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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
After his rookie season Wang returned home to a hero's welcome, receiving an invitation to meet President
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,
A lagging economy, political scandal (the president's wife,
Last year a study in a Taiwanese business journal,
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 z
On the Yankees, Wang has no close friends. He has known second baseman
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
Wang's former college coach,
Wang was raised by an aunt and uncle who adopted him at a young age. During the baseball season Chien-Ming and his wife,
"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,
On the other hand, others are starting to view him as an anomaly, the pitching equivalent of
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
Until this season Wang had relied on his sinker roughly 90% of the time. During some outings, catcher
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."