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The Enigma of Mr. 105
In which we ponder the sometimes crazy, occasionally confounding, reliably complicated life of Aroldis Chapman, the fastest pitcher on earth.
“Cuba’s made for left-handers.” —Bill “Spaceman” Lee
Francisco Cordero kept clicking play. It was late at night on June 26, 2012, and the man the Reds had trusted for years as their closer was up watching a clip of Aroldis Chapman, the man they trusted now. With two strikes and two outs, Chapman threw a collarbone-high fastball past the Milwaukee Brewers pinch-hitter. Chapman works quickly on the mound, limiting his expressions to either licking his teeth or biting his lip. Every once in a while, he’ll do both. But this time, he decided to celebrate. As an umpire indicated the final out, Chapman took two long steps forward, and on the third, descended into a wobbly double-somersault.
By the time he reached the high-five line, Chapman had returned to his normal pose, which meant looking about as engaged as the last guy off the bench. Elsewhere in baseball, however, those somersaults continued to turn. The game’s killjoys began declaiming about the lack of professionalism. But in private, at least, the players were delighted. Cordero, who had migrated to the Toronto Blue Jays, heard about the somersaults from Juan Francisco, another ex-Red. Did you see what Chapman just did? Francisco texted. Cordero and his kids quickly pulled up the video on their home computer—then watched it again and again.
“Everyone was on the ground laughing,” Cordero remembers. “If it was me, I’d never do it. But I think it’s funny.”
He wasn’t the only one. Perhaps because it was so charming and unexpected, that double-somersault underlined how little we know about the Reds’ Cuban import. So I asked the team for access to do the definitive post-somersault profile of Aroldis, the hope being that an interview with the enigmatic pitcher might clear up some of the mystery, or at least humanize him. But the Reds said no. Emphatically. It seemed a little strange, given that ESPN’s Grantland had labeled them “the most anonymous great team in recent memory.” But no sweat, I thought; there had been so many trades lately, I could do the story by reaching out to Chapman’s former teammates.
Then something really strange happened. After chatting with Cordero, I e-mailed the San Diego Padres about interviewing Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, two more ex-Reds and Cuban expatriates who had been friendly with Chapman. “Absolutely,” replied one of San Diego’s friendly flacks. “When’s good for you and what number should [we] call?” Forty-eight hours later, the answer suddenly changed: “Unfortunately we will have to respectfully decline this request.” The Reds, I later learned, had made it clear to the Padres that they didn’t want anyone cooperating with any Chapman features, a problem I ran into with other teams as well.
Now, baseball players like their privacy, but in this case the Reds were going above and beyond their normal defensive maneuvers. Nevertheless, after tracking down and talking to more than 40 scouts, agents, baseball observers, and ex-teammates of Chapman, I came to understand the Reds’ reluctance. In spite of all the hype and hope surrounding the 25-year-old phenom, he appears to be one of the most risky and fragile players the team has had in a long time.
That might seem like an odd thing to say about a pitcher who just turned in one of the best seasons in franchise history. But that season included enough off-field drama—a speeding ticket and arrest, a convoluted lawsuit, a murky incident with a stripper—to fill one of the telenovelas Chapman loves to watch. And that’s not all: From the time he started pitching in Cuba all the way up to today, Chapman has struggled to keep the off-field drama from bleeding into his on-field performance. Which may be why the most important thing to understand about Aroldis Chapman isn’t how good he can be—it’s how quickly he can fall apart.
In at least two ways, Aroldis Chapman came out of nowhere. He grew up in the tiny town of Cayo Mambí, in the eastern province of Holguín. “You know how people say, ‘When you go to Havana, it’s like the 1950s’?” says Peter Bjarkman, a former Purdue University linguistics professor who has turned himself into an expert on Cuban baseball and makes several research trips each year. “Well, when you go outside of Havana, it’s like the 1880s.”
