Chien-Ming Wang Has A Secret (cont.)
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.