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Yankees Magazine: A Different Sort of Happiness

Chien-Ming Wang arrived in the Bronx as a supernova before a freak injury changed everything. An intimate new documentary examines the highs and lows of his brief yet remarkable career
Yankees Magazine

When Chien-Ming Wang debuted with the New York Yankees in 2005, becoming the first Taiwan-born ballplayer to wear the pinstripes, Frank W. Chen was a graduate student studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. A Taiwan native who immigrated to Canada at the age of 13, Chen grew up watching the Chinese Professional Baseball League and started following Major League Baseball upon arriving at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s.

Although Taiwan is a baseball-crazed island nation -- its success in the Little League World Series attests to that -- of more than 23 million people, no Taiwanese player competed in MLB until Chin-Feng Chen joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. But the outfielder would appear in just 19 games, hitting .091 (2-for-22) over four seasons. Wang, on the other hand, was a sensation from the moment he took the Yankee Stadium mound for the first time on April 30, 2005.

When Chien-Ming Wang debuted with the New York Yankees in 2005, becoming the first Taiwan-born ballplayer to wear the pinstripes, Frank W. Chen was a graduate student studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. A Taiwan native who immigrated to Canada at the age of 13, Chen grew up watching the Chinese Professional Baseball League and started following Major League Baseball upon arriving at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s.

Although Taiwan is a baseball-crazed island nation -- its success in the Little League World Series attests to that -- of more than 23 million people, no Taiwanese player competed in MLB until Chin-Feng Chen joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. But the outfielder would appear in just 19 games, hitting .091 (2-for-22) over four seasons. Wang, on the other hand, was a sensation from the moment he took the Yankee Stadium mound for the first time on April 30, 2005.

A 25-year-old right-handed starter with a hard sinker, Wang stifled the Toronto Blue Jays that afternoon, yielding two earned runs while inducing 15 ground ball outs over seven innings. Chen soon made the pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium to watch Wang throw a baseball. "A Taiwanese guy starting for the New York Yankees? I was blown away," he says. "I got a little emotional. Even just thinking about it now is emotional. Seeing one of my own standing on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium, elevated, almost dictating the game, was unbelievable."

Chen eventually met his favorite athlete, although under much different circumstances. Following a handful of injury- plagued seasons, Wang was no longer an ace -- no longer a big leaguer, in fact. He was a 33-year-old journeyman pitching for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate. The gaggle of reporters who once shadowed him from Taipei to the Bronx had migrated to another beat. Wang was on his fifth attempt at a comeback, diminished to the point where it wasn't noteworthy for him to be dining at a Ruby Tuesday in Northeast Pennsylvania with a fan and the mutual friend who introduced them on a random night in May 2013.

Wang was reticent during the meal, limiting the conversation to the recent World Baseball Classic. In person, Chen thought, Wang resembled the hurler on the mound: stoic and reserved. It was a fairly innocuous celebrity encounter. But an image from that night stuck with Chen: Wang squeezing his 6-foot-3 frame into a tiny rental car and driving into the Pennsylvania night.

"The distance between the two moments -- Yankee Stadium in 2005 and Scranton in 2013 -- was just … I couldn't believe it," Chen says. "I remember telling a friend afterward that I had just seen a side of a ballplayer that most people hadn't seen. I then said, 'Do you think it could be a film?'"

***

Chien-Ming Wang's story is not a tragedy. He accomplished more than almost anyone could have imagined. Made millions. Earned respect. Carved a spot in Yankees history despite his brief tenure. That he is now the subject of a documentary is testament to both his impact and the unusual circumstances that triggered his decline.

From 2005 to 2008, Wang started 95 games and went 54-20 with a 3.79 ERA; in Yankees history, only Ron Guidry reached 50 victories in fewer starts (82). Wang won 19 games in 2006, finishing second in the American League Cy Young Award voting, and equaled that win total the following season. He was the ace of the staff and started Game 1 of the ALDS in both 2006 and 2007. He was an even larger presence off the field.

Dubbed "The Pride and Glory of Taiwan," Wang achieved the sort of suffocating fame that quickly became a burden. "He was," Chen says, "the most famous person in the country." He was even named to the "Time 100" in 2007 -- the magazine's annual listing of "the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world" -- appearing in the section titled "Heroes & Pioneers." But it all came to a halt when Wang suffered a freak accident running the bases in June 2008.

