Cuban defector looks to cash in with MLB contract

Nathan McGann

Poker’s rise to popularity in American culture was a quick one. Those who follow the game credit Chris Moneymaker, winner of the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, as the reason for the boom. Since his $2.5 million victory, amateur after amateur travels every year to Las Vegas hoping to tread the path Moneymaker traveled first.

And as “The Main Event” continues its weekly broadcast on ESPN, several Major League Baseball franchises have begun their own version of high stakes poker. The prize? Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman is 21 years old. He stands at a lanky 6-feet-4-inches tall and weighs 179 pounds. His fastball has been clocked at a staggering 102 mph. He rose to international fame on Cuba’s national team and dominated at the recent World Baseball Classic.

This past week Chapman officially became a free agent and expects to cash in on a major contract of his own. But his road to Major League glory was a difficult one.

Because he played baseball in Cuba, Chapman would not be allowed to go to the United States freely and offer his services on the sport’s grandest stage. Instead he would have to make a life changing decision, stay home and continue his life of misleading fame or leave everything behind while risking everything he had worked for. His dream and the chance to provide for his family made his decision easy.

But there was an early snag. According to an interview with ESPN’s Jorge Arangure Jr, an unnamed acquaintance had told the young star of a plan for a group of Cubans defecting to another country by means of a sailboat. Chapman was to drive south to nearby Playa Blanca and wait with the others in an obscure beach house. Once the sun set, the freedom hunters would sail and live a new life. Chapman would be eligible to sign with an American club.

As the group sat waiting, a familiar sight and sound approached the beach house. The Cuban police arrived before the defection even got under way. The group was rounded up and arrested, and Chapman was taken home for the time being. Now his entire career was in question. Because he failed to escape, he had no idea whether he would be welcomed back on the Cuban national team.

Chapman was quickly called on by Raul Castro, the Cuban president. Luckily, Castro ruled that Chapman would be suspended for the rest of the National Series season, Cuba’s version of the MLB, and he would be banned from Cuba’s team traveling to the Beijing Olympics.

But, Chapman was welcomed back to the National Series at the beginning of this year and he was eligible to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. It is believed the punishment was not more severe because Castro realized Cuba’s chances in the number of international tournaments would be weakened without Chapman. His talent bought him some time.

Chapman remained determined to leave the place that had complete control over his career, but this time he would do it on his own and avoid any chance of interception. The next opportunity came when Cuba traveled to Holland to participate in the World Port Tournament. He practiced with the team in Havana leading up to the tournament and was scheduled to pitch on the first day.

The team boarded a flight for Rotterdam and, upon landing in Holland, was set to go through customs. Per Cuban law, the Cuban Baseball Federation is ordered to confiscate all players’ passports when traveling. The Federation didn’t on this day, and Chapman realized his opportunity had come. Chapman would need his passport because aside from being his sole source of identification, the passport would be necessary when establishing residency outside of Cuba, something he would need to do to be declared an international free agent.

The team went to their hotel. They posed for pictures and then settled in their rooms. Chapman told his roommate he was going to go have a cigarette outside and when he walked through the hotel doors, he jumped in the car of a friend who was staying in Holland and they simply drove away. The wheels were set in motion and Chapman had finally defected.

After traveling into France and then Spain, Chapman finally established residency in Andorra, a small country that borders both France and Spain and interestingly has no income tax. He would not be subject to baseball’s amateur draft because of his international status and would just await Major League Baseball’s ruling on his free agency status. The petition went through and now he is free to sign where ever he pleases, presumably to the highest bidder.

So who exactly are the player’s in this high-stakes poker affair? The players are expected to be the usual suspects of course. The Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Angels have all expressed interest even before Chapman’s free agency status became official. This past week the Red Sox also announced that they will take a look at him. Because Chapman is expected to garner one of the more lucrative contracts in the majors, most clubs outside of the ones listed here won’t have much of a chance. The Yankees have a history of signing highly touted Cuban defectors as they beat the Red Sox in the bidding war for the services of Jose Contreras back in 2003.

All of these clubs do have concerns, however. They must consider how Chapman will adjust to the pressures of playing in America without the comforts of having his parents, girlfriend or the daughter he has never met. She was born just after he left the team in Holland. Then, there are questions about his size. While he has the height, some scouts worry that his size and strength won’t be able to sustain themselves over the course of a major league season.

Finally and more intriguingly, these clubs need to determine whether or not they value Chapman or Japanese phenom Yu Darvish more highly. Darvish is expected to announce his desire to come to America within the next couple of years, using Red Sox starter Daisuke Matzusaka’s record setting contract as a starting point. Even the high-stakes players will probably have to pick just one.

Still, Chapman’s talent will certainly trump most of these questions and he will get the contract he desires. The big market teams are now in the process of scouting and taking a look at their bank accounts.

Will they be willing to push all-in and risk everything on the arm of this 21-year-old? The poker game has begun.