Yankees Magazine: Eyes on the prize

Aroldis Chapman won't be satisfied until he wins a championship in New York

Yankees Magazine: Eyes on the prize

With the Yankees set to take on the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Fla., for a Spring Training game, Feb. 27 is an easy day for the veteran players on the team. They're not expected to make the hourlong bus ride from Tampa, and the schedule that Yankees coaches have put together for Aroldis Chapman includes only a mid-morning live batting practice session.

But that's just the start of what Chapman has planned for his day. Wearing a gray sweatsuit that fits like a glove and leaves no part of his massive upper body to the imagination, Chapman is taking a brief respite from hours of pitching and conditioning.

"On a day like today, I had to pitch live batting practice," Chapman said from the bullpen in right field at George M. Steinbrenner Field, assisted by bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. "I got prepared for that, warmed up and pitched to a handful of batters. Following that, I went to the gym and worked out. I will take some time with my family in the early afternoon. Then, I will go to the sauna and go back to the gym to do cardio work. After that, I will do more weightlifting. And then you go home."

The Yankees' flame-throwing closer has garnered the reputation of someone with a singular focus from the time Spring Training begins through the end of the baseball season, and he's not about to refute it.

"I have a whole bunch of friends who mess with me because I don't have a hobby," said Chapman, 29, who was traded to the Yankees in December 2015, then dealt to the Chicago Cubs midway through 2016 before returning to the Yankees last offseason when he signed a five-year blockbuster deal. "They tell me that I go to the ballpark, work out, then go back to the gym to work out again. They tell me that I never do anything else. I don't go to the beach or to the mall. And I tell them that all I can think of is training, diet and pitching. That's just the way I am."

Admittedly, Chapman is more relaxed during the offseason, splitting his time between working on his craft and vacationing. But if it were up to him, he would have more time in Spring Training.

"Some players think that Spring Training is long," he said. "But it's actually a short time because you need to get ready for such a long season. The time that you have to work on getting your arm ready for live batters is really short. You have to take it seriously so that you can get your job done and be ready for the season."

For Chapman, a native of Cuba who arrived in the United States in 2009, the determination to make it in baseball began early in life. After finding success on the mound at 13 years old, Chapman took a vested interest in the sport and eventually earned a spot on Cuba's national team.

"I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch the Cuban National Team," he said. "I would think to myself, 'I want to be part of the team.' But I knew from an early age that just to make it as a reserve on the team would be very difficult because of the talent we had in Cuba and the amount of players that had the same goal. It was extremely hard, but I relished the competition with other pitchers who also wanted to be on that team."

At 18 years old, Chapman was selected to play for Cuba, becoming one of the youngest players to put on his country's uniform.

"It was amazing," he said. "They got a whole bunch of players together in a room, and we knew that they would only be selecting 24. They called my name last. Immediately, I started crying because I couldn't believe it. To be that young and to be selected to play on the national team -- which so many Cuban legends had previously played on -- was a dream come true. It was an unbelievable experience."

After playing for his country for three years -- including two starts in the 2009 World Baseball Classic -- Chapman defected from Cuba during a tournament in the Netherlands. Like several other Cuban players in recent years, Chapman was able to ultimately get to the United States and secure a working visa. In January 2010, the left-hander signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

When Chapman defected, he became the most sought-after Cuban pitcher since Jose Contreras fled the communist country and signed with the Yankees in 2003. In addition to establishing himself as one of Cuba's greatest pitchers, Contreras was also Chapman's boyhood hero.

"He was a cool guy under pressure," Chapman said. "At the same time, when he had to be tough on the mound, he could be. I used to enjoy watching him exercise and go through his workouts. That gave me hope, and it motivated me to keep working as hard as he did."

Once Chapman broke into the Majors, Contreras -- then with the Philadelphia Phillies -- took him under his wing.

"I first met him when [the Reds] were playing in Philadelphia," Chapman said. "He took me out to dinner, and ever since, we've kept a relationship. He's given me advice on how to be consistent as a baseball player and how to keep improving. He's taught me a lot about getting batters out, as well."

Chapman's desire to succeed in the United States matched the will he showed as a teenager in his homeland. From the time he joined the Reds, his approach and motivation remained the same as it had been back in Cuba.

"When I'm on the mound these days, I feel the same way I did when I was a kid," Chapman said. "The common link is competing. There's nothing I enjoy more than competing against the best players."

During six seasons in Cincinnati, Chapman earned four All-Star selections and established himself as one the game's most feared pitchers. Besides his immense physical appearance, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Chapman unleashed a fastball that regularly clocked above 100 mph, topping out at 105. While Chapman understands the rarified company that his ability puts him in, he's able to keep it in perspective.

