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Chien-Ming Wang Has A Secret
April 21, 2008
His popularity in Taiwan, where he's bigger than the president, is no mystery, but it's less easy to explain the pitching success of the Yankees' enigmatic ace. Maybe he's just really good
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April 21, 2008

Chien-ming Wang Has A Secret

His popularity in Taiwan, where he's bigger than the president, is no mystery, but it's less easy to explain the pitching success of the Yankees' enigmatic ace. Maybe he's just really good

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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."

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