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Cubs Acquire Aroldis Chapman: When a Good Team Signs a Problematic Player

The best reliever in baseball comes with baggage. How will fans react to that?

Aroldis Chapman

Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman

Jim McIsaac/Getty

On Monday, the Chicago Cubs sent four players to the New York Yankees in exchange for fireball-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, a blockbuster move for the franchise that has a legitimate shot to win its first World Series title since 1908. From a baseball perspective, it’s a great deal – the Cubs, with baseball’s best record at 59-38, gave up infield and outfield prospects that were blocked by established players to get a reliever who threw a 105.1 mile-per-hour pitch, the fastest ever recorded. Chapman, with his 2.01 ERA and 20 saves, pushes Hector Rondon, sporting a 1.95 ERA and 18 saves, to the eighth inning, giving the club one of the best back ends in the league.

On paper, Cubs fans should be ecstatic, except for the fact that by acquiring Chapman, Chicago is also taking on a player who allegedly choked his girlfriend at a party and received a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 season under Major League Baseball’s recently implemented policy on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Under that joint agreement between the league and players’ association, signed in April 2015 in response to criticism of the NFL’s disciplinary record, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can suspend a player even in cases when no charges are filed.

Such was the case for Chapman, whose girlfriend called 911 on October 30th, 2015, alleging that the four-time all-star pushed her against a wall and choked her, without preventing her from breathing, at a party at his Florida home after she confronted him about a text message he received from another woman. “He was hitting me in front of everyone and he’s going crazy,” she told a dispatcher before hiding in bushes outside of the house. At some point after the incident, which was broken up by her sister, Chapman went out to his garage and fired eight shots from a handgun into his garbage and out of a window into a field.

Prosecutors declined to go after Chapman, because his girlfriend subsequently changed her story and said, according to an official report obtained by Deadspin, “She entered his personal space. Aroldis used his fingers to move her away from him, out of his personal space. She lost her balance and fell.” She later said he poked her and she fell backwards over a chair, which was when her brother rushed in to intervene. The controversy made the Los Angeles Dodgers cancel a planned trade to acquire Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds, and he was later dealt to the Yankees for four minor league players. In March, Chapman ultimately accepted a 30-game suspension, losing about $1.85 million, without appeal.

At that time, he released a statement saying, “I want to be clear, I did not in any way harm my girlfriend that evening. However, I should have exercised better judgment with respect to certain actions, and for that I am sorry.” In May, he reiterated his innocence, saying, “It was just an argument with your partner that everyone has. I’ve even argued with my mother. When you are not in agreement with someone, we Latin people are loud when we argue.”

So now Cubs fans will face the same dilemma as Yankees fans did to start the season, and Mets fans did in June when Jose Reyes, fresh off a 52-game suspension for choking his wife and slamming her against a glass door in a Hawaii hotel room on October 31st, re-signed with his original team. His wife ultimately declined to cooperate with the investigation, leading prosecutors to drop the charges against the infielder. Considering that 25% of women are abused in their lifetime and, according to a 2000 Department of Justice study, only 25% of cases are reported to police, it’s difficult to quantify how many women stay with their husbands after physical incidents, but there are countless reasons why they don’t leave, from forgiving the crime as a onetime mistake to fearing that the man will murder them if they do. Watch O.J.: Made in America to hear Nicole Brown Simpson’s 911 calls and see her diary entries about the multiple instances of battery before he most likely killed her. Or watch Ray Rice’s wife Janay apologize for her “role in that night” when he knocked her unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator, or a few years earlier, former San Diego Padres outfielder Brian Giles getting caught doing the same thing a few years earlier. The cases aren’t the same by any means, but the similarities are there for all to see.

And Cubs fans will have to ask themselves, “Do I root for Chapman?” or “Do I still support this organization?” knowing the vague details of what he did. The words “murky” and “complex” are weak when discussing abuse. If there’s a right way to feel, I haven’t found one. Mets fans cheered loudly when Reyes came back. “If he beat on his wife, none of my personal business. He wants to play baseball, let him play baseball,” one fan told the New York Daily News.

“Of course there is the question of another kind of narrative at play — rehabilitation and reform, second chances,” novelist and Mets fan Sara Novic writes on Baseball Prospectus. “And while part of me thinks a violent attack is deserving of a one-and-done ban for a player, the optimist in me (the one that roots for the Mets) sees the value in giving a person a chance to redeem himself. That doesn’t mean, though, we can remain silent about the implications of holding up Reyes as a role model.” Without needing to mention the horrible exploits of Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb and Kirby Puckett, she says, “Baseball is both a game and a business, so some argue it doesn’t matter what a player does off the field – it only matters how well he plays. And while this does seem to be true in practice, it doesn’t make it good practice.”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said he spoke with Reyes about the incident and made sure the infielder continue counseling as part of his contract with the team. “I need to be a better man,” he said after first game as a minor leaguer in the Mets’ system. “Be a better husband. Be a better dad for my girls. I got three girls, I need to be an example for them. I’m a human being. I made a terrible mistake. I say so sorry to everybody. I say sorry to my wife, my dad, my mom, to everybody. They know I’m a better person than that.”

You can choose to believe that. You can choose to believe he paid the price for his crime by missing over 50 games. You can choose to simply ignore anything any player does off the field and just root for them as athletes, as if they’re actors in a production designed to make you happy or sad. You can choose, idiotically, to say that no charges means no crime. You can choose, as many have, to say Reyes and Chapman don’t deserve to still have jobs simply because they have the superhuman ability to throw, hit or catch a ball. You can believe there’s no room for redemption. You can choose to believe in second chances and hope that the people who make these games fun to watch did a horrible thing once and changed because of it. But you’ll never know. They have a lot of life left to do it again.

So, the next time Chapman comes into a game in the ninth and rockets a fastball by a batter, keep all of that in mind, Cubs fans. You’ve got one the best closers in the game, and all the baggage that comes with him. Enjoy as much as your conscience allows.

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