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."