Aroldis Chapman’s Defection from Cuba Should Make Us Reconsider Our Opinions of Athletes

On paper, the story seemed exciting; in reality, it was rather run-of-the-mill. After a failed attempt to escape a year earlier, a man simply took the elevator down to the lobby of the Domina Hotel in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and walked out the front door. A car pulled up and drove him away. That was it—highly touted Cuban southpaw flamethrower Aroldis Chapman had defected.

On the first day of last July, the Cuban national baseball team was in Rotterdam to play in the World Port tournament. The next day—Chapman wasn’t playing ball. The Cuban team still listed him on the roster, but he was gone. Gone for good.

No dramatic journey on a packed and rickety boat, no escape plot, no explosions, no movie-script style drama. Open the door. Walk out. Chapman was no longer Cuban “property.” Chapman, who turned twenty-two just a few weeks ago, signed a six-year, $30.25 million dollar deal with the major league Cincinnati Reds just over a month ago. He wields a once-in-a-generation left arm, hitting triple digits on the radar gun with his fastball. His repertoire features a hard upper-80s slider. Dazzling the baseball world in last year’s World Baseball Classic, Chapman is the best player to come out of Cuba since former defector Jose Contreras. With his raw stuff, Chapman has the potential to be one of the best players to come out of anywhere—ever. 100-mile-per-hour throwing lefties hardly grow on trees.

Most major league scouts think Chapman could use a season or two in the minors, but it seems as if the fifth and final spot in the Reds’ starting rotation is Chapman’s to lose—only the month of March will tell. If Tuesday is any indication, however, the Reds are going to be hard-pressed not to give him the spot. In his American professional debut, he threw two scoreless innings, fanning three, inducing two groundball outs, and most impressively, hitting 102 mph on the gun.

Here we have another beautiful American success story. An oppressed, manipulated, and under-paid, extremely talented son of a socialist state defects to the land of the free, makes millions, is loved by all. You can see the movie scripts now—too bad his defection lacked a certain dramatic quality.

Chapman is just another reason we Americans get to pat ourselves on the back. We are the place everyone wants to be and our pastime just got that much richer. Baseball fans everywhere were buzzing this summer about where Chapman would sign, what impact he would make, whether he would begin his career in the majors or the minors. The biggest story behind the guy was that he signed with the unsuspecting, irrelevant-for-the-last-decade Reds instead of the usual suspects, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim), or the Boston Red Sox.

Yet is that really the biggest story here? Where the guy signed? How fast he threw in his first outing? Sure he didn’t come storming out of an exploding building, rush past Cuban armed guards, dive headfirst into a getaway car, and/or travel incognito to the States, but the defection is certainly a bigger story than is being made here. Perhaps it is because the defection itself is a rather ugly story, not something American baseball fans really want to hear about—we just want to see the guy pitch.

Chapman spent an hour thinking about the decision in the hotel before he acted. An hour. Seems a little rash.

No big deal—he’s only twenty-two (twenty-one at the time); he’s young and has no obligations, you say? Wrong. Chapman leaves his family, his girlfriend, and their infant daughter, who was born just days before his defection and whom he has not seen, back in Cuba. In fact, they had no idea he had even considered defecting. You might say that making big-time American money is the best way to help them, but it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Chapman never sees his family again—never see his daughter, ever.

Would I pay to see Chapman pitch? Absolutely. Will I watch his regular season debut? Wouldn’t miss it for anything—even if I have to switch over on my MLB.TV subscription from the Texas Rangers game to do so, I will be watching intently.

But as sports fans, we must do our best to retain some perspective, not just in the case of Chapman, but also across the league. The Josh Hamilton story captivated fans everywhere when the Texas Ranger outfielder and former first overall pick returned from multiple suspensions and a horrible crack cocaine addiction to become an AL MVP candidate in 2008 and inspiration to thousands. These stories are too few and far between, however. Baseball turned a blind eye to gambling in the early 20th century until it cost baseball the 1919 World Series with the “Black Sox Scandal.” Former starting pitcher Rick Helling warned baseball of the widespread epidemic of steroid use in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2005 that baseball even tried to do something about it.

Home run chases are fun. 100 mph pitches are exciting. We must remember, however, that players are not just cogs in our entertainment wheel but that they are people. As such, they are not perfect. If Aroldis Chapman goes out on the hill on Apr. 9 against the Chicago Cubs in front of a sell-out home crowd and is lights-out, we should not shine a light down and crown him king. If he gets shelled, Reds fans, and fans of baseball shouldn’t discount the guy and think he is a failure. Perhaps, we should have already made that judgment last July—too bad the lack of explosions meant that few even heard about it.

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