And here he is now, nearly a decade later, at a Starbucks in an affluent suburb of Orlando, Florida, sipping a black coffee. Wang looks the part of a middle-aged athlete. Now 38, he still maintains his impressive tussock of hair and athletic build. He has wispy sideburns, arched eyebrows, and the same blank gaze he flashed when staring down opposing batters. On this steamy April afternoon, he sports an untucked white button-down shirt with gray pinstripes that he wears with the top two buttons undone, fitted black pants and black slip-on sneakers. A silver necklace, matching bracelet and muted, elegant watch complete the look.

Wang is sitting alongside Frank Chen to discuss Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story, a moody, intimate film directed by Chen that premiered last month at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Following the 2013 meeting in Pennsylvania, Chen contacted Wang's longtime agent, Alan Chang, to discuss the project. Chang, who first met Wang in 1997, gave his blessing, but cautioned the filmmaker: "You know him, right? He's a tough cookie. He doesn't let out a lot of his emotions."

Wang initially declined to participate in the film. He argued that his story -- that of a ballplayer clawing his way back to the big leagues -- wasn't interesting. But he soon relented and allowed Chen and his cameras to follow him to 21 cities and three countries. "My agent told me that I could show the younger generation what I've been through," Wang whispers in Mandarin, his voice barely registering on a nearby digital recorder. "It could serve as an inspiration."

Chang was prescient: The film is an inspiration. With his career at a crossroads, "The Pride and Glory of Taiwan" lived up to his lofty moniker, battling through injuries to -- spoiler alert! -- once again make a big league roster. But with his goals accomplished, Wang now faces a different dilemma: Where does he go from here?

***

Wang grew up in Tainan City, the oldest city in Taiwan. A tall kid, basketball was his first love, but he discovered baseball in fourth grade. The road to the Bronx was a lonely one for Wang. He left home at 14 to attend an elite high school baseball program in Taipei, a four-hour train ride north from Tainan City.

Wang wasn't a top prospect at first. He had trouble transitioning from the soft baseball used in elementary school to regulation balls. But by the time he enrolled at the Taipei Physical Education College in 1998, he was fixated on going pro. "I didn't have a backup plan," Wang says. "In Taiwan, if you were a ballplayer growing up, you would miss out on a lot of school. Baseball was the only thing on my mind."

Wang caught the attention of Major League scouts, with the Yankees and Mariners showing the most interest. Seattle had reportedly offered Wang a $1 million contract, but an impressive performance at a 2000 tournament in Taipei pushed the Yankees to enter into a bidding war. Yankees scout John Cox noticed that Wang's velocity increased as the game progressed, and that his demeanor hardened with runners in scoring position. On May 5, 2000, the Yankees signed Wang for $1.9 million.

He reported to Staten Island, where he posted a 2.48 ERA in 14 starts for the short-season A-ball team before suffering a torn labrum. After missing the 2001 season, Wang dominated upon his return, going 6-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 13 starts. He then climbed the Minor League system, reaching Triple-A Columbus in the summer of 2004.

Wang threw six pitches at the time, with a 96 mph four-seam fastball his primary weapon. But Columbus pitching coach Neil Allen decided Wang needed another pitch. Allen then demonstrated the sinker grip -- he clutched the ball with his index and middle fingers along the seams and instructed Wang to put more pressure on his index finger on the release. After refining the sinker in bullpen sessions, Wang utilized the pitch in real competitions. In six games for Columbus, Wang went 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA.

Wang entered the 2005 season as the fourth-highest-rated pitcher in the Yankees' organization, according to Baseball America, and was promoted when Jaret Wright went on the disabled list in late April. Wang took the subway to Yankee Stadium on his first day in the big leagues. He wasn't recognized on the train or at the Yankee Stadium security desk. The nerves crept in when he saw guys such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada patrolling the Yankees' clubhouse. Once he settled in though, all Wang did was help save the Yankees' season.

***

At the time of Wang's debut, the Yankees had a 9-14 record and were 6 1/2 games back in the AL East. Two rookies then provided lightning in a bottle. Wang debuted on April 30. Less than a week later, Robinson Cano was promoted and usurped Tony Womack as the everyday second baseman. With Cano's bat and Wang stabilizing the rotation, the Yankees won 16 out of 18 games during one stretch in May and were en route to their eighth consecutive division title.

The big right-hander had two marked characteristics: his calm demeanor and his sinker, a pitch that would start thigh-high before suddenly dipping seven to eight inches and out of the strike zone. Thrown in the low- to mid-90s and with very little spin, hitters were powerless. "It was filthy hard," says Guidry, the Yankees' pitching coach in 2006 and '07. "It wasn't like those guys who throw those little-bitty sinkers. This thing was heavy. When you hit it, it felt like you were hitting a bowling ball."

