About that heart-to-heart conversation Cubs executives absolutely needed to have with Aroldis Chapman over the phone before signing off on a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees: The Cuban closer had been sleeping on Monday before getting on the call and didn’t remember anything specific about what chairman Tom Ricketts and team president Theo Epstein said in terms of off-the-field expectations.
At least that’s what Chapman expressed through coach/translator Henry Blanco during an awkward welcome-to-Chicago media session in a U.S. Cellular Field dugout before Tuesday’s game against the White Sox, forcing the Cubs into damage-control mode with a player who began this season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy.
Even allowing for the language barrier, this was a completely tone-deaf performance, because reporters asked Chapman about that phone conversation at least six times, getting versions of “It’s been a long day” and “I just got here” and how the Cubs expect him to help this team win the World Series.
“My confidence right now is coming from within,” Chapman said when asked about facing the backlash. “Everything is going to be fine. I’m just going to be the best person I can be. I understand what I went through. And I’m a better person now.”
Chapman was accused of choking his girlfriend and reportedly fired multiple gunshots inside his South Florida home during that domestic dispute last October, though the Broward County State Attorney’s Office ultimately did not press criminal charges.
Sitting on the same bench the day before, Epstein had strenuously explained the organization’s rationale, answering questions for more than 33 minutes and recognizing that putting Chapman in a Cubs uniform would provoke all sorts of conflicting emotions.
This was a bad look for a franchise that always talks about doing things the right way, being extremely thorough and believing in character. Blanco sat next to Chapman in a difficult spot, as a quality-assurance coach who played 16 years in the big leagues but doesn’t have any professional training as an interpreter.
“It appears that there was something lost in translation,” Epstein said, “or (Aroldis) didn’t have the recollection immediately.”
Chapman is 28 years old and a four-time All-Star lefty who has been in The Show since 2010. Epstein said Chapman felt “nervous” and directed reporters to the one-on-one pregame interview he did later in Spanish with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, who had also been in the middle of the group scrum.
“I’ve grown tremendously from that time,” Chapman said, according to an ESPN transcript. “I’m with my girlfriend still, with the family, and I feel that I have absolutely changed as a person. I’m working to be a better person.
“(Now I remember) because they just asked me in the previous press conference what the owners asked me. One of the things they did ask me was about being a better person and being a better neighbor to people. And that’s something that I think that I am now, much more so.”
The Cubs used Alex Suarez, an assistant director in player development and international scouting, as their translator during the MLB-approved call, which also included Barry Praver, Chapman’s agent, who also showed up on the South Side for an introduction that went completely off the scripted talking points.
“(The phone call) happened and it was real,” Epstein said. “We talked to him about the incident and made sure that statement (released to the media on Monday) reflected his real feelings.
“Tom laid out the exact same standards that he lays out to everyone in spring training. He said extremely clearly: ‘Look, Aroldis, I tell all the players this in spring training. It’s important that you hear it. And I need to from you on this. We expect our players to behave. We hold our players to a very high standard with their behavior off the field.’
“That’s exactly what he said: ‘We need to know that you can meet that standard.’ And Aroldis said: ‘I understand. Absolutely, I can.’”