Pitcher Edinson Volquez joked he wanted to grow his dreads as long as Bob Marley's. Pitchers Johnny Cueto and Pedro Viola teased closer Francisco Cordero that his shoes looked like skis when they rested on top of each other. Special assistant Mario Soto sat in the middle of it all, and just shook his head.
Near the group, Reds rookie pitcher Aroldis Chapman sat in front of his locker. First, he crossed his arms and stretched his long legs. Later, he rested his chin on his fingers, like an impersonation of "The Thinker." He watched in silence.
Then he smiled. Someone hollered at him, wanting to know what the young "Cubano" thought of all the silliness.
Everyone, it seems, wants to know what Chapman is thinking these days.
By now, almost everyone in baseball knows about Chapman's potential, the family he left behind in Cuba and the six-year, $30.25 million deal he signed with Cincinnati. Many are familiar with his journey to the United States after defection from Cuba before an international tournament in the Netherlands. His pitching statistics in Cuba are an Internet search away. His image is everywhere.
But what about Chapman the man? And at 21, is he a man yet? Who will Chapman be tomorrow and who will he become in five years? The Reds hoped to provide some insight Monday when they put him on a podium for an afternoon news conference. The Reds, who've given limited media access to Chapman this spring, also want to better know their own pitching sensation. He is the future ace of the franchise.
For some, Chapman is like a son, a brother and in some ways, a father. He is a teammate and is the most intriguing player in the clubhouse. How Chapman will develop remains unknown, but he already has struck a chord with some in the clubhouse because of who they think he is.
"He reminds me of myself when I came up to the big leagues," Cordero said. "He's quiet and he doesn't talk a lot, even to us in Spanish. I understand that. You don't know anybody at that age and it's important you show guys respect. You don't want to be the one that is loud or have people call you names. You just work and when it's your time to talk, you talk."
"You play for the Reds, your family, |
but also for that Cuban flag where you come from. The U.S. provides all the opportunity and it's unbelievable, but your home country represents your roots. That's where [Chapman and I] bond, over the Cuban blood in our veins."
|-- Reds infielder Yonder Alonso|
Cordero, the elder statesman among the Latino pitchers in the clubhouse, has a reputation as a mentor that dates back to his days in Texas and Milwaukee. He hasn't yet had a long conversation with Chapman about the responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete, but is always open to talk. The closer also doesn't want to force the issue.
The Reds want Chapman's relationships to form naturally.
"I'm into letting [players] gravitate toward each other and letting relationships evolve," manager Dusty Baker said. "The new guy does not want to fall into a group right away, so you intertwine with everybody and get to know people.
"He's shy but we expected that right now," he continued. "There are a lot of things new to him. He probably didn't have the clothes he has now or the freedom he has now. He seems very happy. He's quiet."
Quiet? Reds first baseman Yonder Alonso describes Chapman another way: hilarious. Like Chapman, Alonso, 22, is from Cuba. Unlike Chapman, the Alonsos received permission from the Cuban government to leave the island in 1995.
The two have become close friends.
"We both come from the same country and we both have the same goals," Alonso said. "You play for the Reds, your family, but also for that Cuban flag where you come from. The U.S. provides all the opportunity and it's unbelievable, but your home country represents your roots. That's where we bond, over the Cuban blood in our veins."
The men also bond over food. A couple of times a week, it's up to Alonso to cook beans, rice, beef and chicken for Chapman and the other Latin players. Keeping Chapman fed is important. Eventually, his teammates will help him learn English.
"It's hard coming to this country and as Latinos, we have all been there, so we all help him out as much as we can," Alonso said. "Trust me, he's always eating Latin food so there is no problem with that. We all know how to cook on this team."
Chapman's story reminds Alonso of his own father's journey. Luis Alonso was a catcher and coach for the Havana Industriales during his younger days in Cuba. He considered defection, but never went through with it.
"My father traveled around Cuba playing baseball and he had the temptation of leaving the island, but he didn't do it because he didn't want to leave us," the first baseman said. "I don't think people really understand how hard it is to leave your family. I never saw my grandmother or grandfather after I left when I was 8. Here, you can have favorite cousins or uncles or aunts, but you don't get that when you leave Cuba. You are gone and they are gone and you maybe never see them again."
Reds' Class A Dayton pitching coach Tony Fossas can also relate to Chapman's plight and that's likely why he is paired with the pitcher during Spring Training. Fossas and his family left Cuba in 1968.
"For me, it's about assimilation and being a good person," Fossas said. "He has the talent and he's mature, but it's not always about that. I always believe that in order to be a good player or good at whatever career you choose, you have to be a good person. I tell that to my two kids. My son, Mark, is about his age and I see a lot of him in Aroldis."
So far, Chapman has thrown two bullpen sessions and will throw another on Monday. He is scheduled to face live hitters on Wednesday and Saturday, and plans to pitch in a game in a few weeks.
His pitching mechanics are not where they will be at midseason, but that's normal for pitchers during Spring Training -- especially young pitchers. In that way, Chapman is just like every other young player or person in the world.
"I have a 22-year-old daughter, and you have to understand a person's age and where they are at during this time of their lives," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "You want everybody to look like an old pro, but they are not. He's a kid, as are a lot of guys in our clubhouse, and as much as you want to hold them all accountable and all follow the same rules, you have to have an appreciation of what it's like to be a young person. There is a learning curve and a maturation process."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.