Friday, February 19, 2010
"The Michael Jordan of Taiwan"
VIERA, Fla. -- The pressure of rebounding from major injury to pitch again in the major leagues is daunting for anyone who dons a uniform. Now imagine doing all that while carrying the weight of an entire nation on your surgically repaired right shoulder.
Meet Chien-Ming Wang, a new face to fans in Washington but already THE face of baseball in Taiwan and China. During his introductory news conference this afternoon on the field at Space Coast Stadium, the 29-year-old right-hander was peppered with questions not only from English-speaking reporters who cover his new club on a daily basis but also from a much-larger horde of Asian correspondents who plan to follow his every move from here on out.
In America, Wang is a good (potentially great) solid starting pitcher. In Taiwan, he is everything.
"The Michael Jordan of Taiwan," general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Suffice it to say, the Nationals have never experienced anything quite like this in their brief history. And it's only going to grow. Though Wang -- who signed a $2 million contract that includes up to $3 million more in incentives based on the number of starts he makes -- won't be ready to pitch in a major-league game until sometime in May, he's going to be a visible presence around the clubhouse for the next three months regardless.
Those international reporters who descended upon Viera today will follow Wang to Arizona as he resumes his rehab with a personal trainer over the next two weeks. And when he returns to Florida on March 7 to continue rehabbing with the Nats, those reporters will be right behind him. When he makes rehab starts in the minor leagues sometime in April, they'll be there to chronicle it all. And if everything goes according to plan, when Wang debuts at Nationals Park in May, an entire nation will be glued to the TV hanging on every one of his pitches.
And because of it, the Nationals will gain the kind of international exposure never before afforded this growing franchise.
"Not only did we get a player of his caliber, on the mound and on the field and in the clubhouse, it's also our first foray into that market," Rizzo said. "When your first guy in the market is the most popular player in the history of the country, it's a big coup for us."
The Wang signing opens the doors for the Nats to sign more players from Asia. It also opens the doors for Taiwanese and Chinese fans in the Washington area to come to the park and see their hero pitch in person. As one club official pointed out this morning, there are approximately 160,000 descendants of Taiwan and China (who consider Wang a hero themselves) living in the D.C. area. Most of them might never have had reason to travel to South Capitol Street before. They do now.
From a pure-baseball standpoint, Wang could have a major impact as well. If healthy -- obviously a major qualifier at this point -- he's the most-accomplished pitcher on the roster right now, a two-time 19-game winner with the Yankees.
"I've been in the other dugout when he's pitching, and I know the comments the hitters make," manager Jim Riggleman said. "They talk about how much his ball sinks. His quality of pitcher, it's hard to find those guys. So he can make a tremendous impact on our ballclub. But we've got to get him healthy first."
The Nats know they're taking a risk with Wang in that respect, and there's no guarantee he'll return to 100 percent health. But after sending a cadre of scouts to Arizona to watch the right-hander throw off flat ground the last two months and after receiving a positive report from orthopedist James Andrews (who was at the ballpark today to examine him) they're as confident as they can be that Wang will return strong.
Wang himself sounds confident -- though not necessarily about his expected performance at the plate now that he's in the National League -- and has set high standards for himself in his return from surgery.
"My No. 1 goal would be returning to be among the best pitchers in Major League Baseball," Wang said through translator Alan Chang. "I would do everything possible to make myself stronger again and give myself every chance possible to be one of the best starting pitchers in the league."
Wang said he'll continue to rely on his heavy sinker as his bread-and-butter pitch, though he hopes to incorporate some new elements to his repertoire, understanding the surgery may require him to refashion himself as a pitcher.
The Nats, who control Wang's contract through 2011, would be ecstatic if their newest pitcher bears some resemblance to his pre-surgery self, not only in 2010 but beyond.
"If he throws the way he's been capable of [throwing] in the past, then we've got ourselves a front-of-the-rotation guy," Rizzo said. "Not only for two-thirds of this season, but we control the player [through 2011]. That is something we're really, really excited about. And that's the main reason we went after him so hard, because he's a 29-year-old pitcher who can grow with the organization. Just a front-of-the-line character guy who has won 19 games in the toughest atmosphere to pitch in, twice. We feel the risk-reward was on our side."
Note -- To make room for Wang on the 40-man roster, the Nats placed Jordan Zimmermann on the 60-day DL. Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery last summer, won't be ready to return to the majors until August at the earliest.
Posted by Mark Zuckerman at 1:53 PM