A world of his own
Aroldis Chapman lives the American dream, but pines for the life he left in Cuba
ESPN The Magazine: Aroldis Chapman's American dream
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!
IT IS WELL past noon in the mansion they call the American Dream House, and the owner has yet to wake up. Half a dozen friends and relatives sit under an imported Italian chandelier in the living room, watching the hours pass on a silver-plated clock, waiting for Aroldis Chapman to come downstairs. House rules dictate that nobody disturbs him; it is Chapman's $30 million contract that paid for this house, and it is his singular left arm that brought his family from a coastal province in Cuba to the manicured suburbs of Florida's gold coast, where nothing is quite as they expected.
"We are usually just sitting here, trying to pass the hours," says Maria Caridad, his mother, speaking in Spanish as the clock closes in on 1 p.m. She mops the kitchen floor even though a crew of six housecleaners performed the same chore a few days earlier. She turns on some salsa music and cooks pigs' feet on the kitchen stove, leaning over the pot to inhale the familiar smell. "This reminds me of Cuba," she says. "Of home."
Across the living room, her husband and Aroldis' father, Juan Alberto, turns the TV to Channel 374, the only Spanish-language station available on their deluxe cable package. One of Chapman's assistants has been teaching Juan Alberto some English, hoping to ease the 74-year-old's transition to the United States, but the lessons fail to solve a bigger problem. "I'm too old to learn, and there's no one here I need to talk to anyway," he says, so he settles into the recliner for his third Cuban soap opera of the day.
Every new immigrant in this household has developed an antidote to boredom, and for Aroldis, it is sleep. Midday gives way to early afternoon. Early afternoon turns toward dusk. His parents move outside to sit by the swimming pool, where they study the ornate drapes of his second-story bedroom for any sign of movement. Some days during the offseason, the Reds' 25-year-old closer stays in his room until sunset, sleeping, watching movies or just throwing a racquetball against his bedroom wall.
Finally, a few minutes before 4 p.m., the curtains lift and Chapman descends the spiral staircase to the pool deck. He wears sandals, sunglasses and a tank top obscured by heavy gold chains. He lights a Marlboro Red cigarette and flops down onto an all-weather mattress near the pool.
"Why so late like this?" Maria Caridad asks. "Why all this sleeping?"
"There's nothing else to do," he says.
This is the irony of Chapman's life in the United States and a dilemma familiar to many Cuban athletes: He spent so much time and energy working to reach this place that he rarely considered what it would mean to finally arrive -- a feeling of destiny and displacement all at once.
Chapman defected from Cuba in July 2009, signed with the Reds the following January and bought this $1.8 million offseason home in Davie, Fla., in 2011 mainly because it reminded him of American mansions he had seen on TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: a grand entry hall, oil paintings, an eight-seat movie theater and a five-car garage, all within an hour's drive of Miami. It's close enough to a Cuban community but removed from the temptations of South Beach. "My first home," he says, gesturing toward the raised ceilings and the 20-foot Christmas tree. "Not so bad." But he sometimes gets lost amid Davie's identical streets and man-made canals, and he swims barely well enough to enjoy his own pool. The hallway lamps still bear their price tags. The books in his personal library are not only titled in unfamiliar English but are hollowed and fake, bought by his home designer at World Market for $5.99 each.
Sometimes Chapman walks through the quiet halls of his five-bedroom, six-bath mansion and finds himself missing the humble three-room house, with its leaky ceiling and cracked walls, where he grew up -- missing the living room crowded with relatives, the friends, noise, gossip, chaos and uncertainty. "There is my life in Cuba and my life in America, the old life and the new life, and almost nothing about them is the same," he says.
Even his relationship with baseball, the game that brought him here, has begun to change since he abandoned his Cuban national team at a tournament in the Netherlands, walking out of his hotel with nothing but a passport and a pack of cigarettes to begin his slow escape to the United States. "I get bored of watching baseball on TV," he says. "It's repetitive to me." So instead of practicing his pitching during the offseason, he spends time in the batting cages at a nearby school. The man who threw the fastest recorded pitch in major league history -- clocked at 105 mph in a 2010 game -- now imagines what it would be like to play first base.
His mother brings him breakfast -- meat and beans, with a glass of mango juice -- by the pool as he lights another cigarette. He stares out at his waterfall and palm trees and a man-made pond in the distance. "Life here is easy," he says. "This is fat living, and that's nice. But sometimes I miss the craziness. That's the problem I'm trying to solve."
A few years ago, Chapman and fellow Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez began reconnecting with boxers from their homeland, offering to sponsor them once they reached the U.S. Chapman says his motivation was simple: Here was a chance to retrace his own journey, to support fellow Cuban athletes still trying to earn their way. Maybe he could vicariously experience some of the scrappiness and uncertainty that defined his life before his defection.
For a while, Chapman says, he considered partnering with the rapper 50 Cent and starting a formal boxing promotion company, but those plans dissolved within a few months. "I don't want it to be so complicated -- promoters, a business plan, none of that," Chapman says. So instead, he offers informal help to half a dozen Cuban boxers who are now training in New York and Miami. He helps cover their travel costs, rent and training supplies. "An investor" is how the boxers describe Chapman's role, but Chapman doesn't care whether they pay him back, and no one does. "This is as much for me as it is for them," he says. "They get some money. I get some of the old excitement."
