisville.
“I have to adapt to American baseball, learn more about the English language, and throw...I need to throw,” Chapman said through Vera that day. “I’ve never been in a situation like this, little by little I’m trying to get better and better. Right now I’m taking English classes. In this situation it’s the language first, the language and the culture.
“I didn’t see one major difference (at Spring Training). The game is the game, but the level of competition is higher...What I expect is to work hard, but getting to the big leagues is my goal. It’s been my dream for years and years.”
A short time after that press conference Chapman began chasing his dream as he, and his new team, boarded a bus bound for Toledo. The Bats would begin their 2010 season and Chapman was scheduled to start the fourth game of the series on Sunday, April 11.
Chapman & Co. started off well.
The Bats won their season-opener 5-3 over the Mud Hens. Danny Dorn and veteran catcher Corky Miller hit two-run homers and Sam LeCure (five innings pitched, seven hits, two earned runs, two walks, four strikeouts) was solid, as were four relievers - including Jon Adkins who picked up the 31st save of his career.
Louisville lost the next day, though, 7-4. Wood gave up five runs - but only one was earned - in four innings. A pair of errors - by Todd Frazier in left field and Drew Sutton at third - were precursors to the Bats‘ early-season fielding problems.
Louisville bounced back on a nice, but windy (69 degrees with a 19 mph breeze), Saturday at Fifth Third Field. Maloney was very effective, giving up six hits and one earned run while striking out eight over 5 2/3 innings. Zack Cozart had three RBIs, while Sutton went 3-for-4 with a second-inning solo home run off Toledo starter Armando Galarraga. Galarraga would make national news later in the season when he had a near-perfect game for the Detroit Tigers against Cleveland on June 2. Galarraga retired the first 26 Indians he faced before his bid for the 21st perfect game in MLB history ended when first base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled (as verified by TV replays) that Jason Donald reached first base safely on a ground ball. But on this day against the Bats he took the loss, allowing three hits and one earned run while striking out six in five innings.
The next day, a cool Sunday (game-time temperature was 57 degrees), Chapman made his Triple-A debut in front of 5.642 fans.
He got off to a good start as did the Bats, thanks to a first-inning home run by Chris Heisey.
In the bottom of the first Chapman got Toledo leadoff hitter Jeff Frazier, Todd’s brother, to line out to Sutton at second. He then struck out Brent Dlugach, before getting another ‘K’ when Brennan Boesch struck out on a foul tip third strike.
Toledo’s Ryan Strieby led off the bottom of the second with the first hit - an infield single - off Chapman. The Louisville left-hander struck out Jeff Larish looking, then got Casper Wells to pop out before giving up back-to-back singles to Clete Thomas and Mike Rabelo. But with the bases loaded Chapman induced Danny Worth to ground out to end the inning.
In the third Jeff Frazier flew out to center before Chapman struck out Dlugach and Boesch, both swinging, again.
He continued rolling in the fourth getting Strieby to fly out before striking out Larish and Wells.
The Bats’ bats gave Chapman some more backing in the top of the fifth when Wilkin Castillo led off the inning with a triple, then scored on Cozart’s one-out double that chased Toledo starter Enrique Gonzalez. Cozart went 3-for-5 with a trio of doubles in just his fourth Triple-A game.
Chapman, however, finished one out shy of his first victory.
In the bottom of the fifth he struck out Thomas before Rabelo reached on a throwing error by Chris Valaika - the former shortstop who was trying out third base after playing the first three games of the season at second in order to make room for Cozart. Worth singled before Jeff Frazier struck out. But then Chapman walked Dlugach to load the bases. Boesch followed with a soft ground-ball single to first base that scored Rabelo.
That was it for Chapman, who was replaced by Enerio Del Rosario after reaching his pitch county (85). In his first 4 2/3 innings of regular-season American professional baseball Chapman allowed five hits - only one of which left the infield - and one unearned run while walking one and striking out nine. He fanned two each in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings, but ended up with a no decision.
Louisville’s bullpen did the rest - holding the Mud Hens to only two hits over the final 4 1/3 innings. Del Rosario gave up one hit while striking out four over 2 1/3 innings. Carlos Fisher pitched the eighth and Adkins earned his second save of the season by getting two ground outs and a strikeout in the ninth as the Bats' 2-1 win improved them to 3-1 on the young season. After four games they were back in a familiar place - all alone in first in the IL West.
It was a very good, if not great, debut for Chapman and Louisville had won three of its first four games. Things were starting off well for Louisville.