Statcast: Chapman hits 105.1 mph

"It's very exciting to the fans," he said. "I'm happy when I reach 100 mph and when I can throw that fast consistently. But the biggest reason it makes me happy is because I believe it's a reflection of the amount of work that I put into the sport. If I didn't work as hard as I do every year, I would not be able to throw that hard consistently."

Following Chapman's sixth season with Cincinnati, a Major League Baseball investigation into a domestic abuse incident involving the closer prompted the Reds to try to trade him. After conducting their own inquiries, the Yankees felt confident in moving forward with the pursuit of Chapman and were able to acquire him without having to part with any elite prospects.

After serving a 30-game suspension to start the 2016 season, when he debuted with the Yankees on May 9, Chapman picked up where he left off the previous year. In 31 appearances, Chapman would record 20 saves with a 2.01 ERA. During his 31.1 innings of work, he struck out 46 batters.

At the trade deadline, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman dealt Chapman to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Adam Warren and three Minor Leaguers, including shortstop Gleyber Torres, who is ranked among baseball's best prospects.

Even though Chapman was headed to baseball's best team at the time of the trade, his time with the Yankees made for bittersweet feelings.

"At the time I got traded, I was sad," Chapman said. "I was with a team that I enjoyed being on, and I had a bunch of teammates who I really liked. But you have to see the positive part, as well. I was going to a team in contention -- at the time with the best record in baseball. It was an adjustment, and when I got to Chicago, I felt sad and happy at the same time."

Chapman thrived in his return to the National League, collecting 16 saves while recording a 1.01 ERA in 26.2 innings. With the Cubs faithful believing that 2016 was the year their beloved team would finally exorcise the Curse of the Billy Goat and win a World Series for the first time since 1908, Chapman took the ball frequently. He saved all three of the team's wins over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series, and he pitched in four games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Cubs' National League Championship Series triumph.

In the World Series, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon relied on Chapman even more than he had in the previous two series, summoning Chapman in five of the seven Fall Classic games. By the time Maddon paraded his closer to the mound in the eighth inning of Game 7, Chapman had tossed 14.1 postseason innings for the Cubs, and his velocity had dipped. With the Indians trailing by two runs and down to their final four outs, Rajai Davis took Chapman deep, tying the game.

Chapman, who hadn't given up a home run since June 18, pitched a perfect ninth inning, sending the game into extras. With Chapman looking on from the dugout, the Cubs scored in the top of the 10th and held on to win the World Series in the bottom of the frame.

Chapman sends Game 7 to extras

"I never felt pressure during the playoffs or the World Series," Chapman said. "Even when the Indians tied the game, I never felt any pressure. I don't know why I was able to remain calm on the mound. I felt like I was just pitching another game in the regular season, except I didn't have the ability to throw the ball as hard as I was used to."

Despite giving up the tying runs in Game 7, Chapman feels that the experience of pitching in so many pressure-packed games will benefit him in the upcoming seasons.

"It's an experience that actually helps you develop your baseball IQ," Chapman said. "You learn how to deal with the most important innings of the season. You also develop the skills for how you can help teammates when they face those kinds of situations."

Not long after the Cubs celebrated their first championship in 108 years, Chapman filed for free agency. The Yankees wasted little time in making an offer to the closer, with the hopes of reuniting him with the fellow All-Star relief pitcher Dellin Betances.

On Dec. 15, Chapman signed the Yankees' offer, which will keep him in pinstripes through the 2021 season.

"I had a really good experience with the Yankees," he said. "As a baseball player, you want to feel comfortable. You want that so you can go out there and produce. And I feel very comfortable with this team. It was definitely a key reason why I wanted to come back to the Yankees. I wanted to come back to the team that I belong to."

Along with the excitement of being back in the Bronx, Chapman is proud to be one of the cornerstone pieces in Cashman's puzzle.

"We haven't won anything yet, but because of all of the trades that the Yankees made and with the amount of talent we have here, it looks really good for us over the next few seasons," Chapman said. "I want our team to get as far as we possibly can in 2017, and hopefully that will be the World Series. We have a great mix of young kids, guys like Gleyber Torres, and young veterans."

Of course, there's also the back end of the bullpen, featuring Betances and Chapman.

"Dellin and I should be the best set-up man and closer combination in the game for a while," Chapman said. "He's a special pitcher, and he keeps getting better."

With a World Series championship under his belt and his foreseeable future set, Chapman speaks about his goals in the same fashion he pitches. He holds nothing back.

"I want to win a championship in this uniform," he said. "As for my career, I'm going to put that in God's hands and see what happens. If I become a Hall of Famer in the end, that will be great."

If Chapman keeps working -- and throwing the ball -- as hard as he has to this point, anything is possible.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.