Aroldis' impact felt from Cincinnati to Cuba
Phenom could create more opportunities for countrymen
MIAMI -- His emergence from the bullpen last week brought great anticipation, high hopes and the crowd at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati to its collective feet. Then, his 1-2-3 inning, decorated with 100-plus mph fastballs and cartoon-like sliders, cemented an added boost and a deadly new weapon for the Reds as they continued their quest for the franchise's first division title in 15 years.
But Aroldis Chapman's impact could go much deeper than that.
Chapman, the towering rookie left-hander with an unorthodox delivery and a scary two-pitch arsenal, is 14 months removed from defecting Cuba -- where he left family and familiarity behind to do the very thing he's excelling at right now -- and has been the talk of baseball since that inaugural march from the 'pen on Aug. 31.
If that continues, Chapman can strengthen an already-increasing emigration of prospects from his native land. He can give prospective Cuban players a new hero in the U.S. He can further boost the amount of those willing to undertake the risks of defecting. And he can change the future of Cubans in the big leagues forever.
It's amazing what can be accomplished with a triple-digit fastball.
"Without a doubt, Chapman has sparked an incredible buzz, and for us as Cubans, and for future Cuban ballplayers [in the U.S.], that means a lot," veteran Phillies reliever and fellow Cuban defector Danys Baez said in Spanish. "I think it's very important. Remember, you don't hype what you can't sell. That's how it works. ... What Chapman is doing can open a lot of doors."
NOTABLE CUBAN-BORN PITCHERS SINCE 1990
Alexei Ramirez and Yunel Escobar are already solid shortstops who will only get better, Kendry Morales emphatically staked his claim as a premier first baseman last year, Jose Contreras and Livan Hernandez have had solid pitching careers while continuing to produce at advanced ages, and MLB newbies like Yunesky Maya, Dayan Viciedo and Leslie Anderson project success.
But, with all due respect, they're not Chapman.
Because what Chapman does -- throw a baseball at speeds rarely seen -- captivates the imagination, creates a buzz seldom ever experienced and rightfully puts a greater emphasis on the remaining talent being sheltered in Cuba. Chicks may dig the long ball, but if there was ever an element of baseball just as thrilling, it's watching a pitcher rear back and blow the kind of smoke that is coming out of Chapman's left hand these days.
Twenty-nine of Chapman's first 50 pitches notched triple-digits on scoreboard radar guns, and his 103.9 mph fastball to the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy on Sept. 1 was the second-fastest ever recorded by MLB.com's Pitch-f/x system.
In his first four appearances, Chapman gave up an unearned run on three hits -- all in one mortal outing -- while striking out four and walking one.
"I don't think it matters who's up there with what he has going right now," Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes said of his teammate. "It's exciting for the team and exciting for baseball."
It can lead to bigger paychecks, too.
The largest contract ever signed by a Cuban prospect -- the four-year, $32 million deal inked between Contreras and the Yankees in 2002 -- hasn't been topped in eight years, mainly because red flags were raised shortly thereafter.
Though Contreras has had a fine career and is an important member of the first-place Phillies' bullpen right now, he didn't become the star many expected, which created the notion that "Cuba's best" didn't necessarily translate to "Major League ace."
Enter Chapman, about a decade younger than Contreras when he signed, owner of the second-highest contract awarded to a Cuban defector ($30.25 million) and equipped with a more explosive arm.
Contracts given to Cuban prospects will get bigger -- even though they're already rather large, comparatively -- if Chapman proves to be the real deal.
|Yulieski Gourriel||26||INF||Arguably the best talent remaining on the island.|
|Frederich Cepeda||30||OF||One of the best, most well-rounded hitters in Cuba.|
|Freddy Alvarez||21||RHP||Had a solid 2009 season and has great upside.|
"[Contreras] didn't pitch very well. And that made people say, 'Wait a minute, the Cubans aren't that great,' because at that time, Contreras was the best in Cuba."
Because they are legit free agents after defecting, Cuban players are generally compensated better than their Latin American counterparts. But because of a ban on pro sports and a U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, very few of them -- basically, the ones who take on the risk of escaping and succeed -- get that chance.
In the 1950s, before relations between the U.S. and Cuba grew tense, Cuba had a far greater influence in the Majors than any other Latin American country. Entering this week, though, 14 Cuban-born players had entered a Major League game in 2010, compared to 77 from Venezuela and 119 from the Dominican Republic.
"I think that, little by little, the situation has to change, because there's nothing wrong with somebody wanting to play baseball in the big leagues," Livan Hernandez, the Nationals starter and Cuban defector who emphatically burst on the scene in 1997, said in Spanish. "It would be a great thing to see more Cubans playing in the big leagues."
Nothing on the baseball diamond can change something as perplex as the governmental affairs between the U.S. and Cuba. But there have been signs of improvement in that area.
After Rene Arocha became the first Cuban defector in 1991, players from the island came to the Majors at a rather slow trickle. But then the recent departures of Morales, Escobar and Viciedo -- none of whom were considered star players in Cuba, but all of whom garnered rather generous salaries -- made it trendy.
The number of Cuban defectors is difficult to precisely pinpoint, but just over 20 players -- making more than $60 million combined -- defected in 2009, which is rather close to the number of those who defected in the entire four-year span from 2005 to 2008.
Chapman, the most rich and famous of those, is currently trying to keep the momentum in Cincinnati moving forward, while subconsciously vaulting the momentum of his homeland.
Because of how raw he still is and the limited number of pitching success stories from his native land recently, many are still very skeptical about Chapman's prolonged success in the big leagues -- especially as a starter.
But arms like these don't come along too often. And among a rookie class that is seemingly historic, Chapman is right there at the top. He can be for Cuban prospects what many hope Jason Heyward will be for young African-Americans. And he's had the phenom spotlight pointed in his direction ever since Stephen Strasburg's rookie season ended with Tommy John surgery.
Teammate Bronson Arroyo recently called Chapman "the Usain Bolt of baseball." Down the road, perhaps he can go by a different name -- "ambassador of Cuba."
"I think this situation that Chapman is going through is what motivates kids to leave the island," Contreras said in Spanish.
"Cubans are afraid to leave Cuba, first because of their family, and also because they don't know if they're going to excel here. This is the same baseball that's played in Cuba -- a little better, since this is the best brand of baseball in the world, but the quality of players from Cuba is good, as those who have come [to the U.S.] recently have shown. Chapman is showing that, too."