Bruce Chen pitched admirably in the Major Leagues for 17 seasons. His 82 victories are tied -- with Mariano Rivera -- for the most all-time among Panamanian-born pitchers. Chen flummoxed league MVPs from Alexander Rodriguez (career .540 OPS) to Justin Morneau (.551) to Joe Mauer (.658). He was the first
Bruce Chen pitched admirably in the Major Leagues for 17 seasons. His 82 victories are tied -- with Mariano Rivera -- for the most all-time among Panamanian-born pitchers. Chen flummoxed league MVPs from Alexander Rodriguez (career .540 OPS) to Justin Morneau (.551) to Joe Mauer (.658). He was the first man to throw a Major League pitch in New York after September 11th, for the Mets at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21, 2001.
Chen, 39, retired in 2015 and has spent the past year as a cultural development coordinator for the Cleveland Indians. And so it may be with some surprise that you read the following bulletin:
Chen will pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. For China.
• Full coverage: World Baseball Classic begins March 6
"This is about me being able to give something back to my grandparents," Chen told MLB.com in a recent interview. "Even though I was born in Panama, I'm of Chinese descent. My mom is so proud. My dad is so proud. I can only imagine how proud my grandparents would be if they were still alive, to see me give something back to the country (where they were born).
"They didn't speak Spanish very well, so it was hard for me to communicate with them growing up. For me to do this -- honor them and celebrate my heritage and pitch one more time in front of my kids -- it's a tremendous opportunity. I'm training just as hard as if I was getting ready for the MLB season."
If Panama were participating in next month's tournament, Chen would have signed up to pitch for his homeland, as he did in the 2006 and '09 Classics. But Panama lost on home soil to Colombia, 2-1, in a March qualifier.
China -- the country Chen's grandparents left for Panama in the first half of the 20th century -- qualified for the 2017 WBC by way of a victory over Brazil in the last Classic.
"Panama is a great country with a great baseball tradition, and I've always shared the good times of my career with the people there," Chen said. "So we're still going to have one Panamanian in the WBC. I'm very happy and excited. I'm going to continue to represent Panama, but they understand how important it is to represent my heritage.
"To represent two different countries, it means a lot. Not a lot of people can say they represent two different countries."
Chen initially tried to pitch for China in the 2013 WBC, when Panama also failed to qualify, but he encountered a bureaucratic snag: Chen's grandfather Kuen Chin Chan Lee changed his name to Jose Chen after arriving in Panama, as Jorge Arangure first reported in a 2006 Washington Post story. The lack of continuity between the Chinese and Panamanian documents created a delay in the approval process, and China's baseball federation was unable to confirm Chen's eligibility prior to the roster deadline.
Having since located the registry confirming his grandfather's journey from China to Panama, Chen has been cleared to compete in 2017. The Indians gave Chen their blessing, too, believing his dedication in working back into baseball shape would send a strong message to the organization's Minor League players.
"When I retired, I was throwing 82 or 83 mph," Chen said. "I was never known as a guy who threw hard, but I can't go in there throwing 78 or 80 mph. Here with the Indians, we have a weighted-ball program that Ken Knutson [the team's pitching programs and rehab coordinator] uses to help with arm speed and maintenance. Now I've been working with him.
"I don't know how hard I'm throwing -- it's definitely not 90 -- but we have all of these things in the new era of baseball that I've never done before. Technology has advanced so much. I'm learning things at age 39 that other guys are learning at 16 and 17 years old. I can definitely say I'm throwing harder than when I first started playing catch six weeks ago. I just want to help the team any way I can."
Chen learned a little Cantonese from his grandmother while growing up in Panama; his parents still live there, as part of a sizable Chinese-Panamanian population. Now, Chen is studying the more widely spoken variation of Chinese, Mandarin, in order to communicate with Taiwanese players in the Indians' system.
Chen also has enrolled his oldest daughter, Gabriela, in a Mandarin class. He expects his younger daughters, Adriana and Alessandra, to one day do the same.
And all three girls, along with Chen's wife, will be in Tokyo next month, as China's national baseball team relies on a wise, grateful left-hander.
"I don't want to just go there and represent the country -- I want to help them win," Chen said. "I want to help lead them, so they understand what they are capable of doing. Chinese baseball is going to become better as they go along. I want to be able to mentor some of these young guys to see if they can become better. And I want to honor my family. It's a tremendous opportunity, and I'm going to give it my best effort."
Jon Paul Morosi is a columnist for MLB.com.