Cuban stars hoping to reconnect on field
Cespedes, Chapman have chance to reunite in World Series
OAKLAND -- Not long ago, two Cuban ballplayers, both considered among the best to ever suit up for the country's national team, met late one night after a game to talk about their escape and life in the United States.
The rendezvous had been planned for months. The location wasn't finalized until hours before it took place and it almost didn't happen at all.
They discussed their family and their future during the hourlong chat. They laughed. They talked about Cuba -- the good and the bad. Sometimes, they frowned. They mentioned baseball only in passing.
It was August in Chicago -- not Holguin or Campechuela, Cuba -- and Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Cincinnati reliever Aroldis Chapman were feeling at home in the lobby of a swanky hotel. Fortuitous scheduling had put the one-time teammates and longtime friends in the same room for the first time in 3 ½ years and the buddies were not going to let an opportunity to catch up pass them by. They didn't know when it was going to happen again.
"It made me so happy to see him again," Cespedes said in Spanish. "It feels good to have someone who understands where you are coming from. Aroldis is an old friend. It was very nice to see him."
The pair has not shared a field since they were teammates in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. That could change if the Reds, who lead the Giants in the NLDS, 2-0, and A's, who trail the Tigers, 0-2, in the ALDS, find themselves in the World Series, the biggest stage in baseball. In the meantime, they'll continue to play their parts. Chapman, 24, acting as the young rebel with an electric arm and Cespedes, 26, the humble momma's boy, who is often the most talented player on the field.
"Yoenis is a young man but he is still a man and his attitude is very mature," A's hitting coach Chili Davis said. "He takes his job seriously. He takes his family seriously and he takes the relationship he builds with you very seriously. Trust is a big thing for him. If he doesn't trust you, you can't get close to him. But if he trusts you, he'll give you the world."
Cespedes is hitting .375 with one RBI and two stolen bases in the first two games of the ALDS. He hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs during the regular season and already has played in more games than ever in one year of his career.
His path to the postseason is well documented. Cespedes left Cuba with his mother, Estela, a former Cuban national softball team pitcher, along with his aunt and three relatives sometime last year and landed in the Dominican Republic. He was introduced to the mainstream media in a bizarre 20-minute video that showed off his physical prowess set to an eclectic soundtrack. One of the final scenes in the video featured Cespedes standing next to a roasted whole pig.
The A's began scouting Cespedes and Chapman in earnest when scouts Craig Weissmann, Chris Pittaro and Sam Geaney, the club's international director, all zeroed in on the pair at the World Baseball Classic. Chapman defected and signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal with the Reds in January 2010. Later in the year, Oakland director of player personnel Billy Owens watched Cespedes play 10 times in the Pan American Games and became convinced he had just watched a star in the making.
When news of Cespedes' defection spread, Owens and Farhan Zaidi, director of baseball operations, sold Oakland general manager Billy Beane on the idea of signing the outfielder. The club inked him to a four-year, $36 million deal in February and the rest is history.
"We did so much background homework on him and one of the biggest things that stood out was his character," Owens said. "I know he had many opportunities to leave Cuba before but he refused to leave without his mother. He understood that if he defected and if he had success that he expected to have, that it would make life very uncomfortable back in the homeland for her. He has loyalty and he thinks about things like that. That's a testament to who he is."
It was Estela, a star in her own right, who inspired Yoenis to play baseball. She started keeping his stats when he was a boy and still does. It has taken years, but now the mother and son can laugh about the time she hit Yoenis, then 9 years old, in the face with a curveball in his first and only attempt to be her personal catcher.
"My mother is extremely proud of me," Cespedes said. "She raised me and taught everything I know. She taught me to respect others and have others respect me. I am who I am because of her."
When Cespedes isn't video-chatting with his family, he's usually playing Temple Run or Fruit Ninja on his iPhone.
Chapman's adventures are real and they often make headlines. There was a bizarre incident in late May when a woman who was in Chapman's hotel claimed to have been robbed. She was later charged with filing a false police report. Chapman was arrested more than a week earlier for driving 93 mph on a suspended license in Ohio. Around the same time, reports surfaced that Chapman was being sued for $18 million by a man who blamed the pitcher for his imprisonment in Cuba.
In June, he celebrated a save with two somersaults in front of the mound. The flips did not go over well, either.
But make no mistake, Chapman has been a force on the mound all season, racking up 38 saves and striking out 122 batters. He's a big reason why the Reds' bullpen is among the most dominant in the big leagues and the club is one victory away from advancing to the next round.
He also has a sense of humor and is comfortable in his own skin. Chapman sometimes wears a T-shirt that reads "This is how I roll" above a photo of him doing somersaults off the mound. He is among the most stylish players in the game, sometimes purchasing a new pair of shoes to reward himself for a job well done on the mound.
"We have been through a lot in a short period of time," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He's confided in me in quite a few life-changing things. I really genuinely like him."
Chapman is liked by his teammates but has gained a reputation as a loner. There are nights he would rather relax at home accompanied only by King, his pit bull, and a cocker spaniel named Yuma.
"The family is great and the team is winning," Chapman said. "Life is good. What else can I say?"
Life could get better, especially if Chapman and Cespedes meet again, this time in the World Series.
"Chapman has the fastball and maybe I'll guess what pitch he'll throw me," Cespedes said. "Maybe he'll make a mistake or I'll just have a good at-bat."
Chapman smiles at the thought of squaring off against his old buddy.
"I would love to go the World Series and I know he would like to also," he said. "Best of luck to me and to him, we'll see what happens but it would be fun to see him again."