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Posted: Tuesday April 15, 2008 9:32AM; Updated: Wednesday April 16, 2008 12:53PM
Albert Chen Albert Chen >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Chien-Ming Wang Has A Secret (cont.)

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Wang, exiting Game 4, was shelled by Cleveland twice in the Division Series last fall, giving voice to his doubters.
Wang, exiting Game 4, was shelled by Cleveland twice in the Division Series last fall, giving voice to his doubters.
John Iacono/SI

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."

 
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