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02/22/10 7:25 PM ET
Chapman slowly settling in with Reds
Cuban finds plenty of support as he adjusts to new life
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Pitching sensation Aroldis Chapman is still learning about America, and America, too, is learning about him. Little by little, the layers of intrigue are peeling back as the unknown becomes a little more known. "I was informed a different way about how the United States was," Chapman said through an interpreter Monday. "Once I got here, I found out it was different. There is technology here that when you see it for the first time, it's kind of a culture shock." Chapman's exposure to the media has been severely limited because of the demands for his time. Although the Cuban left-hander has yet to throw a pitch in a Major League game, Monday was already the second time the 21-year-old experienced a news conference since the Reds stunned the league by outbidding others and signing him to a six-year, $30.25 million contract in January. Monday offered a learning experience for all those in attendance and clearly an unusual setting for Chapman, who speaks no English. For about 15 minutes, two dozen reporters peppered questions at Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price. Chapman sat quietly and stoically, despite knowing every single question and answer in English was about him, his personality and his pitching ability. "As I see it, the biggest obstacles for Aroldis will be overcoming the cultural differences," Jocketty said. "Once he gets more comfortable with that ... [learns] the English language and gets more comfortable in his surroundings ... the baseball part will come very quickly for him. It's very obvious he has great talent. Our scouts did a great job following him." "I think baseball is the least of our concerns," Baker said. "Put yourself in his position in a new country without your support system, your mom and your dad and your family, [with] new culture, new language, new food, new music and new everything. These are a lot of the things first we have to help him adjust to so he can be happy." Over an additional 20 minutes, questions were translated directly to Chapman from interpreter Tony Fossas, the Class A Dayton pitching coach that serves in a guardian-type role for Chapman. Fossas, in turn, relayed Chapman's answers back to reporters. A few times, Chapman's face lit up and he smiled as he tried to answer the questions. At times, he was also a little guarded. What's been his biggest adjustment to American life? "The food has been hard," Chapman said with a laugh. "The language is still very hard for me. For now, those have been the biggest things." During the press conference, Chapman wore a baseball uniform, but he is a young person that has already dabbled with American material goods. He is often seen wearing stylish clothes, with ample jewelry around his neck and an iPhone on his hip. "I live a normal life," Chapman maintained. "I remain the simple person I've always been. When I go to a store, I just buy what I need. "I don't smile really a lot. But I like to be with my friends, especially the baseball players, the companionship off the field." Before the July start of an international tournament in the Netherlands, Chapman defected from the isolated Cuban nation and established residency in the tiny European country of Andorra. "It was very difficult," Chapman said. "I left all my parents, my wife and daughter behind, all of my friends -- baseball-player friends also. It was a very, very hard decision. But as they say in Cuba, you had to be brave and you had to make the move." Chapman's daughter turns eight months old Sunday, which also happens to be the day of his own 22nd birthday. He does not know when he will see her or anyone else he loves from Cuba again. "Hopefully if God prevails, sometime soon, sometime in the next year," he said. Without his family support system, Chapman has started to build a new one with a baseball family. Fossas drives him to and from workouts. Players and coaches cook or bring him Latin food. The first couple of days of camp, he sat by his locker quietly and soaked in the atmosphere. When Spanish-speaking players gathered, he listened and smiled from outside of their circle. On Monday morning, he joined in. Add to that support a manager that Chapman can communicate with and learn from. "I think it helps that I speak Spanish," Baker said. "I think it also helps that I've played with a number of Cuban players. I think I understand the culture possibly as well or better than most people around. We have a quite a few guys here that can make him feel comfortable. The main thing we can do is make him not feel different. We have to try to make him as comfortable as one of us on the Cincinnati Reds as possible." "I like the people I've been talking to and getting to know. I also think when I learn English, I can get to know the American players better," Chapman said. Other than the teammates he has been introduced to, Chapman knows no one in Major League Baseball. Asked if he facing any particular hitters, he chose diplomacy "Not in particular. One hitter at a time," said Chapman. "One thing you have to understand," Jocketty interjected. "They don't get a lot of American baseball over there. He didn't have access, so he may not know a lot of the players, honestly, which might help." Indeed, the lessons about Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday will come soon enough. People have seen the reports that Chapman can throw a 100-mph fastball, a rarity among southpaws. There have also been questions about his ability to command his pitches. The biggest question of all, though, is when will he be in the Majors? Chapman is a candidate for the fifth spot in the big league rotation, but the Reds haven't ruled out giving him more seasoning in the Minors to start the season. Through three Spring Training bullpen sessions, including one held on Monday morning, the command and willingness to learn has pleased Reds decision makers. "He came to us with the understanding he threw hard and was a young kid and a young prospect," Price said. "What we didn't know was his learnability and aptitude. We have a heck of a place to start, a tremendous worker and a really focused kid. Beyond that, let's let him go out there and play and let him pitch and see what he does and not set expectations on where he's going to start, what type of statistics he's going to have and 'will he be Randy Johnson?' Let him pitch and see where he falls." The Reds have been careful not to place timetables on Chapman's development or when his big league debut will come. He will throw to Cincinnati hitters for the first time on Wednesday in live batting practice, and Baker has said he will get into Cactus League games. Chapman is also not living his baseball life by a timetable. "[I try] to prepare myself the best that I can, to work extremely hard, and when it's time for me to pitch, get the job done," Chapman said. "If they feel I can make the club, fine. If not, I will continue to work hard until that happens."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.