Can a player be with a team for less than half a season and have a bigger impact than Aroldis Chapman did for the Cubs?
Of course, Chapman’s #54 flag will never fly next to those of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Fergie Jenkins, and Greg Maddux at Wrigley Field. And the announcement that he is going back to the Yankees on a five-year deal makes official what we’ve already figured for weeks: that Chapman’s tenure with the Cubs will only last for three months.
Nonetheless, Chapman will always hold a special place in the history of this franchise. Chapman was the walking definition of a “rent-a-player”, a soon-to-be free agent who the Cubs traded for in July, solely for the purpose of getting this team over the top and leading them to a World Series victory. They did give up two really good prospects in Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney to get him. But no matter how good of a player that either of them become, the trade was worth it because it helped the team achieve their ultimate goal of winning a championship.
Chapman was dominant in his two months of regular season play with the Cubs, posting a 1.01 ERA. But by the time he arrived in Chicago in late July, it was already a forgone conclusion that this team would be in the postseason. The real purpose of the trade was to give the team that shutdown late inning presence they were lacking on what was otherwise a pretty complete team.
In the postseason, Chapman didn’t exactly dominate, though I still believe that was largely because Joe Maddon overused him. Yet, he was able to finish off seven of the Cubs’ eleven postseason wins and came through when it mattered most. He got the final eight outs of a 3-2 win in Game 5 of the World Series that sent the series back to Cleveland. Then, after blowing the lead in the eighth inning of Game 7, he was able to recover and pitch a scoreless ninth, getting the game into the infamous rain delay and setting up the decisive tenth inning.
After Chapman jumped at the chance to return to New York, now all that Cubs fans have left are the memories of his brief time in Chicago. It’s just the latest of many examples of how the business side of the game long ago trumped team loyalty. But I suppose it works the other way too. For all the effort that Theo Epstein has put into rebuilding this team, it appears that he’s – wisely – very cautious when it comes to spending money on bullpen help. Long-term deals for relievers don’t work out more often than not, and instead of meeting Chapman’s demands, he’s opted instead to sign the much cheaper Koji Uehara and to trade for one year of control of Wade Davis.
The Yankees visit Wrigley Field in May this year in interleague play. While I hope Chapman doesn’t get a chance to nail down a save against his former team, I do hope that he makes it into at least one of the games so that fans will get a chance to applaud him for his role with the team this past year. Personally, I know that every time I see him pitch from this point forward, I will think about the fall of 2016 and all those stressful moments of watching him on the mound for the Cubs. And I’m sure I’ll have similar feelings when I see Jorge Soler, who the Cubs traded to the Royals to acquire Davis, along with any other former 2016 Cub playing for another team.
It’s possible that, despite being a part of this historic championship team, Chapman’s heart never was really with the Cubs. “I was hoping I had a chance to go back [to the Yankees], and it happened,” Chapman was quoted as saying in the article linked to above. ”Every player dreams of being a Yankee, and if they don’t, it’s because they never got the chance.” Yet, we have to admire him for looking past the business side of the game and giving such a good effort to help our team. For that Chapman will always be a legend in Chicago.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.