Reds' Chapman leading Cuban wave to big leagues

 San Francisco Giants' Matt Downs, right, throws to first base after forcing out Los Angeles Angels' Kendry Morales, left, at second base in the secon...
 Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game in Phoenix, Wednesday...

Giants Angels Spring Baseball

San Francisco Giants' Matt Downs, right, throws to first base after forcing out Los Angeles Angels' Kendry Morales, left, at second base in the secon...

Reds Athletics Spring Baseball

Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game in Phoenix, Wednesday...

A few innings are left before Aroldis Chapman gets his turn to pitch. The Cuban defector passes the time in the dugout by showing Cincinnati Reds teammates how much he has learned since the last time they were together.
He starts calling out lists.
In English.
"He's on the bench reciting the days and numbers," shortstop Paul Janish said. "He'll start counting and go all the way up to 300. We're like, 'Dude, one day at a time!'"
No wasted time for Chapman. The 22-year-old lefty has been on the fast track to the majors since the Reds signed him to a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January, one of the richest ever for a young Cuban player. He'll soon get a chance to become the face of the latest wave of players leaving his homeland.
It's a wave that's been building.
The number of Cuban players in the majors has been increasing since the early 1990s, when defectors were treated like traitors on the baseball-rich island. If Chapman and his 100 mph heater can handle the hype and expectations while going through a jolting transition, he could become even more famous than those who blazed the trail from Havana.
More will want to follow.
"I would think so, especially when they start seeing the money that can be made over here," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "There are a lot of talented players. I think every club recognizes there are some quality players in Cuba."
It's always been that way.
Cuba has long been part of baseball's fabric. There were 30 Cuban-born players in the major leagues in 1967, the most ever, according to STATS LLC.
By then, things had already begun to change. Fidel Castro _ himself a huge baseball fan _ had risen to power eight years earlier. The ensuing standoff with the United States _ the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis _ had turned off the spigot of baseball talent heading to the majors.
By the mid-1980s, there were only three Cuban-born players left in the majors, according to STATS LLC. When pitcher Rene Arocha defected from the Cuban national team in 1991, he forged a path that many have followed, including Chapman.
Despite being condemned as traitors by the Cuban government, the players kept coming. Some became big stars _ Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez helped the Yankees win three World Series titles from 1998-2000; Livan Hernandez was the 1997 World Series MVP for the Marlins; Rey Ordonez became a Gold Glove shortstop with the Mets.
Most who leave the island fail to reach the majors. No surprise there. Only a small percentage of players from any country _ including the United States _ reach the top after turning pro. Seventeen Cuban-born players are either in the major leagues or close to moving up this year.
Leaving Cuba is viewed back home as more of a career move these days, though it's still a touchy subject.
Asked if Cubans have come to accept baseball defections, Angels first baseman Kendry Morales declined to get into it.
"Too political," he said, through a translator.
Many stars chose to stay rather than leave for a chance to see how they'd stack up in the majors.
Third baseman Omar Linares helped the island nation win Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996 and is considered one of the greatest Cuban players of modern times. He said he began receiving big-money offers when he was 14 and playing in youth tournament in Venezuela.
Linares said he had no regrets about turning down the chance to make tens of millions of dollars, and never wondered how he could've spent such riches.
"No idea and I don't care," Linares said in Cuba last year. "I never stop to think about that. I'm faithful to my country and my people."
As for the players who defected, "they did it for financial reasons," he said.
"That was their choice and that's their deal. But they are what they are because they were formed in Cuba and were trained to reach something in life. It's Cuba's credit whatever accomplishments they can reach."
Arriving in the U.S. isn't easy. Cubans have to adapt to a new language, new food, new culture. They leave their families behind and can feel very much alone.
"It's a big adjustment," said Morales, who defected and signed with the Angels in 2004. "I would say that just getting over the mental hurdle of what I had to overcome, just to get out of there and then arriving is the biggest thing."
When Chapman defected from the Cuban national team during a tournament in the Netherlands last July, he showed resolve to get through the tough transition. Major league teams wondered how he would handle it.
"A theme of many clubs was how long it would take him to adjust to America culturally, and to major league baseball," agent Randy Hendricks said. "He said he wanted teams to know that while he may be from Cuba, don't treat him like some typical Cuban player. He was pretty adamant about that, in a friendly way: 'I'm who I am, don't lump me in with everybody else who came before me.'"
It was something of a surprise when he wound up picking the Reds, one of three teams that pursued him the hardest. Oakland also was in the running at the end _ a pair of small-market teams hoping to make a big-time investment in their future.
Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox dropped out of the bidding for a promising talent.
"Their focus is on winning now," Hendricks said.
So far, Chapman seems to be handling it well. There's a core of Latin American players in the clubhouse that has become a support system. Bullpen coach Juan Lopez became his translator and friend.
"The other day, he wanted some rice and beans, and Lopez cooked it for him," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's how you get over being lonely."
On the field, he's been impressive. Back spasms forced him to miss a week in March and scuttled his chances of winning a place in the major league staff. Still, he was one of the team's biggest attractions, a pitcher who made everyone stop and watch when he hiked that right leg up to mid-chest and let the ball fly.
"As Dusty said early on, the fact that he doesn't understand English has probably helped him somewhat, not realizing all the hype that's been put on him," Jocketty said.
Actually, he seems to have a pretty good sense of what's going on.
After pitching two ragged innings during an 8-3 win over Oakland during the last week of spring training, the lanky lefty walked up a shaded breezeway to the no-frills clubhouse _ four bags of bread were spread on a table, next to a jar of creamy peanut butter and a half-dozen brown bananas _ to get into his new postgame routine.
He checked messages on his BlackBerry phone, then got ready to answer questions from a handful of reporters. Lopez translated.
Asked about the Reds' plans to start him in the minors, he answered without hesitation, then listened as Lopez put it in English.
"He doesn't worry about it," Lopez said. "He knows he's going to pitch in the big leagues. When? He doesn't know."
Everyone knows it won't be long.
Associated Press Writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and AP freelance writer Jim Richards in Tempe, Ariz., contributed to this story.

Updated : 2021-03-06 23:34 GMT+08:00