CHICAGO — Like too many ballplayers with interesting and sometimes controversial pasts, Aroldis Chapman would prefer that his game do the talking. If so, it’s always going to be a short conversation.
Chapman’s game involves throwing 100-plus-mph fastballs past hitters, rarely for more than an inning. That’s it. In Chicago’s 5-2 win Saturday night against the Giants, 12 of the 16 pitches he threw registered three digits on the radar gun. What was rare is that at the end of an eventful week, the Cubs’ expensive new closer — via Cuba, Cincinnati and finally New York — stood still long enough to field a handful of questions.
“I love the responsibility. I love that it falls on my shoulders,” Chapman said through a translator after closing out both of Chicago’s NL Division Series wins at Wrigley Field to pick up his first two postseason saves. Yet a city desperate to break a century-and-counting World Series drought is already counting on even more.
“The pressure is on, but I can handle that. I understand the city and the fans are up and hyped up,” Chapman added, “but that’s fine, too.”
To describe Chapman’s arrival in July as rough does not do it justice.
He came in a trade with the Yankees barely two months after serving a 30-game suspension as the first violator of MLB’s new domestic violence policy. He was accused of choking his girlfriend and then firing a gun during an argument late last year in his Florida home, though charges were never filed.
Making matters worse, his welcome-to-town news conference was a disaster. Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ popular president of baseball operations, went to great lengths to explain that the front office made clear the importance of his off-field behavior. Chapman said that was news to him. If so, it didn’t affect his reception in the clubhouse.
“You notice when guys fit in,” said backup catcher David Ross, the Cubs’ unofficial clubhouse judge. “With him it was seamless. He doesn’t speak great English, but he’s always smiling. He made friends quick.”
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Chapman posted 16 saves in 18 opportunities, with a 1.01 ERA heading into the postseason. Or that he averaged — yes, averaged — a pitch speed of 101 mph.
Asked what impressed him most, Ross said: “Other than his velocity? … He’s got a calming presence. Moments never get too big for him, which calms everybody else down.”
Everybody on Chapman’s side, anyway. When it comes to opposing pitchers, not so much.
“He has that mentality,” fellow Cubs closer Hector Rondon said. “We’re in the same role, but he’s different from me. Me, I don’t care where anybody else is looking, I’m focusing only on home plate.
“Aroldis, he looks at the hitter,” Rondon added, “like he’s showing who is in charge.”
Chapman comes by that toughness honestly. He’s the son of a boxing coach who didn’t take up baseball until he was 13. But he was selected to Cuba’s vaunted national team at age 17 and was a bona fide star soon after, thanks to a breakout performance at the 2007 Pan Am Games. A year later, he made his first attempt to defect.
The Chicago Tribune reported last week that after Chapman was caught trying to escape, he cooperated with the Cuban government in the prosecutions of four men accused of offering to smuggle him out. All four were convicted of human trafficking and sent to prison; two alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that Chapman was an informant for Fidel Castro and should be held responsible for their torture while in prison.
The newspaper also said Chapman’s cooperation allowed him to return quickly to the national team. In the summer of 2009, while in Netherlands for a game, he took advantage of that reprieve and defected. Chapman hasn’t addressed the newspaper’s report, but he told The New York Times earlier this year he isn’t interested in rehashing the past.
That likely includes Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS, when Chapman allowed 3 runs — all unearned, thanks to miscues by the Reds’ outfielders — against the Phillies in what turned out to be a three-game sweep. Ditto for the skull fracture he suffered after being struck by a line drive in a March 2014 spring training game against the Royals.
Few things serve a closer better than a short memory. Chapman checks that box, too. Big as the moments he experienced this weekend and in postseasons past may have seemed, he can’t wait to find out what’s next.
“In Cincinnati, maybe the crowds weren’t the same,” Chapman said finally. “But already, I love this.”