ALM BEACH, Fla. – The New York Yankees are embracing a youth movement, and say their fan base has fallen in love with their future stars, but their most popular player these days is a 28-year-old veteran with a checkered past.
Yes, we’re talking about Aroldis Chapman, who was brought back to the Yankees as their big-free free prize, receiving a record five-year, $86 million contract, the most ever given to a reliever.
And no, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner isn’t about to apologize for the signing. He says although Chapman clearly made a mistake in his domestic violence case – shooting a gun eight times in his garage after an argument with his girlfriend that turned physical and resulted in a 30-game suspension – he has been a model citizen.
“Quite frankly it was manageable the minute he got here last year,’’ Steinbrenner said at the quarterly owners’ meetings Thursday. “He was great. Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life. He did everything right, and said everything right, when he was with us.’’
When you can throw 105 mph, it accelerates forgiveness, too. Both the Yankees and Cubs were criticized for acquiring Chapman, who according to Davie, Fla. police choked his girlfriend and pushed her against a wall during an October 2015 dispute. No charges were filed against Chapman due to insufficient evidence and conflicting accounts.
Chapman served his suspension and then saved 20 games and struck out 12.6 batters per nine innings for the Yankees. He saved four postseason games with the Cubs before the Yankees lured him back with the largest contract ever for a reliever.
“It’s a lot of money for a reliever,’’ Steinbrenner said, “but obviously, he’s a special player. He’s about as strong a guy as you’ll ever come across.
“He’ll be great. The fans are excited. This is a good place for him. We’re going to have two very young pitchers in our rotation, so our feeling is if we can shorten the games for these kids, it can only be a benefit.’’
It also helps, of course, is that Chapman sells tickets, and keeps fans in their seats, waiting to see him light up the scoreboard in the ninth inning with his triple-digit radar readings.
“They love him,’’ Steinbrenner said. “There are so few baseball players that I feel can really get fans to buy a ticket and brings their kids to their game, and he’s one of them.’’
The Yankees acquired Chapman on the cheap from the Cincinnati Reds in December 2015, knowing a suspension from Major League Baseball was likely after his domestic incident was revealed earlier that month. After falling to the fringes of contention in July, they bolstered their farm system by dealing Chapman to the Chicago Cubs for a package that included blue chip shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres.
Chapman’s dominant relief work with the Cubs was crucial to their World Series championship, and he signed his record deal with the Yankees one month later.
The Yankees, mired in their biggest playoff drought since 1994, believe that Chapman will still be in his prime when they do start winning again, perhaps sooner than people envision.
They aren’t trying to fool anyone into believing their prospects one day will become their Core Four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, but certainly have their fan base believing in their future.
“There’s a lot of excitement already going on in Tampa,’’ said Steinbrenner, “and we know from our fans, this is as excited as they’ve been in a while. Every spring training brings new hope, but this one feels different. And there’s no doubt the kids are part of it.
“It’s clear from monitoring social media, and talking to our fans directly, they want to see these kids. Clearly, there’s excitement, the fans want to get to know these guys.’’
The Yankees lowered their payroll this year, and still hope to get below the $197 million luxury tax in 2018. They have $59 million coming off the books after next year with the expiring contracts of retired Alex Rodriguez (who will spend two stints in spring training working with their young players) CC Sabathia and Matt Holliday. Yet, if the Yankees have a chance to win, Steinbrenner insists, they’ll go for it.
“We will put money back into the club like we always do,’’ Steinbrenner says, “but I think the threshold is a good payroll. I don’t think any team should have to be more than that to win a championship.’’
No one is predicting the Yankees to be in the World Series this year, but if you listen to Steinbrenner, he believes they at least have a shot to return to the postseason.
And whenever that happens, Steinbrenner insists, the family will still own the Yankees. It is not for sale, Steinbrenner repeated four times. The plan is to keep it in the Steinbrenner family forever.’
“Look, look this is a family business,’’ Steinbrenner says. “A family business is not always the easiest thing in the world. It has its blessings, and it has its difficulties, but we all work together. And it isn’t going anywhere.
“We all feel that my Dad did so much for all of us, he would want this. And we love doing it.’’
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