By Josh Cook
In the offseason Louisville Slugger Field added a third number to the outfield sign that registers a pitcher's miles per hour on a throw.
By coincidence the Louisville Bats also added a pitcher who can hit triple digits.
Rookie left-hander Aroldis Chapman, whose fastball has been clocked at 100 miles per hour, met with the local media Wednesday morning in his first public appearance in Louisville. The 22-year-old Cuban defector, who was considered by many the best amateur left-handed pitching prospect in the world when he signed a six-year, $30.25 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January, will begin the season with the Bats. Louisville, the Reds' Triple-A affiliate, opens its season Thursday at Toledo.
Chapman is slated to make his American professional debut Sunday against the Mud Hens. So if the schedule holds up Chapman, who'll be the fourth starter in Louisville's five-man pitching rotation, would make his Slugger Field debut April 16 in the Bats' third home game of the season.
"I feel really good, I feel happy," Chapman said through Bats trainer Tomas Vera, who will act as the pitcher's interpreter while he's in Louisville. "My family backed me up in what I did and that's why I feel good about it."
Chapman defected from his home country on July 1, 2009 when he walked out of his hotel in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where the Cuban national team was playing in the World Port Tournament, climbed into a car and was driven away by an acquaintance. He left his mother, father, two sisters, girlfriend and newborn baby, whom he's reportedly never seen, in Cuba.
The bidding war among Major League Baseball teams for Chapman's services began after his defection. Somewhat surprisingly Cincinnati, a mid-market team, inked Chapman to a deal in January.
"When you look at the size of the market where we are in Cincinnati, we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try and improve this franchise and make it better," Reds general manager
Walt Jocketty said at a January news conference at Great American Ball Park.
Other than his pedestrian performance at the 2009 World Baseball Classic - he was 0-1 with a 5.68 earned run average with eight strikeouts in two starts - little was known about Chapman in this country. But he was impressive with Cincinnati at spring training in Florida, going 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA while striking out 15 in 10.2 innings. However his chances of making the Reds' five-man rotation were hampered by a back injury that shelved him for a week. When he was optioned to Louisville last Friday Jocketty told MLB.com: "We felt competition-wise, that's where he should be. We just felt competition and environment, and so forth, were better. Plus, they've got some long bus rides in (Double-A) Carolina."
Chapman said that he plans on honing his game, as well as his English, while he's with Louisville.
"I have to adapt to American baseball, learn more about the English language, and throw...I need to throw," he said. "I've never been in a situation like this, little by little I'm trying to get better and better."
Right now I'm taking English classes. In this situation it's the language first, the language and the culture."
Chapman indicated that he knows very little English, but Bats manager Rick Sweet said that language won't be a barrier, even for conferences on the pitcher's mound.
"I know a little Spanish," he said. "And we've got players that speak it."
But the dialogue is one of the few disparities Chapman has noticed so far.
"I didn't see one major difference (at spring training)," he said. "The game is the game, but the level of competition is higher."
And the paycheck is too. Chapman reportedly received a $16.25 million signing bonus with the Reds and the 6-foot-4, 185-pound pitcher sported some jewelry that goes along with that kind of money at his press conference. Dressed in a blue short-sleeve shirt he carried a designer bag with him and wore a large gold watch, as well as gold chains around his neck and wrist, and a gold ring.
But Chapman's bling-bling won't bring him any preferential treatment while with the Bats.
"He's going to be treated as part of the team, he's just one of 25 guys I have," Sweet said.
Chapman, who said that his back is feeling fine, will concentrate on improving his pitches - especially his changeup - while playing for Louisville.
"What I expect is to work hard," he said. "But getting to the big leagues is my goal, it's been my dream for years and years."
A short time later Chapman began chasing his dream as he, and his new team, boarded a bus bound for Toledo.
Photo: Courtesy Major League Baseball