As documented in the first wave of press coverage, Chapman was brought up in a three-room house that he shared with his parents and two sisters. When he wanted to go somewhere, he borrowed a friend’s broken-down bike. His father trained boxers, and young Aroldis became one of his pupils. Then one day a friend named José Carlos Thompson invited Aroldis to join his baseball team. Chapman was tall and left-handed, which meant first base—until a coach noticed how hard the 15-year-old could throw and converted him to a pitcher in 2003. Three years later, Chapman was starting games for the Holguín Sabuesos in Cuba’s national league. Three years after that, he was starting for Cuba’s team in the World Baseball Classic.
It surprised even those who followed Cuban baseball: Here was a mysterious left-hander, oozing potential and slinging 102-mile-an-hour fastballs past Japan’s best hitters. By then, Chapman had also earned a reputation for being surly and undisciplined—what the Cubans call a postalita. “He didn’t seem to have the tough mental makeup it takes to be a starting pitcher,” Bjarkman says, pointing to that 2009 WBC start against Japan. Chapman walked several hitters early in the game, then lost his aggressiveness and focus. He paced the mound, ignored his teammates, griped about the umpiring—and didn’t make it out of the third inning.
In July of that same year, Chapman defected. As he later admitted in numerous interviews, he had tried once before in 2008—huddling in a beach house, waiting for the sun to set and a sailboat to appear—only to get nabbed by the Cuban police. But a small tournament in the Netherlands offered a second chance. Chapman mentioned his plan to no one before he left: not his parents, not his friends, not his young and very pregnant girlfriend. After the Cuban team checked into its hotel in Rotterdam, Chapman told his roommate he was going out for a smoke. He waited in the brick-and-glass lobby for a car driven by the friend of a friend. When it pulled up, Chapman hopped in, carrying only his passport and a pack of cigarettes.
He spent the next few days partying in Amsterdam, eventually meeting up with his old friend José Carlos Thompson; José’s father, Carlos Alberto Thompson; and a man named Edwin Mejia. José had defected to the United States years earlier, where he met Mejia, at the time a Boston-based lawyer who helped college-bound minority athletes seeking scholarships. The four made their way to Andorra, where Chapman was able to establish residency, and a partnership of sorts emerged: Chapman as the star, Mejia as the agent, Carlos as the manager, and José as the best friend.
The foursome quickly set out to secure Chapman’s free agency—and to jumpstart the media hype. Here, ESPN was a big help. The network went all in on Aroldis: a long TV segment, a magazine feature, another on the website. Reading them today, one is struck by how open and happy Chapman seems. He tells ESPN about growing up in Cuba with José. About his previous attempt to defect. (“What I learned from that first time was that I shouldn’t trust anyone.”) About his girlfriend’s fear that their child—a daughter, Ashanti, who was born days before he defected—would never meet her father.
Chapman promised to reunite his family. But first, he had to sign a contract, with the price expected to hit $40 million, $60 million, even $100 million. Baseball braced for yet another Yankees vs. Red Sox bidding war, and New York launched the first offensive, hosting Chapman for a playoff game with seats behind home plate.
A visit to Boston followed soon after but things did not go smoothly. Mejia, who worried that other agents might try to poach Chapman, was faulted for not scheduling enough pitching sessions in front of scouts. And his star client turned out to be a handful. “He was already spending his future money in his head,” says a person who worked with both men at the time. Mejia bought Chapman a brand-new Blackberry only to watch him whine that it wasn’t an iPhone. Then, at the end of the Boston trip, Chapman and José headed to a dance club for a Halloween party, where Chapman proceeded to drape his arms around lingerie-clad waitresses and pose for pictures—which were later uploaded to Facebook by one of Mejia’s underlings.
Two weeks later, Chapman dumped Mejia and Carlos Alberto Thompson and joined Hendricks Sports Management, an agency run by two brothers, Randy and Alan, who also represented Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite. The Hendricks brothers set up more workouts, including one near their office in Houston. But the abrupt way Chapman abandoned his original management—and by extension, his friend José—caused many in baseball to question his maturity. Indeed, two sources claim that both the Yankees and the Red Sox chose not to bid on Chapman for precisely that reason. “From then on,” says one baseball insider, “they had no interest in pursuing him.”
