UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

The secret of Yankees ace Wang

He's just one man, one man with just one pitch. The ball comes at hitters on a flat plane, thigh-high, at somewhere between 90 and 95 mph, then it takes a sudden plunge, some seven to eight inches toward the dirt.

It's a pitch that's won him more games over the last two years than any other hurler in major league baseball, a pitch that's turned him into the ace of the most famous sports franchise in the world. It's a pitch, his countrymen insist, that influences the stock market in the world's 19th-largest economy, a pitch that has made him the biggest sports star to come out of Asia since Yao Ming, a pitch that, on this sultry January afternoon in Tainan, Taiwan, is the reason why he can't have a piece of cake.

He sits in the passenger seat of a midnight-blue minivan with tinted windows as it squeezes through a swarm of cars and motorbikes, on the city's main avenue. Peering through the side window he spots a line of customers at a street vendor's cart and decides that he wants what they want: a small piece of cake stuffed with red bean -- a local specialty he won't be able to get once he returns to the U.S. in another week. But because he is Chien-Ming Wang, pitcher for the New York Yankees, he can't step out of his vehicle, or even roll down his window, without making news in the next day's papers. "The street food, it's what I miss most in America," he says in a rare moment of wistfulness. Wang could dispatch his bodyguard, Daniel, who is driving, but left waiting in a parked van, Wang would surely be recognized through the front windshield. It happened two years ago, when, on his way home from the airport, a mob of more than a thousand blocked the narrow street to his home. For more than a hour, he sat with his wife in a stationary car, surrounded by the throng until 40 policemen arrived.

So to the notion of buying a piece of cake, Wang says, "Forget it," and the van rolls on, headed to a gym, where it pulls up to the rear entrance. Inside, he walks through a succession of darkened rooms and into an empty workout area. He lifts weights for an hour. Other than for the rare public appearance, trips to the gym are pretty much the only times that he leaves his apartment in Tainan, his off-season home. Some 7,800 miles from New York City, in his native country -- where his famously stoic face gazes from billboards, ATMs, credit cards, cellphones, bags of potato chips, milk cartons; where the people call him, simply, Taiwan zhiguang (the pride and glory of Taiwan) -- Chien-Ming Wang is everywhere and nowhere, a hero and a prisoner. For an intensely private, excruciatingly shy 28-year-old, being a national icon is a heavy burden. "It's crazy," he says in his slow and soft voice. "I think, This is strange. I'm just one man."

With the start of the 2008 baseball season, he was back on the front pages of the Taiwanese newspapers, back as the lead story on so many of the country's television news shows. Yes, it was a thrill to win his first Opening Day start, and, yes, he came within a fluke home run (rightfielder Bobby Abreu mistimed his leap on a catchable fly ball) and a bunt single of a no-hitter against the Red Sox last Friday night. Yet, the best start of his four-year big league career doesn't wash away the disappointment of last October. Six months ago he sat alone in the home dugout, a blank stare of disbelief on his face as a grisly silence enveloped Yankee Stadium during Game 4 of the American League Division Series. It was only the second inning, and already Wang had been yanked after retiring just three hitters while allowing four runs -- a meltdown that came four days after he'd been hammered for eight runs over 4 2/3 innings in New York's Game 1 loss. When the night was over, after his team had been eliminated by the Cleveland Indians, there was no way around it: Tagged with two of his team's three postseason defeats, Wang was the one player most responsible for yet another premature Yankees playoff exit.

Wang had been exposed as a one-pitch anomaly, or so said the baseball cognoscenti, the scribes and the sabermetricians who've long proclaimed the 6-foot-3, 225-pound righthander the beneficiary of a large amount of good fortune. How else to explain why a pitcher with a minuscule strikeout rate, who misses fewer bats than almost every other major league starter, could be so successful? No, Wang's October wasn't just a pair of fluke performances in an otherwise accomplished season, nor was it the result of a tired arm, but rather the sign of something larger. This, the skeptics said, was perhaps where the end began.

Situated on a coastal plain in western Taiwan, 170 miles south of Taipei, Tainan is the country's fourth-largest city and is known for its greasy street snacks, for its ornate ancient temples and for baseball. During Taiwan's nearly three decades of dominance in the Little League World Series -- between 1969 and '96, a Taiwanese team left Williamsport, Pa., with the winner's trophy 17 times -- Tainan produced five of those world champions.

