A profile of Aroldis Chapman (plus an annotated bibliography!)

[Cincinnati Magazine]

Just in time for spring training, you can read my long profile of Aroldis Chapman in the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine. While the Reds did not cooperate with the story, I still talked to a ton of people. I may have even figured Chapman out — or at least realized that no one’s going to figure him out. He’s got a strange pattern of isolating himself, whether that means living far from the ballpark; avoiding friendships with teammates; or spending thousands of dollars at chintzy tourist dives, instead of at the Miami Heat-approved bars you might expect.

Then there’s the speeding ticket(s), the stripper(s), and the extremely serious $24-million lawsuit Chapman’s facing. To learn more about all of it, read my story here. And when you’re finished, check out the annotated bibliography I’ve put together — because Chapman’s the kind of subject who demands further study.

  • Aroldis Chapman, ESPN attraction: As I mention in my profile, ESPN (and the very talented Jorge Arangure Jr.) covered Aroldis in depth right after his defection: an ESPN.com story, an ESPN The Magazine story, and a TV segment. I relied extensively on these stories, but you’ll find tons more in them. For instance: “‘Pujols?’ [Chapman] says. ‘Who is that?’ When asked which big leaguers he’s heard of, Chapman names David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez,Alfonso Soriano, Alex Rodriguez — and there’s one other. ‘What’s the name of that Yankees shortstop?’ he says.”
  • Aroldis Chapman, sabermetrician: The other reporter who did great work on Chapman’s early days is Melissa Segura at Sports Illustrated. Check out one of her stories here, in which Chapman, way back in 2009, addresses starting versus closing: “Chapman expresses reluctance to move to the bullpen, though he worked as a closer for part of the 2006-07 National Series season. ‘It went OK, but I like being a starter better,’ he says. ‘The difference in starting the game is that you can impact the game greatly. You can pitch a lot of innings. As a closer, you only get one or two innings. You pitch more frequently, but I don’t have a lot of interest in being a closer.'”
  • Aroldis Chapman, reluctant interview: Once Chapman signed with the Reds, he stopped talking as deeply and openly as he did to Arangure and Segura. It’s hard to tell whether this comes from Chapman or the Reds (or both). But the reporter who’s consistently gotten the best quotes — a reporter who, unlike the Reds’ two or three beat reporters, speaks Spanish — is Jorge L. Ortiz. See here and here and here, among others. That last link also has an interesting quotation from Walt Jocketty: “When Dr. (Timothy) Kremchek did the physical and did the MRI of the shoulder and the elbow, he said it was unbelievable how pristine it was.” That’s interesting because the Reds have DL’ed or benched Chapman several times for shoulder problems — or “shoulder” problems. A couple sources I talked to suggested that those DL trips were more the result of mental issues than physical ones.
  • Aroldis Chapman, automobile enthusiast: Any Reds fan knows that Chapman owns several sweet cars, but I’m not sure people realize how into those cars he is. Check out this detailed story in Rides Magazine on the $40,000-plus Chapman’s spent customizing his not-too-shabby-from-the-factory Lamborghini Murcielago. Or contemplate the fact that Chapman has found time to upgrade his license plates with each record-setting pitch: his vanity plates have alluded to velocities of 102, 103, 104, and 105 MPH. Or marvel at his multimillion dollar home with its five-car garage. Or, best of all: watch this simultaneously amazing and terrifying video of him zooming around downton Cincinnati.
  • Aroldis Chapman, dubious record holder: Chapman’s most recent vanity plate is “MR 106,” but as Jeff Passan points out in his excellent Yahoo! story, it’s unlikely that the 106 MPH pitch actually hit 106 MPH.
  • Aroldis Chapman, troubled soul?: If you want to know more about Chapman’s off-field issues, check out Cincinnati CityBeat‘s comprehensive cover story from last summer.
  • Aroldis Chapman, control artist: I analyze Chapman’s remarkable 2012 at some length — especially his newfound control. For more on that, check out this terrific FanGraphs interview with catcher Ryan Hanigan: “It was simpler for him as a closer. I was like, ‘Look man, throw as many strikes as you can.’ You have to really understand what your check points are in your delivery, because if you get just a little out of whack with your mechanics, you’re going to be wild. He knows that, and really got it down to where he could stay consistent. He knew what to do when he was starting to miss. He knew why and how to fix it. But that’s not as hard when you have to throw 15-18 pitches. When you have to throw 100, it’s a different ballgame in terms of keeping your body in control.”