Still, the Houston workout drew a crowd. On December 15, 2009, 50 or so scouts watched Chapman throw 50 or so pitches. With all the buzz, Chapman seemed destined for a big market like Chicago or L.A.; the presence of a Reds contingent went unnoticed. But a few weeks later, the Hendricks brothers shocked the baseball world: Aroldis Chapman was signing with Cincinnati for six years at $30.25 million.
It’s easy to forget today, after two playoff bids and pricey contract extensions for Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, but in early 2010 the Reds seemed a little lifeless. They needed to take risks, and that need—along with the fact that Chapman’s temperament scared away baseball’s biggest spenders—explains how the team landed him. “When you look at the size of the market,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said during Chapman’s first team press conference, “we have to take some bold moves from time to time.”
With spring training only weeks away, the Reds knew Chapman had a lot to learn—and not just about baseball. Every day Tony Fossas, a Cuban emigré and one of the Reds minor league coaches, would pick Chapman up at his apartment in Coral Springs. They would drive to Florida Atlantic University, where Chapman trained with Kendry Morales, another Cuban baseball star (and Hendricks client). Afterwards, Fossas would often take Chapman out to a restaurant—an Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse, the sort of place he’d eat in on the road—or school him on basic social interactions.
Chapman headed to Arizona for Reds spring training as a big leaguer-in-progress: He had the talent, the contract, even the car (a heavily customized Lamborghini Murciélago), but many adjustments still to make. Cordero remembers Chapman rumbling up in the Lamborghini then struggling to park it while the other Reds pitchers looked on and laughed. “We’d come out just to see him park it,” Cordero says. “It’d take him 10 or 15 minutes.”
On the mound, however, Chapman excelled. Chris Burke, a utility player who has since retired, was the very first Red to face him. It was live batting practice, something that normally attracts a coach or two, but for Chapman’s debut at least 20 people, including Jocketty, elbowed in to watch. Burke can still recite the pitch sequence: fastball away, fastball in, change up away, fastball away, fastball in. Afterward, he stepped out of the cage and deadpanned: “Someone should sign this kid.”
The Reds decided to start Chapman in Triple-A, as a member of the Louisville Bats rotation. He struck his teammates there as humble and sweet-natured—someone they describe as “a good dude,” “a really likeable guy,” and “just a regular guy”—but they couldn’t help noticing how irritated he was at being in the minors. The Bats trainer, Tomas Vera, replaced Fossas as Chapman’s translator, and he explained how everyone had to arrive by 3 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game. Yet Chapman often rolled in late, leading to screaming matches between him and the Louisville coaches.
Chapman’s starts came with their own kind of drama. “We knew we were going to be out on the field for a while,” says someone who played defense behind him. Chapman worked haltingly—and even more so once his opponents notched a few hits or walks. “Teams knew that when they started to string together some good at-bats he would give up,” says another teammate, and Chapman would respond by hanging his head or even slowing his fastball down into the low 80s. “There’s an attention span that is necessary to be an elite starter,” a third player says. “Aroldis gave you the impression every once in a while, sometimes in the third or fourth inning, that he might be out to lunch.”
None of this diminished Chapman’s celebrity. Autograph seekers would stake out the Lamborghini, which was easy to spot in a player parking lot typically populated by Ford pickups and tricked-out Escalades. But Chapman also helped out his teammates. Some wanted autographs of their own, and Chapman occasionally sprang for team-sized spreads of Cuban food. He even gave Wilkin Castillo, his car-less catcher, frequent rides to the stadium.
Chapman and Castillo ended up rooming together on the road, and outside of Vera, the catcher spent more time with him than anyone. Chapman tended to stay in their hotel room, watching TV, or going online to shop for Gucci shoes. (Somewhere along the line he picked up a copy of Rosetta Stone, to help with his English, but then lost it.) “We talked about how you have to be careful with a girl on the street,” says Castillo, who now plays in the Los Angeles Dodgers system.