Tainan is also the home of the three Taiwanese players in the major leagues today: Wang has been joined by Chin-Lung Hu and Hong-Chih Kuo, both with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The No. 3 prospect in the Dodgers system as rated by Baseball America, and the most valuable player of last year's MLB Futures Game, Hu, 24, is a diminutive, slick-fielding shortstop who is expected to replace Rafael Furcal after Furcal's contract runs out at the end of this season. Kuo, a 26-year-old lefthanded pitcher with a linebacker's build, is regarded by scouts as the most naturally gifted pitcher to come out of Taiwan; two years ago he was L.A.'s Game 2 pitcher in a first-round playoff series against the New York Mets, but he has since been slowed by arm injuries and moved to the bullpen.

Hu and Kuo are everything that Wang is not: bubbly, charismatic, at ease in the public eye. But they are not nearly as famous as the Yankees righthander, whose success story is known throughout Taiwan. The adopted son of workers in a metal utensil manufacturing company, Wang played Little League but was never regarded as a standout while growing up in Tainan. "In high school, he was kind of terrible," says Louis Yu, a sportswriter who covered Wang then. "He was tall and very, very skinny. His delivery wasn't smooth, and his fastball was not impressive."

In 1998 Wang enrolled at the Taipei Physical Education College, about the same time Taiwanese-born Chin-hui Tsao was turning the heads of the Colorado Rockies, who would sign the righthanded pitcher in October 1999. By Wang's second year of college, he began showing a low-90s fastball, which caught the attention of the Seattle Mariners, who offered Wang a $1 million signing bonus in May 2000. "The first time we saw him in a nine-inning game," says Mariners scout Jamey Storvick, "he threw harder as the game went along. That's one thing we liked: He took it to another level in pressure situations." Seattle, however, didn't know that Yankees scout John Cox and team international scouting director Gordon Blakeley had seen Wang pitch in a college tournament in Taipei. Just as Wang was about to sign with Seattle, with him and his family sitting at home in Tainan wearing Mariners caps, New York swooped in with a $1.9 million offer. "While we knew Tsao could be a star," Yu says, "Wang never had a great game in high school or college like him. People in Taiwan were surprised [the Yankees] gave him so much money. No one thought he could be a star."

Fourteen starts into his professional career Wang blew out his shoulder and sat out the entire 2001 season following surgery. He was told by the Yankees that he had to bag his out pitch, the slider, to ease the stress on his arm. In the summer of '04 he learned the pitch that would change his career. During a bullpen session shortly after his promotion to Triple A Columbus, Clippers pitching coach Neil Allen approached him with a suggestion. "Try this," Allen said to Wang, holding the ball with his index and middle fingers along the seams that framed the ball's sweet spot. "Push harder here," he said, tapping his index finger against the ball.

Wang began throwing and, he recalls, "the ball started to drop." It took only a few starts in Columbus before the sinker became his signature pitch, and the results were immediate: Wang finished the year 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA. The following April he was called up to replace the injured Jaret Wright in the Yankees' rotation and went 8-5 with a 4.02 ERA while logging the third-most innings (116 1/3) among the team's starters in 2005. Wang's sinker gradually earned a reputation as one of the game's filthiest pitches. "An ultimate weapon, like Johan Santana and his changeup," says Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. "It's the best sinker I've ever seen."

Halfway around the globe, in a baseball-crazed country starved for somebody to root for, Wangmania took off. In Taiwan, fans had been heartbroken by the decision of the Chinese Taipei baseball association in 1997 to pull out of Little League World Series competition rather than abide by a rule that allowed only schools or districts with enrollments of under 1,000 to participate. (The island returned to competition in 2003.) And while there has been a professional league in Taiwan since the early 1990s, a series of gambling scandals in the late '90s precipitated a massive drop in attendance. "Baseball has been in the Taiwanese people's blood since it was brought here by the Japanese some 100 years ago," says Ben Shao, press director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, "and Wang is the baseball star we've been waiting to pour our hearts into."

After his rookie season Wang returned home to a hero's welcome, receiving an invitation to meet President Chen Shui-Bian. By the time Wang returned home after the 2006 season, in which he went 19-6 with a 3.63 ERA and finished second in American League Cy Young voting, he was more popular than the president. "There's no question that he has more impact than anyone else in our country," says Shao. "The way we look at it, a president is in office for no more than eight years, then someone else comes along. Wang, he's everlasting."

Now Taiwan's major newspapers charge a higher advertising rate for issues published on a day that Wang pitches, as well as the day after each start. The country's largest circulation daily, Apple Daily, estimates that it sells as many as 300,000 extra papers on days that carry reports of another Wang victory. Endorsements that have come Wang's way include McDonald's, Ford, E Sun Bank (one of the largest in Taiwan) and computer-maker Acer, which claims that Wang's name alone has increased its product sales by 10% and lowered the average age of its consumer by almost four years.