Unlike most hurlers today, Wang pitched to contact. In 2006, his best season, hitters put the ball in play in 84.2 percent of their plate appearances against him, highest among starters. He also averaged a major-league low 3.14 strikeouts per nine innings. The numbers, however, didn't tell the whole story. Wang's sinker, when sharp, produced weak contact and flurries of ground ball outs.

Posada estimates that Wang threw the pitch about 80 percent of the time. "When in doubt, I would call the sinker," the former catcher says. "It made my job a lot easier." He also notes that Wang didn't watch much tape of his opponents. He didn't have to adjust to hitters; hitters had to react to him.

All the while, he was a cipher on the mound, masking his emotions regardless of the game situation. "I'm like that outside of the ballpark, too," he says. "I don't show a lot of emotion." He still maintained his sense of humor.

Guidry remembers the time he visited his ace on the mound after Wang put the tying runners on. "I looked at him and he looked at me, and he was waiting for me to say something," Guidry says. "Finally I said, 'You know you are making this game interesting.' He goes, 'How so?' 'Well, a minute ago you had a two-run lead, but now it's in jeopardy because you put two guys on. If you give up a home run, we're losing.' He looks at me and says, 'Oh, I better start pitching then.'"

During this time, Wang became an icon in his home country. According to a 2008 Sports Illustrated article, six Taiwanese TV networks, four newspapers and a wire service sent reporters to the U.S. to cover him. He was also an in-demand pitchman, endorsing McDonald's, Ford, E.Sun Bank, and the computer maker Acer, which claimed that Wang increased its sales by 10 percent. It was good to be in the Chien-Ming Wang business. Taiwan's major newspapers reportedly charged higher advertising rates for the day of and day after his starts. The country's largest daily claimed that it sold as many as 300,000 extra newspapers on the day after his starts.

An entire nation was fixated on No. 40 in pinstripes. And although he maintained his poise, he felt suffocated at times. "Every move I made both on and off the mound was being watched and scrutinized, and I knew that," Wang says. "It made me more cautious. I did feel the burden."

Yet it didn't affect his performance. After back-to-back 19-win seasons, Wang rebounded from a disappointing performance in the 2007 ALDS to win six of his first seven starts in 2008. He kept winning games, continued throwing that medicine ball sinker, until one wrong step changed everything.

***

Disregard the debate about the designated hitter rule -- Chien-Ming Wang should have never been running the bases. He should not have even been on second base when Jeter lined a single to right in the sixth inning of the Yankees' June 15, 2008, game against the Houston Astros.

With runners on first and second and one out, Wang laid down a bunt that Astros starter Roy Oswalt fielded. He forced a runner at third, putting Wang at first with two outs. Johnny Damon then bounced a ball to shortstop, which should have ended the threat, but a Miguel Tejada error prolonged the inning. Jeter then singled to right. Wang took off from second but felt pain in his foot rounding third, and although he eventually scored, he was helped to the dugout. The diagnosis was a sprained Lisfranc ligament and a torn peroneal longus muscle in his right foot. Initial reports suggested Wang could return that season, but they would turn out to be wrong.

Eight months of rehab didn't heal the injury. Wang insists he wasn't healthy in Spring Training that next season, citing discomfort he felt when pushing off the rubber; to this day, he says, the foot still tingles. Without his legs, his velocity declined, and when he tried throwing harder, he overcompensated with his upper body. His mechanics changed. His performance suffered.

"He wasn't as sharp in 2009," Posada remembers. "The ball wasn't moving as much. It was just 2 or 3 mph slower. The balls were up in the zone. He didn't have that crisp sinker -- it was more like a lazy runner."

Wang's last pitch of his annus horribilis was an 86 mph sinker that prompted Posada to call for trainer Gene Monahan. Wang could no longer hide his emotions and appeared on the verge of tears as he exited the game. He had suffered a torn shoulder capsule. And while he was in the dugout when the Yankees won the World Series later that year, it was a bittersweet moment for him. Having gone 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA -- the highest in team history for a pitcher with at least 40 innings -- Wang felt he hadn't earned his 2009 World Series ring, which he has never worn.

Wang signed with the Washington Nationals in the offseason, beginning a six-year odyssey through eight organizations and countless Minor League towns. Syracuse. Harrisburg. Potomac. Hagerstown. "I would wake up and not know where I am," Wang says in Late Life. Buffalo. Charlotte. He struggled with consistency and lost velocity from outing to outing. Still it was on to Tacoma, Gwinnett County, Southern Maryland.