One thing they never talked about was family. “He’s a private guy,” Castillo says. While most of the Bats lived a couple miles from the stadium, Chapman chose an apartment more than 30 miles away. And it was in Louisville that he stopped answering reporters’ questions about Cuba. His teammates didn’t get much, either. An exception occurred late one night in Columbus, Ohio. After the game, Justin Lehr, another starter, was having a beer at the hotel bar when Chapman walked in. Lehr speaks decent Spanish and the two began to chat. Eventually, Chapman explained how he was planning to fly a plane into Cuba to scoop up his family.
Chapman made 13 inconsistent starts for Louisville. His earned run average was 4.11—until the team moved him to the bullpen, where he posted an ERA of 2.40. In August 2010, the Reds finally called him up as a reliever. Not long after arriving, the veterans planned some gentle hazing—forcing the rookies to dress as a naughty nurse, a sexy cowgirl, and so on, while they served drinks on a team flight. But Chapman wouldn’t do it, even after Vera, who had also moved to Cincinnati, insisted it was simply a wacky tradition. “He just refused,” one major-league teammate says. “Guys got kind of upset about that.”
Out on the field Chapman adjusted just fine. Keith Law, a baseball analyst at ESPN, attended a September game where Chapman muscled his way up the velocity ladder—102, 103, 104, and, finally, 105 miles per hour, a new major-league record. By the end, even the opponent’s fans were cheering him. “I remember sitting there, thinking, I could spend 30 more years in the game and never see a guy throw this hard,” Law says.
Before Law went to ESPN, he worked in the Blue Jays front office. Once, he asked an older scout to name the best pitching prospect he’d ever seen. “Without really hesitating,” Law recalls, “he said, ‘Brien Taylor.’ ” Taylor was baseball’s top draft pick in 1991, and he remains an almost mythical figure for talent evaluators, in part because he ruined his pitching arm in a brawl. Yet Taylor is the first comparison Law reaches for in explaining what makes Chapman so special.
“I’d almost emphasize the looseness more than the velocity,” Law says of Chapman’s arm. In other words, it’s not just that Chapman throws 100 MPH—it’s that he throws 100 MPH and looks like he’s playing catch. That easy delivery comes from Chapman’s rare athleticism; one gets the sense that, had he stuck with boxing, Chapman would have made a terrific light heavyweight (or a terrific wide receiver, or a terrific shooting guard). Law calls Chapman’s fastball “electric” and praises his “wipeout slider.” “And I’ve always thought his changeup is better than he gets credit for,” he says.
In 2012, Chapman combined those skills with a new one: accuracy. People forget that Chapman’s 105 MPH pitch was actually a ball, but last year, aided by that easy motion, he traded in a little velocity for precision control. It led to a season so remarkable fans can rotate and analyze it, like a diamond. At one point, Chapman’s catchers recorded 15 straight put-outs—that means nothing but pop ups, foul outs, dribblers, and strikeouts. And speaking of strikeouts, according to ESPN, Chapman got 50 of them on pitches of 100-plus MPH. The rest of baseball managed only 52, combined.
Somehow, watching Chapman was even more impressive than his numbers. I reviewed every one of his saves (38) and blown saves (5) from 2012, and the weird thing is, you can’t tell a difference. Not in his appearance, at least. Chapman’s no longer the guy who threw a tantrum against Japan and drove his Louisville defenders nuts. He’s remade himself, becoming not so much unflappable as simply detached. Take a game last June, against the Astros: Chapman secured the save in an astounding 3 minutes, 54 seconds. He needed 13 pitches to strike out the side. Yet his demeanor never changed, and throughout the season there was rarely any separation between “good” Chapman and “bad” Chapman, at least in the aesthetics.
Where you could find evidence of the good and the bad was in the numbers. He went on long streaks where every opponent looked like the Astros, but he also went on streaks where he completely fell apart. Oddly, those streaks never overlapped. In 2012, Chapman toggled between amazing and awful like a light switch. In fact, his season can be divided into four tidy sections: From Opening Day through June 6 (let’s call it Streak A), he threw 29 dominant innings: no runs, nine walks, 52 strikeouts. But from June 7 through June 24 (Streak B), Chapman struggled: 6.1 innings, eight runs, four losses. The double somersault? Chapman meant it to mark the end of that swoon, and it did: from June 26 to September 4 he threw 30.2 innings with one run, 6 walks, and 56 strikeouts (Streak C). But the end of the season saw him slip again: more runs, more walks, even a long period where the Reds shut him down (Streak D).
