When he played Cuban baseball, Aroldis Chapman de la Cruz was called “the Cayo Mambi missile,” after the town in Holguin where he was born on February 28, 1988. Now, in the United States, they call him, “the new king of speed.”
The left-hander recently made major league history, throwing a fastball at 105 miles per hour, shattering the mark of 104.8 miles set in 2006 by Joel Zumaya of the Detroit Tigers. If he continues with such powerful pitches, he could topple the record of 115 miles per hour, held by Steve Dalkowski, a retired pitcher from the minor leagues.
The recent feat of Aroldis Chapman, player for the Cincinnati Reds, did not go unnoticed among the island’s fans of the sport of bats and balls. Especially in these autumn days, when Cuban baseball prepares for its 50th series and the national team participates in a watered-down contest celebrated in Puerto Rico until October 12, from which seven slots are awarded for the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
As the quality of the Puerto Rican tournament is mediocre, local fans keep themselves informed through Radio Marti, which broadcasts the post-season major league playoffs from its station in Florida. Or through illegal television antennas which abound in the city, and available for a monthly payment of ten convertible pesos.
Those who can spare the hard currency can watch the Major League playoffs in the Havana hotels that show them. And the following morning they often turn to the “sports corner” in Central Park to discuss the details, such as the record of their fellow countryman Chapman.
And no wonder. A human being throwing 150 miles or 160 kilometers per hour is not something that happens every day. But in Cuba it was no surprise.
Aroldis, a 6 foot 3 player, joined the national team and the World Youth tournament, hell in Sancti Spiritus province in 2006. Two years later, he was wearing the team jersey. In the second Classic, facing a powerful team from Japan, he won, and threw a 101 mile-per-hour pitch.
When he played on the island, the left-hander pitched at meteoric speeds exceeding 100 miles. On a rainy night in 2008 at the height of the fifth inning against the Industriales team, he threw two supersonic lines 100 and 101 miles. Besides a great breaking ball, he has a good slider and top curve ball. He has everything to be a giant.
Aroldis Chapman defected in July 2009 during a tournament in Rotterdam, Holland. In January 2010, he signed, for $30.25 million dollars, for six seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. If injuries do not make a dent in Holguinero, in a few years he could become one of the all-time great Cuban pitchers who have played in the majors.
Besides being a hero in Holguin, for the young and talented players on the island the successes of their compatriots across the pond are an incentive to make the jump to the best baseball in the world.
Millionaires wages are a major temptation for stars who earn the wage of an ordinary worker. And they leave at the first opportunity.
Although these days in Havana, as in Miami, it is rumored that the Castro government could open the door and allow players to participate in the majors, while still based in Cuba. Before, they would have had to play in the national series for seven years.
It is speculated that they would be represented by the state agency Cubadeportes and have to pay tax of up to 40%. Consulted sports officials denied the news. A coach would not confirm, but said that “something is cooking.”
The regime has no way to stop the incessant drip of players who leave each year for the United States. More than 300 have left the country since Rene Arocha in 1991 first took that road.
With prohibitions they have achieved nothing. Most players on the island want to demonstrate their capabilities in the major leagues. And earn six-figure salaries. The real icing on the cake.
Video: Aroldis Chapman during the XXXVII Baseball World Cup held in 2007 in Taipei, China. He then wore his jersey number 52, the number his idol, the Cuban pitcher Jose Ariel Contreras, has in the Philadelphia Phillies. Now, with the Cincinnati Reds, Chapman wears number 54.
November 1, 2010