Chapman justifies hype in debut

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- We live in a world where there just aren't many surprises. We know who will win the Academy Awards before they win. We hear about the best college football and basketball players long before they reach college. We hear rumors about the remarkable capabilities of the iPad months before the thing comes out.

So, no, there just aren't too many revelations in our lives.

Maybe that is why the spring training phenom still electrifies us. Here it is, a cool gray day in Arizona. The Cincinnati Reds play the Kansas City Royals. There are a couple thousand people in the stands, maybe. There's no buzz in the stands. How could there be any buzz? The Reds and Royals on a Monday afternoon in an spring training game under gray skies in Arizona?

And then: Aroldis Chapman steps on the mound. You have probably heard Chapman's story. He is a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher from Cuba. He tried to defect from Cuba in 2008, was arrested, was given a reprieve and then successfully defected in Amsterdam. He eventually signed with the Reds for more than $30 million, which seems like a startling amount of money for someone who has never pitched in the big leagues.

And then: You watch Chapman pitch.

"I mean, holy cow," says longtime Kansas City scout Art Stewart.

Holy cow. There was a time in baseball when baseball phenoms would just show up, when blazing fast and switch-hitting sluggers would wander out of the Oklahoma mines and 17-year-old pitchers throwing 100 mph would walk off of farms in Iowa. But now -- you can follow baseball prospects through high school, through college, through the minor leagues, you can see film on them on the Internet, you can hear scouts talk about them, you can find prospect lists that go all the way to No. 2,000.

And then here comes Chapman. He's tall and lean -- he looks taller than the 6-foot-4 that is listed in the media guide. He picks up the baseball to warm up, and he throws so easy, like he's skipping a rock on a lake. The ball popped hard into the glove. The next one popped harder. Kansas City manager Trey Hillman was only half joking when he used that old line about how Chapman's pitches "sounded good." They really did sound good.

But the amazing part was the ease ... there was no grunting, no straining, no laboring. You hear that line all the time about athletes who look as if they were born to do something. Chapman struck out David DeJesus on a hard-sweeping slider that seemed to break two feet. He struck out Chris Getz on a 100-mph fastball that sliced the outside corner -- anyway Stewart clocked the pitch at 100 mph. Another scout clocked it at 102. Another got it at 98. Getz's speed approximation: "It was moving."

Two batters later Chapman struck out Rick Ankiel on a slider that Ankiel missed by so much he had to be rebooked on a later flight. Watching Ankiel trying to hit Chapman was somewhere between comedy and tragedy; you got the sense that if Ankiel faced Chapman 100 times, he would strike out 100 times.

The Ankiel at-bat was especially poignant because there was a time, not long ago, when Ankiel was that left-handed pitching phenom, the 19-year-old kid who had struck out 416 batters in just 298 minor league innings. No, you never know exactly how the phenom's story will play out.

But on a day like this, really, anything seems possible.

"I would say Chapman has the best young left-handed arm I've seen since Herb Score," Stewart says, and here he is referring back to one of my heroes, Score, who as a 22 and 23-year-old for the Cleveland Indians led the American League in strikeouts. That was in 1955 and 1956. Score seemed to be on his way to becoming one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history -- Sandy Koufax before Sandy Koufax -- when he got in the eye on a line drive by Gil McDougald.

But, Stewart concedes, even the Score comparison isn't quite right because Score had a famously violent motion. Chapman makes you think he could throw 115 mph if he was really trying.

Chapman has already made his goals known: He wants to be the best pitcher in the world. So, sure, he was thoroughly unimpressed by his two-inning, one hit, three strikeout game in Goodyear where he may or may not have hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

"I wasn't worried about how hard I threw," he said. "But I did [throw 100], it's just one of those things."

It's a funny thing: Every year, there are a couple of teams that are hot preseason choices, and this year's teams seem to be Seattle and Cincinnati. The Reds have a good and fairly young middle of the lineup -- Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips -- some promising young pitchers like Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey and a couple of proven veterans like Scott Rolen and Aaron Harang.

But the Reds, like most teams trying to break through after a long dry spell, could use something amazing to happen. And here's Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher longtime Reds announcer Marty Brennaman calls the best arm he has seen come through in 30 years. Here's a left-handed pitcher with a 100 mph fastball and a desire to be the best ever. Here's a real live phenom, out of nowhere, the kind baseball used to have.

"Well, hey, they did spend $30 million on him," Stewart says. "But I would say they go their money's worth."