This analysis may seem unfair; after all, no pitcher has ever kept up Streak A or Streak C levels for an entire season. But given what is known about Chapman’s makeup—that he can get rattled, distracted, derailed—it seems important to note that his season was forcefully shaped by momentum. I noticed this while reviewing his outings as well. During Streaks B and D, Chapman’s pacing and control eroded. In a game with the Detroit Tigers in June, he hit a batter with the bases loaded then walked a fringe player on four pitches—all while Miguel Cabrera (who went on to win the American League MVP) waited on deck; in a late-season appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw 10 balls in his first 11 pitches.
Of course, baseball’s a funny game, and a bad outing, especially for a reliever, can stem from something as simple as a grounder scooting past Zach Cozart’s glove. So I asked Harry Pavlidis, a PITCHf/x expert with the website Baseball Prospectus, to analyze Chapman’s streaks. PITCHf/x is just as high tech as it sounds: a two-camera system that lets people like Pavlidis track the movement and effectiveness of every single pitch—and dig deep into the performance of every single player.
“Selective endpoints are a classic danger in analysis,” Pavlidis says. “Still, some things did pop up.” When Chapman was at his best, during Streaks A and C, hitters would swing and miss at his fastball 40 percent of the time. “That’s insane,” Pavlidis says, “just crazy.” During Streaks B and D, however, that percentage fell into the 20s (though for relievers that’s still considered good).
This pattern repeated with other arcane measures—Chapman’s ability to get groundballs with his fastball, the outcome of his two-strike sliders—and always switched with the various streaks. According to multiple forms of evidence, then, Chapman became a markedly different player during the two types of streak. “And that,” Pavlidis admits, “is really curious.”
If you buy the theory that Chapman is a fragile player, then you should worry about his non-baseball activities. Because they were 2012’s other big revelation.
It all started last spring. On the afternoon of May 20, Chapman shut down the Yankees and earned his first save of the season. But later that night, a police officer in Grove City, Ohio, clocked his Mercedes S63 hurtling 93 miles an hour up I-71. When the officer punched Chapman’s license into police databases, it came back suspended. Chapman, as a report in CityBeat would later reveal, had received five additional speeding tickets, including a 95-in-a-55 during the offseason in Miami.
Chapman ended up getting handcuffed, photographed, and released on bail. A squad car camera captured the pitcher and the officer struggling to understand each other: “Me going to airport,” Chapman can be heard saying. “My girlfriend from New York to Columbus.” We’ll never know who that “girlfriend” was, but a few days later another woman—a stripper from the Washington, D.C., area named Claudia Manrique—set off his next round of trouble.
Manrique had met Chapman earlier that spring, possibly during an April series between the Reds and the Washington Nationals. She started accompanying Chapman on the road, and on May 29, Manrique stayed in his hotel room in Pittsburgh while the Reds played the Pirates. The game went late, thanks to a rain delay, and around 10 p.m. Manrique stumbled into the hotel hallway, partially undressed, shrieking about a robbery.
When the police arrived, she told them someone claiming to be a hotel repairman had come into the room, tied her up, and demanded to know which drawer contained “the Louis Vuitton bag with jewelry.” It was a story full of holes—how, for instance, did the man know a bag was hidden in the drawer, much less know its brand?—and according to the police report, Manrique changed it multiple times.
Chapman, for his part, told police he thought Manrique was in on the crime, and that’s what most media reported. Still, why would a thief with an accomplice leave behind that Louis Vuitton Bag, especially when it contained more than $200,000 in jewelry? Instead, the man took only $6,000 in belongings from the room. In the end, Manrique indicated to detectives that she thought she knew who was behind the robbery and that she may have been the target. But the thief was never caught and Chapman declined to press charges. According to Diane Richard, a public information officer for Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police, “it appeared that Mr. Chapman just wanted this incident to be concluded.” All the detectives could do was charge Manrique with filing a falsified report. (She eventually pled guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and paid a $164 fine.)
