Chien-Ming Wang has become a hero in Taiwan and a stalwart in the Yankees’rotation.
He pitches with a sense of purpose and responsibility. For the Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang, celebrity and earning potential grow with every ground ball. The better he pitches, the better he can take care of his family in Taiwan.
Wang, who is scheduled to start at Yankee Stadium today against the Los Angeles Angels, has become more than the best ground-ball pitcher in the American League. At 26, he is a national hero in his home country, where he endorses computers and potato chips.
“When I used to go back to Taiwan, there weren’t that many events to go to,” Wang said through an interpreter before a game in Chicago last week. “Starting last year, there have been more events, and going out is not as convenient.”
The kinds of events he attends are telling. “Going to orphanages,” Wang said, “and events for premature babies.”
Wang started playing baseball in fourth grade, as a pitcher, first baseman and outfielder. He attended high school in Taipei, on the north side of the island of Taiwan. His home, Tainan, is in the south. It was through baseball that he learned an important part of his personal story.
“We were going out to a competition and needed our personal documents,” Wang said, explaining that meant the names, relationships and birthdates of family members. “When I got my documents, I learned who my biological parents were. My parents didn’t tell me.”
Wang found out then that his biological father was the man he knew as his uncle, Ping-Yin Wang. Wang’s parents had no children of their own and offered to raise him. They later had a daughter, Hsiu-Wen Wang, who is two years younger.
It must have been a startling revelation, but Wang betrayed no emotion when talking about it.
“I didn’t feel anything in particular,” he said. “I felt it was all right, like I had two fathers.”
If anything, Wang said, he became even more serious about succeeding as a pitcher.
“I felt I had to work even harder in order to help two sets of parents,” he said, adding later, “Most of my money I send home to let my parents manage. The rest I use for living expenses in America.”
In the off-season, Wang and his wife, Chia-Ling, live with the parents who raised him. He loves his mother’s cooking, he said, but the overriding reason is cultural.
His parents, who manufactured metal products like spoons and lunch boxes, have been retired for about 10 years. In Taiwan, Wang explained, it is customary for sons to stay at home and take care of their parents. Long after learning his personal background, Wang remains very close with the parents who raised him.
“In Taiwan there’s a saying: ‘Raising a child is more important than giving birth. Raising a child is greater,’ ” Wang said.
No Taiwanese player had played in the major leagues until outfielder Chin-Feng Chen joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. (Wang’s childhood idol was Roger Clemens.)
He attended a sports college, Taipei Ti Wu University, and was signed by the Yankees for about $2 million in 2000, with a hard, straight fastball as his primary weapon. Shoulder injuries sidelined him for all of 2001 and part of 2003, but by 2004 he was a star for the Chinese Taipei Olympic team and, by late August, the top starter for Class AAA Columbus.
The timing of his surge was significant. Had Wang blossomed in the spring of 2004, rather than the late summer, he might have attracted the attention of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who aggressively scouted the Yankees’ farm system before the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline.
The Yankees wanted badly to trade for Randy Johnson and made all of their prospects available to the Diamondbacks. Arizona assigned the scout Bryan Lambe to evaluate several players, including Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera and Dioner Navarro.
They never mentioned Wang to Lambe, and the teams did not make a deal until after the season. Wang was not in the trade.
“I’d like to say I never saw him, but I did, maybe for a game or at least a part of a game,” said Lambe, who now scouts for the Mets. “He pitched well, but not like now. He didn’t have that velocity or that kind of sink. Natural maturity took care of the velocity, but somebody fine-tuned him, because that sinker is as good as anybody’s.
“He’s winning because of that hard sinker. You can hit it on the screws, and if it’s sinking, you’ve hit a nice, hard ground ball. It takes a lot of ground balls to win.”
To throw the sinker, Wang holds the ball with his index and middle fingers along the seams framing the ball’s sweet spot. There is a dark callus to the right of the nail on his index finger, which he places just off the left seam. When he releases the ball, Wang pushes off the seam with his index finger, creating diving, downward movement toward the shins of a right-handed hitter.