During that stretch, he signed with the New York Yankees following his impressive performance at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. And although he never made it back to Yankee Stadium despite a 2.33 ERA in nine Triple-A starts, he did meet an aspiring filmmaker who eventually became a friend and collaborator.

Video: KC@NYY: Wang returns to Yankee Stadium as a Royal

***

After graduating from RISD in 2008, Chen worked at a corporate architecture firm in New York City. It was creative work, but he fell in love with the filmmaking process while designing sets for comedy films in 2011. He then directed a short indie rock documentary, which was his only time behind the camera until Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story.

Chen wasn't worried about his lack of experience. He was convinced that documentaries hinged on the connection between the filmmaker and the subject. Once Wang allowed Chen into his life, the young director focused on building a relationship with the fallen star. It was an itinerant life bouncing between Minor League towns with Wang, but a friendship grew through countless postgame dinners. The result is evident in the film.

Wang granted Chen almost unfettered access, allowing cameras to film moments both mundane (Wang stretching his shoulder in a motel room while watching the local news) and life-altering. When the Atlanta Braves cut Wang from their Triple-A team in June 2015, "I tried to keep a distance," Chen says. "But I told him it was an important part of the process." Chen then followed Wang from Gwinnett County, Georgia, to the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League. He was still in the same time zone as Yankee Stadium, but about as far away as a baseball player can get on a metaphysical level.

And there lies the main takeaway of the film: Wang's resolve to return to the Majors. Other options were present during this time, including a seven-figure offer to pitch in Japan, but Wang had a singular goal. "He's very stubborn," says his agent, Alan Chang. "He's got a quiet stubbornness and determination, and he doesn't vocalize it."

The climax of the film is Wang's visit to the Florida outpost of Ron Wolforth's Pitching Ranch in a last-ditch effort to restore his velocity. Wang is skeptical of Wolforth's unconventional training methods, but he sticks to the plan. At this point, Late Life morphs from a meditative character study into a pulsating sports film complete with a Rocky-like training montage of Wang doing Russian twists, lat pulldowns, plyo pushups and sprints.

The hard work pays off. Wang eventually cracks 90 mph on the radar gun and signs with the Kansas City Royals in January 2016. When he makes the team out of Spring Training with his sinker hitting the mid-90s, his story is complete. Wang would go 6-0 with a 4.22 ERA in 38 relief appearances for the defending World Series champs that season, but the stats are irrelevant. Wang, once again, was a big leaguer.

The film ends on an ambiguous note. The Royals released Wang in September after a bout of biceps tendinitis, and although he hasn't signed with another organization, Wang refuses to announce his retirement. "It's still a slow process," Wang says, taking a sip from his coffee. "I understand that being this age and being a reliever, it's tough to make a comeback. But it's tougher to make the transition from player to having the mindset of a retired pitcher. I am still going through that process and want to give myself more time to see if I can still respond to workouts."

Does he still throw? "Once in a while," he says, switching to English. "A lot of workouts, though."

He doesn't watch much baseball these days. If he did, he says, he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation of another comeback. He misses his teammates the most, the camaraderie that blossoms when 25 players work together. Like most retired -- ahem, inactive -- athletes, Wang has struggled to fill the void that baseball once occupied. He spent part of the winter in Taiwan speaking to young pitchers and was then a guest instructor at Spring Training for the Yankees. He is slowly beginning to grasp that his future lies in coaching, not on the mound. "When the time comes," says Chang, his agent, "I think his heart will be at peace."

It would be a stretch to say that Wang emerged from the documentary a changed man. He's still the same stubborn guy, a jock at heart despite his calm disposition. But he says that participating in the film made him a better communicator. He's also now obsessed with photography, a direct result of Chen hounding him with his camera for nearly three years.

Most of Wang's days are now spent with his wife and two young sons. "It's a different type of happiness," he says, cracking a rare smile. "Before, my kids and family would have to visit me during the season. Now that I'm a full-time dad, I'm able to do more activities with them and can have a different sort of happiness."

And just as Wang is adjusting to his new role, his kids are learning more and more about dad. Eight-year-old Justin, his oldest son, always questioned his family's double life, why their stable, suburban existence in Orlando turned into a media frenzy in Taiwan. He recently learned the truth. "Now that he's grown older, he understands that I was a baseball player," Wang says. "And that I was pretty popular in Taiwan."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Chien-Ming Wang