Chapman had once wanted to be a boxer too. In Cuba his father was a trainer and later an athletics official for the state, which meant that Chapman's family owned the only three sets of boxing gloves in his rural neighborhood. Aroldis spent afternoons sparring with friends after school, drawing the borders of a boxing ring with his foot in the dirt road next to his house. He possessed a knockout left hook, quick feet and a quicker temper, which sometimes caused him to fly into a rage and throw rocks when he lost. "You have the temperament for a calmer game," his mother told him one day when Chapman was 11, forbidding him from boxing. "Try baseball instead," she said.
So he started playing first base for a local team, became a pitcher at 15 and within two years was one of Cuba's best prospects. He played on the national team for a few years before successfully defecting on his second attempt, an unconventional escape from the Cuban team's Rotterdam hotel that was followed by four days of partying in Amsterdam, 22 hours of driving through France with an MLB agent and a few months spent establishing residency in Andorra to qualify as a free agent. The agents who traveled to Europe to pursue him talked mostly about the money and the freedom that would define his future, but Chapman says he spent just as much time thinking about his past. He had left behind his girlfriend and 3-day-old daughter. He had not even told his parents he was planning to defect, never said a single goodbye. "They didn't know anything," he says. "I just disappeared. What choice did I have? I left it all behind with no idea what was next."
After a lifetime in communist Cuba, he behaved with a freedom that felt to him entirely American and with the flashiness to which he believed American stars were entitled. Hire a personal bodyguard? Absolutely. Pose for pictures with a lingerie-wearing waitress? Sure. Arrange for a stripper to meet him at hotel rooms on the road? Why not?
He collected six speeding tickets. He wore sunglasses indoors and did a somersault off the pitching mound. He became tabloid fodder when his hotel room was robbed, possibly aided by the stripper. He switched to a bigger agent and a bigger manager and cut ties with friends who had facilitated his defection. In 2012 he became the target of a $24 million lawsuit that alleges Chapman made false accusations to Cuban state authorities after his failed defection attempt that landed an acquaintance in prison and allowed Chapman to regain a spot on the country's national baseball team.
While the case is pending in U.S. District Court, Chapman -- who has denied through his lawyer that he did anything improper -- stays home and sleeps. "I don't know who I can trust and who is using me for who I am," he says. Out of an abundance of caution, he has decided to trust nobody. Teammates regard him as cordial but distant. "Sometimes, when he's not here mentally, you don't know where he is," then-Reds manager Dusty Baker said in 2011.
Every immigrant chases memories, re-creating a community that feels somehow familiar, and Chapman has spent four years building his. During his first stop in the U.S. -- White Plains, N.Y., where he lived for two months with Edwin Mejia, his first agent -- Chapman spent each morning at a small Dominican restaurant, where the owner cooked him salami and mashed plantains for breakfast. In Coral Springs, Fla., where Chapman lived while training for his first season, he spent many evenings at a Hispanic senior center, where the bingo games were called in Spanish and the old-timers told stories of Cuba before Fidel Castro took power. "It's so much success happening so fast," he says. "You spend your whole life trying to make it, and then you wake up with everything. It's confusing."
Chapman has a small circle of confidants, including his parents, who arrived in January 2013. His daughter, Ashanti Brianna, now 4, and her mother, Raidelmis Mendosa Santiestelas, finally joined him in the U.S. in January. He won't talk about the details of how they left Cuba, but he clearly values their presence. "I'm either by myself or with them," he says, "because they understand life before and life now."
When their company isn't enough to bridge the divide, Chapman goes alone to the top floor of his house in Davie, walking past the plastic pears in the kitchen and the hollow books in the library. He goes into his gym and puts on a pair of boxing gloves. Then he steps up to the punching bag and hits something solid.
A FEW WEEKS after his 2013 season, Chapman invited one of his boxers to the mansion for a winter visit. Yordenis Ugas represented Cuba in the 2008 Olympics before defecting. His immigration story is quite different from Chapman's. "Nothing here is easy," Ugas says. His U.S. professional career has been a succession of ramen dinners and group apartments. He bounces from Miami to New York to New Jersey, training wherever he can, fighting whoever will fight him. He arrived at Chapman's mansion light on cash and exhausted.
Chapman rarely offers any of his boxers advice -- "They are professionals," he says -- and he rarely talks to them about his own career. Instead, he shares details about his early life in Cuba: the steel bars that guarded the windows of his childhood bedroom from the neighborhood gang violence, or the way he learned to pitch by throwing a rock wrapped inside a sock.
"He likes to trade stories of the struggles," says Ugas, who at 27 is two years older than Chapman. "That's what we all have in common. Now he's famous, but he still misses little things about the old life."
Ugas had to leave after a few days in Florida to catch a flight to New York. He was scheduled as an undercard at a small venue, where he hoped to earn a few months' rent by fighting a shady opponent who had yet to be cleared by doctors. "My crazy adventure," Ugas says.
Chapman had to leave for Cincinnati to attend a mandatory fan appreciation day, where he would serve as a public ambassador for a city he hardly knows. That was the irony of the immigrant life at the highest ends of American baseball: He still felt like a foreigner, but thousands of fans had committed the details of his life to memory and purchased an imitation version of his jersey. Chapman's autograph line in Cincinnati would be staffed by a translator. He would visit hospitals and hug sick strangers. "My day job," he says.
The two men said goodbye at the mansion and headed off into their disparate versions of immigrant America, each in some ways envious of the other.
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