The pitch may end up out of the strike zone, but hitters find it hard to resist before it shifts course.
“All you can do is hit the top of the ball,” said the Yankees’ Nick Green, who faced Wang eight times when he played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. “Every time it comes in, it looks like a strike. It’s easy to tell yourself to lay off it from watching it on TV, but it’s hard to do.”
Wang, who has not lost since July 3, has produced 3.36 ground outs for every fly out this season, the best ratio in the league. Because he induces contact so regularly, he has only 49 strikeouts, tied for the fewest in the majors among pitchers who qualify for the earned-run-average title.
Wang credits his sinker to Neil Allen, his pitching coach at Columbus in 2004, and Sal Fasano, who caught him then.
“He’s got that unique ability that whatever you teach him, he can throw with almost immediate success,” said Fasano, now the Yankees’ backup catcher. “But that’s why you have to be careful.”
In Columbus, Wang threw six pitches, which Fasano said he considered too many. Wang took to the sinker so quickly, Fasano said, that it made sense to master that pitch and throw it roughly 90 percent of the time.
The trick was not to throw it too hard. Wang can throw a four-seam fastball around 96 miles an hour. The sinker — or two-seamer — comes in two or three miles an hour slower, but has more movement.
When Wang threw 103 pitches in beating the Devil Rays on July 8, catcher Jorge Posada said he called only sinkers. But Ron Guidry, the pitching coach, said Wang also throws a changeup, slider and four-seam fastball.
When right-handers protect against the sinker, Guidry said, Wang can throw a slider or four-seamer to the outside corner, where they cannot reach. But mostly, Guidry conceded, Wang gets outs with the sinker.
“It’s like hitting a shot put,” Guidry said. “It’s harder than most sinkers, and it’s got late movement.”
Wang leads the team with 161 innings pitched, and he is 13-4 with a 3.69 earned run average. Beyond his ability, Wang’s personality has endeared him to teammates.
Reliever Mike Myers, who sometimes runs with Wang before batting practice around the concourse level of road ballparks, said Wang’s smile drew people in, and the language barrier fell later.
“Once you get him to open up, he’s fine,” Myers said. “But you’ve got to get him to open up.”
The Yankees provided Wang with a personal interpreter when he first came to the United States in 2000, but the interpreter was soon fired. Wang said he would rather not worry about the possibility of losing another interpreter, so he has not asked for one since.
“This year is better than last year,” Wang said. “Last year the other players didn’t talk to me very much. They figured I couldn’t speak English. In my second year, more people are talking to me, chatting with me.”
Wang’s English is improving, and he speaks well enough to convey basic points to the news media after games. Rick Cerrone, the Yankees’ media relations director, has suggested that Wang group three distinct ideas in each answer, and Wang has been quoted more often lately.
Predictably, teammates ply Wang with amusing phrases. On a recent flight, he greeted Larry Bowa, the boisterous third-base coach, by saying, “What’s up, Meat?”
“They’re teaching him new stuff, and he’s testing it on me,” Bowa said. “He does have a good sense of humor.”
That was the first thing Andy Phillips mentioned when asked to explain Wang’s personality. Wang parrots phrases, for sure, but he usually knows when he is being set up, and he has keen comic timing.
“He’s very, very funny,” Phillips said. “He’s pretty quiet, and then all of a sudden he’ll say something or ask a question at a random time, and it’s just hilarious.”
Phillips and Wang were teammates in the minors, and they eat together on the road sometimes. On one of their first trips in the majors, they had rooms on the same floor. When they got there, Wang sheepishly asked Phillips, “Where’s my luggage?”
Phillips explained that a bellman would bring the bags. Any rookie could have asked the same question, but it reminded Phillips of the adjustments Wang still has to make.
“When you think about all the little things we do every day just to be able to get to the field and do our work, that can be quite a challenge,” Phillips said. “But his personality is so laid back that he doesn’t let those challenges affect him.”
From absorbing the true story of his own beginning to mastering opposing lineups, Wang has handled it all.
NEW YORK TIMES
By TYLER KEPNER
Published: August 13, 2006