Mike Pence’s fiscal (and total) conservatism

In my Indianapolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence, which you can read here, I pointed out that Indiana’s new governor has taken “vocal conservative stands on just about every issue: foreign policy, fiscal policy, social matters, and more.” Yet the media continue to fixate on those social matters (e.g., Pence’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood). To me, that sells Pence-the-congressman short — even as it also makes Pence-the-candidate seem even more slippery.

Anyway, I wanted to review Pence’s fiscal bona fides, which seem especially relevant as he rolls out his first two-year budget at the State House. Pence became a congressman in 2000 — in the age of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative,” which, as Pence loved to point out, “ultimately [is] another way of saying ‘big-government conservative.”

Again and again, Pence fought for his small-government ideals. The only exception I found, and it’s a partial one, was the federal Farm Bill. Pence’s Sixth District, which covers much of southern Indiana, receives more Farm Bill money than any other district in the country. It created an obvious dilemma for Pence, and one of his staffers told me that, early on, at least, their office took a flexible tack. “Mike would talk about fighting over the size of the pie,” the aide told me, “but once the pie was set he’d fight to get his district as big a slice as he could.”

This method applied to the Farm Bill and to earmarks, as well. But Pence ultimately modified his approach, even though it meant working against his constituents’ interests. By the spring of 2008, he was refusing to vote for Farm Bill. “It has always been my ambition to support Indiana farmers,” Pence said. “But I’ve always sought to do that in a way that protects our federal budget and protects the American taxpayer at large.” Stands like this are why I suggested, in a previous blog post, that Pence has “a more consistent and coherent world-view . . . [than] other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.”

Stands like this are also why Pence became the chairman of the powerful (and extremely conservative) Republican Study Committee. In fact, one source told me that Pence did such a bang-up job that the organization changed its term limits so he could stay in power. “I don’t believe the mission of the RSC is to achieve conservative legislation,” Pence has said. “I believe it is the objective of our committee to ensure that conservative values are given their proper weight with leadership as it seeks the equilibrium of getting a bill to 218 votes.”

(This, by the way, is one of many places where you can see why John Gregg, Pence’s gubernatorial opponent, ran such a poor campaign. Gregg loved attacking Pence for not passing bills — but far more telling was the reason he didn’t pass bills, with that reason being that Pence was a far-right legislator.)

Pence and the RSC caused plenty of trouble for the compassionate crowd. The best example came in 2005, when Pence made a very public demand that any Hurricane Katrina relief be offset by spending cuts. (It was an early version of what we’re seeing today with Hurricane Sandy.) Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay called Pence in for a meeting — what Robert Novak described as “a closed-door auto-da-fe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.”

That’s a pretty great description, but the Washington Post did Novak one better. After that meeting, the paper reported, the congressman “had the look of a hunted man.” Pence was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Young America Foundation. The topic? “Conservative leadership in Congress” and its “massive spending splurges.” But Pence had a change of heart. Instead, he told the crowd, “I believe in the men and women who lead the House of Representatives and the Senate. I see them as men and women of integrity and principle, who work every day to bring the ideals of our Founders into the well of the people’s house.” Then he left abruptly. According to the Post, Pence didn’t even stick around for the Q&A he’d agreed to, which left the Young America crew in a tough spot: “Unfortunately, the congressman will be unable to answer questions today,” the host said. “But we are going to have a door prize.”