A lagging economy, political scandal (the president's wife, Wu Shu-Chen, and three aides were charged with embezzlement, while former Vice Interior Minister Yen Wan-Ching was recently convicted in a bribery case) and escalating tensions with China have made this a nervous time for the Taiwanese people. "Wang, he's our only consensus," says Shao. Referring to the government's combative legislative branch, which is renowned for in-chamber brawling among lawmakers, Shao says, "When our congressmen are debating, they'll stop their fighting, watch Wang pitch, then go back to fighting when the inning is over."

Last year a study in a Taiwanese business journal, Money Weekly, found a correlation between Wang's pitching performances and the fluctuations of the Taiwan Stock Exchange. The report attributed a 25% index rise last summer to Wang's strong June and July. "We absolutely believe it to be true," Shao says of the relationship between Wang's performance and last summer's bull market. "Psychologically, how [Wang] does has a huge effect on the Taiwanese people. If he does well, people are in a good mood, and they go out and spend money. If he doesn't, you walk around and you can see people depressed. It's a very personal matter to the Taiwanese people." (For the record, the country's stock index was up roughly 6%, through Monday, since Wang's first start this season, on April 1.)

In their coverage of pop stars and politicians, the Taiwanese papers can be as cruel as the New York tabloids; when it comes to their Taiwan zhiguang, they generally do not pry into his personal life. (Still, six Taiwanese TV networks, four newspapers and a wire service have reporters in the U.S. covering him on a daily basis during the season.) The reason Wang isn't a star in New York City, where he freely walks the streets undisturbed, is the same reason that so many Taiwanese embrace him: Fans see Wang as humble, quietly hardworking, uncontroversial. "He's like a good son, or someone you can meet in your own neighborhood," says Wen Lee, a press officer for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center. "The [Taiwanese] media, they know about this image. They could write about the expensive jewelry he buys, but they don't. They don't want to hurt the image." The Nike billboards that tower over downtown Taipei show Wang zipping his lips with his fingers next to the Chinese character for silent, and the words i just pitch.

On the Yankees, Wang has no close friends. He has known second baseman Robinson Cano the longest -- the two rose through the minors together and were promoted to the majors within a week of each other in the spring of 2005 -- but neither can recall the last time they socialized outside the ballpark. "[Wang] sits there and goes through all his stacks of fan mail," says Yankees centerfielder Johnny Damon, who has lockered next to Wang for the last two years. "He looks at his car magazines. I know he likes cars. I know he likes expensive watches. But that's pretty much it."

Many U.S. reporters who cover Wang assume he's reserved because of the halting manner in which he speaks English, but he talks that way in his own language in his own country. When asked about Wang, former college teammate Kao Lin-Jie says, "His face never had an expression. He didn't say anything. He was just . . . strange."

Wang's former college coach, Kao Ying-Chieh, recalls, "He always sat alone during lunch. Once our team took a trip to the Alisan mountains [outside of Taipei]. The team went down to a creek, and everyone jumped in and played around. But Chien-Ming wasn't there. I looked up and saw him on the bridge, looking down at the creek, alone. That just tells you what kind of person he is."

Wang was raised by an aunt and uncle who adopted him at a young age. During the baseball season Chien-Ming and his wife, Chia-Ling, whom he met in his first year of college and married in December 2003, live in a modest three-bedroom house in Fort Lee, N.J. In the off-season he, Chia-Ling and his adoptive parents share an apartment in Tainan, where he spends the days playing Nintendo Wii, watching scary movies and eating his mother's cooking. The most animated he gets is when he's talking about expensive cars. "I want to be just like Moose," Wang says with a smile, referring to Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who owns a collection of vintage cars.

"He's very simple," says Yu, the sportswriter. "But I think that is good for him when pitching on a team like the Yankees, in a city like New York, where there's so much pressure. He doesn't get too excited. He's in his own world."

While many other ballplayers from Taiwan have suffered physical breakdowns at a young age, Wang is still pitching into his late 20s. Tsao was the Rockies' minor league pitcher of the year in 2003, but over the past five seasons he made five trips to the disabled list, had two arm surgeries and logged only eight major league starts. The 26-year-old Tsao is trying to reclaim his career with the Kansas City Royals' Triple A affiliate in Omaha. Kuo, the Dodgers lefthander, had two Tommy John operations in the last five seasons, during which he worked a total of 102 innings. At the start of the 2008 season there were 25 Taiwanese players under contract to MLB organizations, roughly a quarter of whom were pitchers who have spent time on the disabled list.

