He came into the game and the ballpark grew. Lights got brighter, noises louder. What was dead, came alive. Aroldis Chapman powered up a drowsy, half-empty Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati Wednesday night. And then he started buckling knees.
Three batters, three outs. Eleven pitches, seven fastballs, none under 99 miles an hour, two just under 104. A slider at 89. The last pitch of Chapman's lone inning was a fastball clocked at 103.9, to Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy, a rookie in his 214th major league at-bat who had no chance. How fast is 103.9?
Matt Bynum at Hillerich and Bradsby, the company that produces the Louisville Slugger, did some research.
"(Chapman's) 104 mph fastball takes only .39 seconds to reach the plate,'' Bynum wrote. "Factoring a stride of about 5 feet, that time is reduced to .36 seconds. The average human eye blinks at a speed (between) three-tenths and four-tenths of a second. So if you are the batter and you blink at the point of Chapman's release, the ball will pass you before you open your eyes again.''
How do you coach a kid to hit something like that? "Keep your head in there, rook. You'll hear it before you see it. You might not see it at all. Look for a first-pitch fastball, pray the rosary and, whatever you do, don't blink.''
Is it time to calm down? Chapman has been a Cincinnati Red for exactly two nights and two innings. Nineteen pitches. His story and his promise are far better than his production: Defected from Cuba, established residency in Andorra, signed by the Reds in January for 10 years and $30 million which, if Chapman equals his hype, will be the biggest steal since Manhattan-for-beads.
The baseball world loves a hairy-chested fastball. We admire Greg Maddux, who pinpointed and thought his way to 355 wins. We gape at Chapman, whose fastball stretches our imaginations. It's the difference between witnessing Einstein and Vlad the Impaler.
"You don't see this stuff outside of Syd Finch,'' said Wayne Krivsky,the former Reds GM who is now a special assistant to Mets GM Omar Minaya. Krivsky was at the game Wednesday. "I think we got a little phenomenon going on here.''
Chapman made his debut Tuesday night. As he warmed up, fans stood above the bullpen in centerfield, taking pictures with their cell phones. As he trotted in from the pen, the 19,218 in the park sounded like Game 7 of the World Series. Reds players gathered at the top of the dugout steps, arms draped over the rail. After Chapman opened his major league career by striking out the unfortunate Lucroy, on an 87 mph slider that rode in and down as if commanded by god or Randy Johnson, you could see a couple Reds pitchers laugh.
It was an incredulous laugh, no disrespect intended, seen most often during the heydays of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Can you believe this kid?
"Our own Usain Bolt,'' Bronson Arroyo said.
"Ridiculous,'' Reds closer Francisco Cordero said after Wednesday's game. "He's not pushing hard to throw 100. It's just so easy, it's natural.''
We give the fastball too much credit. It's the slider that will make Chapman a pitcher. Major league hitters will find their way around a 103 mph fastball. As Milwaukee's Craig Counsell told The New York Times, "If he's throwing 103 and it's down the middle, there's guys that are going to hit it hard.''
The slider, though, will send them to a chiropractor. For the first 50 feet, it comes in straight and thigh-high. It looks like a home run in waiting. In the next 10 feet, it drops six inches and swerves violently right, as if divinely shoved.
The hitter has 10 feet to make up his mind and change his swing. Lots of luck.
Said Reds pitching coach Bryan Price, "What we've seen in his brief time here is a pitch that's terribly hard to recognize. The spin is so tight and the break is so late, it poses some problems.''
Well, yeah. Batters live and die on pitch recognition. A batter who is looking for a fastball won't have much time to hit a slider. A batter who's thinking slider will have no time to hit a fastball.
Chapman started the year at Triple A Louisville. There were pitching issues to deal with. Command, mainly. More than that was the need to get Chapman comfortable with where he was. Tony Fossas, the Reds Class A pitching coach who left Cuba when he was 10, became Chapman's spring shadow and chauffeur. Once, en route to dinner at a steakhouse, Chapman asked Fossas to stop at a McDonald's drive-thru, for French fries.
Fossas says Chapman feels little pressure, even in the big leagues. He described the difference between amateur baseball in America and in Cuba: "Kids here lose a game, they go to Dairy Queen. They lose a game in Cuba, they might not eat.''
When the Cuban team was playing internationally, teammates would visit Chapman's hotel room the night before he pitched an elimination game. They urged him to give his best effort, "because if they lost, they had to go home,'' Fossas explained.
Fossas said Chapman's laptop has an English program in it. In March, Price had instructional Spanish CDs in his car. He listened to them during his 45-minute commute to Goodyear, Ariz., from his home in nearby Scottsdale.
Meantime, Chapman uses an interpreter, stays close to Cordero and lets his fastball sing the arias. "Unbelievable arm speed,'' Krivsky said. "Three-quarters arm angle, all arms and legs. And loose. He throws pretty easy, for as hard as he throws.''
Krivsky saw Chapman in March. He says the difference is profound. "He's not rushing," Krivsky said. "His arm and body are in much better sync. The Reds have done a good job with his delivery. What strikes me most, though, is his composure. The place is going nuts, flashbulbs popping, crowd standing up, he acts like he's pitching in a simulated game.''
So do the hitters. At least the first six of them, anyway. Six up, six down, their guns still in their holsters. The Reds plan to use Chapman in the bullpen the rest of this season, before making him a starter in 2011. Baseball loves its kids. Especially when they throw like this Kid. Stay alert, and don't blink.