Now, you can interpret this event in one of two ways: 1) Pence caved to Republican leadership; or 2) Pence was so good at needling Republican leadership that, eventually, they had to go nuclear on him. I’m inclined toward Option 2 — and not just because that makes Pence’s Young America speech a rare (and revealing) bit of unscripted drama. Pence never stopped needling. In 2010, he was one of very few Republicans to admit that attacking Democrats for their (alleged) cuts to Medicare was dumb and incoherent. Then there’s this, from Michael Grunwald’s excellent book The New New Deal:

[Eric] Cantor and Mike Pence were both part of the conservative Republican Study Committee as well as the leadership team. But as one aide put it, Pence rolled out of bed thinking about being a conservative, while Cantor woke up thinking about being a leader. Infrastructure reflected that difference. In leadership meetings, Cantor argued that the Republican stimulus alternative should go big on public works . . . Pence pushed back: Aren’t we supposed to be against government spending?

All this to say that when people portray Pence as a social crusader, they obscure an important point: he’s a crusader, full stop.

Or at least he was. But there’s one more thing worth noting here: more and more Republicans share Pence’s comprehensive ideology. He’s what the Pew Research Center calls a “Staunch Conservative.” In its political typology survey, Pew highlights “a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives . . . [who] take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues — on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns.” Yet Pew didn’t identify this bloc until recently, in 2011. In other words, as in so much else with the Republican party, Mike Pence was way out in front.

A profile of Mike Pence, Indiana’s new governor

[Indianapolis Monthly]

In the January issue of Indianapolis Monthly, I’ve got a 5,000-word profile of Mike Pence. On January 14, Pence will be sworn in as Indiana’s new governor, and I talked to more than 30 of his friends, acquaintances, and former aides in an attempt to understand the guy.

The strange thing is, I still don’t think I do. I mean, I understand his belief system — “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” as he frequently puts it. And I understand his political past, which includes two early (and ugly) congressional campaigns and a legislative record, once he did make it to D.C., that’s as rigid and far-right as they come. But what I don’t understand is how Pence could set so much of that history aside during his run for governor. When I started my reporting, I admired Pence for possessing a consistent and coherent world-view — especially when one compares him to other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. By the time I finished, however, it felt like he had become more . . . malleable. Or, as I put it in the story: “During his run for governor, Pence marshaled his considerable political talent in a brand-new way — not to champion his beliefs, but to obscure them.”

One of the juicy tidbits in my profile is that, more than a year before the election, Pence made a calculated decision to smooth over his previous positions and methods. There’s other good stuff, as well, including some stuff we couldn’t fit in. Since Pence is such an important Hoosier (and since there’s a good chance [a very good chance, in my opinion] that he’ll run for president), I’m going to spend the next few days writing a series of supplemental blog posts. So check back for more on the following topics — and please read the profile itself.

  1. Pence’s famous “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” essay (with the full text)
  2. Pence’s personal faith (and how he’s become more secretive about it)
  3. Pence’s rigid conservatism (plus far more on farm aid than you’d ever want to know!)
  4. Pence and the press (with some thoughts about the reduced size of Indiana’s political media)

Stop cluttering our state constitutions!

[Slate]

At Slate today, I’ve got a story on Kentucky’s newest constitutional amendment, which enshrines, of all things, the right to hunt. I started digging into this topic because it’s a perfect example of how more and more people are overloading our constitutions with  unnecessary or deeply ideological amendments. To me, at least, that’s not what constitutions are for.

The story’s focus shifted a bit once it became clear how hands on the NRA had been (and once the NRA itself became a more urgent story). Still, I wanted to write here about the state-level pressures behind this new amendment. We know why the NRA wanted the right to hunt — but why did Kentucky legislators like Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo?