The Reds pitcher got one more piece of bad news last summer: He was being sued for $24 million. Chapman has already been enmeshed in cash-grabbing lawsuits: one brought against him by his former manager, Carlos Alberto Thompson; another brought against the Hendricks brothers by Athletes Premier International, Edwin Mejia’s short-lived sports agency. The API suit was settled and Thompson’s suit is winding its way through the courts, but this new lawsuit could ultimately have the biggest impact. It centers on actions Chapman allegedly took in Cuba after his first failed defection. After Chapman was caught on that beach, in the spring of 2008, he was suspended from the national team for the next two seasons. That summer, however, he testified in a Cuban court that two men—Danilo Curbelo Garcia, who was born in Cuba but is now a legal U.S. resident, and Carlos Rafael Mena Perdomo, who was born in the Dominican Republic—had tried to convince him to defect with their help. Both men got multi-year jail sentences; not long after, Chapman was allowed to rejoin the national team, and eventually travel to the Netherlands, where he successfully defected.
Now Curbelo Garcia and Mena Perdomo are suing Chapman in U.S. District Court under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. Their lawsuit alleges that Chapman made up his testimony in order to regain a spot on the Cuban national team, and that his false testimony led to their imprisonment. It also describes in gruesome detail how the two men have suffered in Cuban custody. Curbelo Garcia remains locked up in a tiny Cuban prison cell, where he must eat maggot-infested food and endure random beatings. Mena Perdomo was released early because he is diabetic and was not receiving proper treatment in jail; as a result, he has since had all five of the toes on his right foot amputated.
Chapman’s lawyer, Manuel Garcia-Linares, blames this outcome on Cuban authorities. “[Chapman] denies that he did anything that was improper,” Garcia-Linares says. He contends that because Curbelo Garcia and Mena Perdomo attempted to smuggle Chapman out, his client had no choice but to testify against them in court. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the lawyer adds, the plaintiffs must prove Chapman’s intent was for them to be tortured. “And they won’t be able to prove that,” he says.
But Kenia Bravo, one of the lawyers representing the two men, points to the court’s recent decision to reject the defense’s motion to dismiss. “About 95 percent of these cases do get dismissed,” she says. “This is a real coup.”
The lawsuit is being followed in Miami’s Cuban community, with some siding with Chapman and others with the plaintiffs. Miami is, of course, the pitcher’s adopted home. In 2011, he bought a $1.8 million Mediterranean-style mansion with a five-car garage. But the house isn’t in Little Havana or on the beach; it’s in Davie, a not-too-trendy suburb. And locals gossip about Chapman going out and running up huge tabs at less-than-hot places like Off the Hookah, a touristy club that sits next to a Hard Rock Café and serves $10 burgers and $12 shish kebabs.
It’s one of many reasons why those in Miami can’t figure Chapman out. Jorge Ebro, who covers sports for El Nuevo Herald, one of the city’s two Spanish-language newspapers, says Chapman is quite popular as a player but he hasn’t become a local figure like fellow Cubans Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Alexei Ramirez. “They live here and they do things for the people in Miami,” says Ebro. “We don’t see that from Chapman. Maybe he does, but we don’t see it.”
Under the Obama administration it has become comparatively easier to send money and care packages to Cuba. For all anybody knows Chapman may be taking great care of his family, but some in Miami find it peculiar that he hasn’t brought them over—especially his girlfriend and the now-3-year-old daughter he still hasn’t met. “That’s when I knew it wasn’t the fairy tale story,” says Joe Kehoskie, a Florida-based sports agent who’s worked with Cuban players for more than a decade. “The two people he cared about the most are still sitting in communist Cuba.”
Communist Cuba: Geographically a place that lies as close to Miami as Cincinnati does to Louisville, but in every other sense seems so very far away. Chapman has gone through not just culture shock but culinary shock, linguistic shock, even financial shock. More than that, he’s had to transition from a communist country to a capitalist one. “When you don’t have any freedom,” says Ebro, himself a native of Cuba, “and you come to a place with freedom…” The journalist pauses. “Not everyone reacts in a good way.”
