Free To Do What You Love

July 5, 2019

 

One of the greatest gifts of being a member of the global baseball and softball community is the opportunity to learn from those who’ve come before us. That is the tradition of our sports and the learning curve works exactly the same for those who cover the games, as it does for those play them. We were reminded of this during the London Series.

 

Seated in the press box, I had the good fortune to sit with Netherlands sports reporter Lennart Bloemhof. Beyond pleasantries of the profession we swapped stories of our experiences, both personal and professional, within the sport of baseball. It was during this exchange I learned about a European story, several in fact, that predate EBSM’s existence.

 

Nearly 5 hours following first pitch, Aroldis Chapman stepped onto the mound for the New York Yankees. Bloemhof off-handedly mentioned the connection between this pitcher and his homeland. A story he had reported on back in 2015, as the borders between American baseball and Cuba were coming down.

 

In 2009, during the 12th World Port Tournament, Chapman was a member of Cuba’s national baseball team. The LHP left the team hotel with a friend and disappeared. Aroldis would emerge in the country of Andorra, a small landlocked nation situated between Spain and France.

 

That was how the story was told in real time but the details, as with all life journeys of this magnitude, would only begin emerging years later. 

 

To begin, this was not Chapman’s first attempt to leave Cuba.

 

At home, 21-year old Albertin Aroldis Chapman played for the Holguin Sabuesos and the Cuban national team. Chapman comes from a long line of migrating people. His grandparents emigrated to Cuba from Jamaica, for a better education, and his family name can be traced back to English settlers of Jamaica back in the late 1600s.

 

During his first attempt to leave, Chapman traveled south to Playa Blanca and waited until nightfall in a beach house. Along with others, under the cover of night, he planned to board a boat and sail to freedom. The boat was tended by police and the ballplayer’s escape plan, for the moment, was foiled.

 

He was summoned to President Raul Castro’s home in Havana. Expecting the worse, Aroldis planned to defect if the ball was taken from his hand. Instead, he was granted a conditional reprieve that included suspension for the remainder of the season, an agreement that benched him for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Chapman was allowed to return in 2009 and he joined the team at the World Baseball Classic.

 

The Cubans included him on their World Port roster, a precursor to the Baseball World Cup held in Spain that September. Aroldis decided he would use the tournament to defect. He told ESPN’s Jorge Arangure Jr., back in November of 2009, “I thought that, in that tournament, it would be easier. There would be less security.”

 

He told no one, not even family, of his plan.

 

Champman boarded the plane to Holland on July 1st having missed the birth of his baby girl, born just days earlier while he was at the team practices in Havana. Aroldis entered the country with no plan in place for defecting, just the will to be free.

 

As they arrived in Europe, the Cuban Federation did not follow the protocol of confiscating player passports as they cleared customs. That allowed players to hold onto their documents until they were at the hotel. Aroldis, with all the vigor of a 21-year old, saw his chance and grabbed it. He knew that, with his documents, he could prove his identity and establish residency, both requirements for free agency.

 

Chapman had lunch with the team, posed for his headshot for the tournament and went to his room to hang out with roommate Vladimir Garcia. He told his roommate he was going down for a smoke and, in true life imitating art fashion, never came back. He took with him his passport and a pack of smokes. Some time following their arrival Aroldis had phoned a friend he knew would be in town to arrange a ride, so he walked away knowing he had the means to escape.

 

On July 2, 2009, word of Chapman’s defection had begun circling the baseball globe. Mister-baseball reported on the matter instantly,

 

“He still was listed on the team lineup, when Cuba stepped on the field to play against the Netherlands at the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam on Thursday evening. But he wasn’t really there. It is another big blow for the record Baseball World Cup champion, as hard-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman apparently defected on Wednesday and will travel to Miami today.”

 

He credited both CubaenCentro, the first to report, and later ESPN’s confirmation, with the scoop. Mister-Baseball furthered the narrative having confirmed with the Dutch players that they had seen Chapman on the ground as he took his seat in that waiting car.

 

For the next four days Ardolis was your typical 20-something in Amsterdam. He partied with his local friend and waited for a buddy he knew, now living in the States, to arrive. They worked out an agency agreement between them for his representation through an MLB agent who had never before represented a rostered player. The men drove 22 hours straight to Barcelona and that was that, Chapman was a free agent.

 

That is where the second European baseball city involved in Chapman’s journey joined the journey. While awaiting the paperwork, Ardolis practiced at the Viladecans Baseball Stadium in Spain.

 

As we’ve seen in the past, flight comes with life-altering consequences for players and their families. In Chapman’s case, he not only left parents and siblings behind, but an unseen child. He would not meet his daughter until March of 2014, just shy of her 5th birthday. He suffered losses for that decision. Not only did he lose bonding time with his baby girl, he lost the relationship he had with her mother as well. Just 26-years old by that time, he had made sacrifices for the sport that came at great personal costs.

 

When interviewed by MLB.com about the reunion Chapman said,

 

“There will be a time that she is going to realize why her dad left. She is also going to understand why I was here in this country and why I came to this country. She will understand that all of these years that she missed me, that I was doing this for her. She will understand why I was away from home.”

 

The involvement of the Cincinnati Reds organization in Chapman’s story should not surprise anyone involved in Europe’s game. Well ahead of their colleagues in the MLB, they have been scouting internationally, cherry-picking their favorites, for quite a while now. In 2010, they offered a 22-year old Cuban defector $30M to join their bullpen.

 

Chapman has proven his worth in a multitude of ways since then. On September 24, 2010, he threw the fasted pitch ever recorded in competition, 105 MPH. He is a 2-time national league All Star player and has, thus far, been named to the roster a total of 6 times since 2012, including this season.

 

Chapman played for the Reds from 2010-2015. He Spent 2016 in a Blue Jays, Yankees and Cubs uniform and has been on the Yankees bench ever since. This season he’s won 2 and lost 1 while saving 24. Chapman is posting a 1.82 ERA over 37 games and 34.2 innings of work. He’s given up just walked 12 while striking out 50 and only 7 runs have been earned against him. He has a .942 fielding percentage as a pitcher with 2 errors and 2 assists, as well as a putout, in 5 chances.

 

Chapman’s defection journey through Europe is not a solo run. SS Aledmys Diaz defected during the 2012 Haarlem Baseball Week Tournament and was playing for the Cardinals in 2016. He became the first defector for the Cardinals to become an All Star. RHP Odrisamer Despaigne Orue defected through the World Port tournament in 2013. He became a legal resident of Spain and traveled to Mexico where he held a showcase for the MLB in 2014, before signing with the Padres. During the 2011 World Port Tournament, LHP Gerardo Concepcion, defected through Mexico to his career in the MLB. He signed with the organization in 2012 and was on the 40-man roster for the Cubs during their World Series season before his 2017 release.

 

The 17th World Port Tournament is about to begin in Rotterdam. Don’t head to The Netherlands expecting to witness more of Cuba’s baseball history unfolding however. Firstly, the team is not scheduled to play but, even if it were, defections are no longer an issue. At least not for the moment.

 

Since 2018, Cubans have been allowed to sign with MLB teams without defecting following an agreement between the MLB and Cuban Federation. The Federation receives a fee for use of the player. In exchange, the players retain residency and the ability to play for the national team.

 

Learning about the tie between baseball, The Netherlands and the MLB is certainly one piece of the cloth that is our collective story. Europe’s game has played a huge role in the lives of many MLB players, past and present. It is always a great day when new threads to bind us are discovered. When that happens during another opportunity to further that bond, especially on the international stage, with an event like the London Series, that’s just a special day all around. When you do what you love, together you make history.  

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