Stumbo wouldn’t return my emails or calls, but I heard several interesting theories from statehouse insiders. One was that Stumbo, a Democrat, hoped the amendment would boost his party’s rural legislators in this year’s election. Republicans made their biggest push in decades to take back the Kentucky House, which meant trying to (nonsensically) link their opponents to federal initiatives like Obamacare. But things got uglier still. Robert Damron, another Democrat state rep, told me that one group visited the churches in his district and left fliers on the cars claiming that he supported Obama and abortion. “People would call me and ask about the leaflets,” Damron told me, “and I would say, ‘I’m a Christian—I was in Church on Sunday morning. I wonder where they were?’ But welcome to Republican politics in the South.”

The Democrats ended up holding on to a 55-45 advantage in the House, though no one I talked to thought the right-to-hunt amendment had much to do with this. After all, most voters didn’t care because they didn’t see a threat in the first place. But there’s another (and, to me, more persuasive) theory about why Stumbo wanted the amendment. It centers on Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Senate — and on a little-known piece of legislation called the “21st Century Bill of Rights.”

In 2011, Kentucky’s Senate passed its own proposed constitutional amendment — a list guaranteeing ten new rights, including the right to mine coal, the right to post the Ten Commandments, and the right not to buy healthcare. Senate Republicans knew the bill would never pass the House, but they hoped it would appease the local Tea Party and maybe bolster Senate President David Williams as he ran for governor. One of those new rights turned out to be the right to hunt, and several people told me that Stumbo created his own right-to-hunt bill as a strictly defensive measure. By proposing the amendment, the thinking went, House Democrats could table the 21st Century Bill of Rights without any fear that their election-year opponents (or the NRA) would attack them for being anti-hunting.

That’s just politics, of course, but I’ll revive my original point: aren’t constitutions supposed to be one of the few arenas that remain free of such politics? These documents tend to have messy births, but as they mature they become more foundational, more philosophical. That’s how constitutions have worked for a long time, at least. But that may be changing — which would mean that right-to-hunt amendments are only the silliest example of what’s actually a serious and dispiriting trend.

A profile of the Venezuelan catcher Luis Rodriguez

[Deadspin]

At Deadspin, you can read my second dispatch about the Atlantic League and independent baseball — this time a profile of a catcher who’s in his twentieth season as a minor leaguer. (Here’s a link to the first Atlantic League dispatch, from earlier this year.)

The catcher’s name is Luis Rodriguez, and he ended up having quite a story to tell. One part I couldn’t really fit in — and a part that further proves how talented Rodriguez is, how easy it is to imagine a scenario where he played a few years in the big leagues — is his time in winter ball.

Early in my first interview with Rodriguez, I asked some silly question about whether or not baseball was still fun for him. “You go play winter ball in Venezuela,” he replied, “and you won’t talk about fun. You know how much money your team loses when you lose. You play winter ball and you face Johan Santana, you face Felix Hernandez. It’s a job.” Rodriguez returned to this idea of baseball as a job again and again in our conversations. I think it came partly from his hard-working father and partly from winter ball. Either way, when baseball is your job — your profession — you do it for as long as you can. Fun doesn’t factor in.

That isn’t to say Rodriguez didn’t enjoy winter ball. He began playing in 1991 and worked his way up to the top league and a starting job with the Caracas Leones. One year the Leones boasted big league regulars — Alex Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, and more — at almost every position. “It’s like a big league stadium in Caracas,” Rodriguez remembered. “When we went to the finals, it was Yankees-Boston.”

Rodriguez ended up winning several rings with the Leones. “I know what champagne tastes like,” he told me. He stopped playing winter ball three years ago because his body wasn’t recovering as fast as it used to. “But I’ve been talking about going back this winter,” he added. In fact, whenever he does retire — and good luck getting him to commit to an answer on that — he thinks it might be nice to do it in Venezuela, in the winter leagues: “I could retire in front of my players, in front of my family, and in front of my fans.”