So it makes sense that Chapman might show up late for a game at Triple-A or strike up a relationship with a stripper. It’s a free country, after all. And then there’s Cuba’s other big legacy: From the day Chapman walked out of that hotel in Rotterdam, he has been pursued and preyed upon. Consider how he was lured to the Hendricks brothers. Rodney Fernandez, a former Cuban baseball player the agency had hired to attract more Latin American players, gave Chapman the hard sell. According to the lawsuit Mejia’s agency brought against the Hendricks brothers, Fernandez repeatedly called and sent Chapman texts that undermined Mejia and Thompson. While those two made their own share of mistakes in their relationship with Chapman, Fernandez was a different kind of trouble. At the same time he was trying to lure Chapman to the Hendricks agency, according to the Coral Springs Police Department, he is alleged to have stolen more than $300,000 from Kendry Morales. (Fernandez has pled not guilty and a trial for grand theft is pending. He no longer works for Hendricks Sports Management and the company is not implicated in the case.)
All of these factors contribute to Chapman’s paradoxical mindset. It’s why he could tell a reporter that “Life here has shown me you can’t trust anybody,” only to start dating (and to some degree, trusting) Claudia Manrique a few weeks later. In Miami, Chapman continues to hang out not with teammates or other athletes but with “people who remind me of Rodney Fernandez,” says Joe Kehoskie. There are plenty of rumors about Chapman chasing women other than Manrique. And he continues to make baffling choices. He’s the guy who remembers to update his vanity plates—his cars have featured “MPH102,” “MPH104,” and “MPH105”—but not to pay his speeding tickets on time.
While the Reds won’t comment on Chapman’s speeding tickets or lawsuits, they seem to be doing as much as they can to help him settle down. (Case in point: Reds trainer Tomas Vera co-signed the mortgage on Chapman’s house in Miami.) And his big-league teammates seem to like him. Francisco Cordero even trusts Chapman enough to rent him his Cincinnati house during the season. “I don’t even think about it twice,” says the ex-Red. From time to time the team will allude to concerns about Chapman’s lifestyle. During spring training last year, Dusty Baker suggested that 2011 had been something of a lost season for Chapman because of “Cuban family stuff.” The Reds manager continued: “Sometimes when he’s not here mentally, you don’t know where he is.”
This year at spring training the Reds are planning to move Chapman back to the rotation—a role with more pressure, more ups and downs, more structure-free days. The physical switch should be easy. “The guy’s a horse,” says ESPN’s Law. “He can be a 35-start, 220-inning guy.” But no one’s quite sure about the mental part. Chapman will have to improve on his emotional volatility and streakiness. And depending on how the $24 million lawsuit plays out, he may have to do so under the most distracting circumstances of his career: Chapman will likely have to attend a deposition in spring, and the trial is currently scheduled for October 7 in Florida, right around the start of the playoffs.
What Chapman’s dealing with, in short, is much bigger than an innings limit or a third pitch. And when it comes to his time away from the ballpark, the Reds appear to know about as much as the rest of us. The home team’s locker room at Great American Ball Park is a big open space, with wooden lockers lining the walls and clusters of couches in the middle. When Chapman first showed up, in 2010, he stayed close to his locker. After a while, he started hanging around the couches occupied by the team’s other Latin American players, teasing, joking, trying to fit in. But at some point, Chapman quietly gravitated back to his locker. It may be a good thing—a case of the team getting more comfortable with him and him getting more comfortable with his true self. And yet it also looks a lot like Chapman being stoic on the mound; or living alone, 30 miles outside Louisville; or frequenting a kitschy hookah bar in Miami. It looks, in other words, like a barrier, a way to retreat—another way for Chapman to remain unknowable.
One of the easiest things to understand is a 105 MPH fastball. One of the hardest, for Reds fans, may be the man who hurls them.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue.
Illustration by John Ritter