Grueling training regimens in Taiwanese colleges and professional leagues have been blamed for the short careers of pitchers. When he was 18, Tsao says, he followed a half hour of long toss with a three-hour bullpen session and an hour of pitching live batting practice. He once started three games in a four-game tournament. But many believe that the arm abuse begins even earlier. "By the time they get to college, they're already damaged," says the director of Asian scouting of one major league team.

"In the Little Leagues, it's about quantity of practice, not quality," says Kao, Wang's college coach who also was an assistant on the Tainan team that won the 1986 Little League World Series. "Mentally, we push the kids too hard, which is why so many don't go further. [At Williamsport in '86] we had lunch once next to an amusement park, and I remember seeing the boys crowded at a window watching the players from the other teams go. We wouldn't let them go play. They'd waste their energy, the [other] coaches said. I felt sorry for them."

Are such attitudes changing? "Changing," Kao says, "but slowly changing."

Wang recalls rigorous throwing regimens and high pitch counts in Taiwan, but he doesn't criticize the practices. "I don't think [the workloads] have hurt me," he says. "Maybe it's made me stronger." Since his arm surgery in 2001, Wang has avoided serious injury; he missed two months with shoulder tendinitis in '05 and was on the disabled list to start last season with a strained right hamstring. "I think he'll be fine," says Storvick, the Mariners scout, who is based in Taiwan. "One thing going for him is that he's got a real smooth delivery."

But even if Wang stays healthy, how long can he continue to perform as a No. 1 starter? Go to any Yankees fan forum on the Internet and you'll find extensive debate on the topic, Is a Chien-Ming Wang decline inevitable? In 2006, when Wang had the best season of his career, he averaged a major-league-low 3.14 strikeouts per nine innings while hitters put the ball in play in 84.2% of their plate appearances against him (the highest percentage among major league starters). Last year Wang won 19 games for the second straight season, had a 4.70 strikeout rate (10th lowest in the majors) and saw hitters put the ball in play 82.4% of the time (10th highest in the majors). Wang's doubters look at those numbers -- and his shellacking last October -- and say he won't last as a dominant starter.

On the other hand, others are starting to view him as an anomaly, the pitching equivalent of Kirby Puckett or Don Mattingly -- hitters who rarely worked deep counts or drew walks but who swung the bat often, made solid contact and put the ball in play. Wang pounds the strike zone and commands his pitches well, and gets hitters to ground out early in the count. "The difference between [Wang] and other sinkerballers," says Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder Vernon Wells, "is that it moves so late. Because he throws it so hard, you don't have time to react. You commit to it, but by the time you start your swing, the ball is almost in the dirt. You know what's coming, but it just doesn't matter."

In a St. Petersburg hotel suite this February, Yankees officials sat face-to-face with Wang, his wife and his agents at an arbitration hearing. For 4 1/2 hours the team executives explained to three arbitrators why Wang deserved the $4 million they were offering but not the $4.6 million he was asking for. They said that Wang owed a great deal of his success to the New York lineup, which had given him the second-highest run support of any starter in the big leagues over the last two years. They pointed to Wang's playoff meltdown.

Wang lost the hearing. He knew it was business, of course, but the words stung him almost as much as what happened in October. When he arrived at spring training, he vowed to work with new pitching coach Dave Eiland on fully incorporating a changeup and slider into his repertoire. "He's going to be more than a one-pitch pitcher," Eiland declared.

Until this season Wang had relied on his sinker roughly 90% of the time. During some outings, catcher Jorge Posada would go an entire game without calling for anything but the sinker. Through his first three starts this season, however, Wang had expanded his arsenal to include sliders 15% of the time and changeups 8%. "After [what happened in] the playoffs, I know I still have a lot to prove; I'm still working," he said, after allowing two runs and striking out two batters in seven innings against the Blue Jays in the season opener. "I know I need to change a little to reach the next level."

More than the fans, major league clubs believe what they've seen from Wang. Over the last two years they have signed 15 players from Taiwan, and nearly half the teams have full-time scouts on the island. Kao sees the talent coming up through the high schools and colleges, and it gives him hope. "The quality level here is getting better," he says. "Coaches are learning, coaching smarter."

Will there be another Chien-Ming Wang? Kao laughs, sounding as if he thinks the question is absurd. "No, I don't think so, not while I'm still living," he says. "He is a precious gem. Our precious gem."

Promoted Stories
Comments
SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.