I felt an obligation to watch “Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story” on Netflix. I’d first encountered Chien-Ming Wang at 10 years old, falling in love with a sport for the first time in baseball, finding a way to bond with my father through strike zones and sac flies. Wang was one of the best starters in the game, the ace of my New York Yankees, a go-to option on my favorite obsession, MLB 07: The Show for the PlayStation 2.
I really miss Wang being a great starter with the Yankees.
To me, as a then-teenaged Asian foreigner kid in America, seeing an Asian pitcher be touted as the ace of the New York Yankees was the coolest thing ever/very role model-y kind of thing.
— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) February 17, 2018
Of course, part of it was because he looked like me. He was an Asian man who was artful, reliable, on top of his game. But what also struck me was his gentle silence: while Alex Rodriguez was feuding with Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens was feuding with steroid allegations, Chien-Ming Wang was quiet and dutiful; all he cared to do was pitch.
It was ironically a non-pitching moment that led to the first of his career-changing injuries; after two valuable years, Wang hurt himself running the bases in a 2008 game against the Astros. Pitchers hardly practice base-running, but being that this was an interleague match (MLB rules are complicated, bear with me) Wang was forced to run the bases; while awkwardly sprinting towards home base, he tore two ligaments in his left foot.
Suddenly, the Yankees were left without their ace in the hole, their solid right-hander who’d led the league In wins that April and was on pace for another star season. And Wang, who had brought himself from obscurity to sporting glory, suddenly found himself with a challenge far greater; a battle with his own body, his expectations, his newfound lack of ability.
The 6’4″ Wang began his journey as a talented prospect from Taiwan. From its visage, his story parallels that of many Asian immigrants entering America with hopes of success. He quickly found success in the minor leagues, but he was never seen as a gem: in 2005, the year he was called up, he ranked as the Yankees’ 5th best prospect behind eventual no-names like Marcos Vechionacci and Steven White.
He entered the big leagues and posted a respectable rookie season at 25 years of age, which was still considered a bit old for a player at that stage of his career to be seen as remarkable. Then, his next year was even more respectable, leading the league with 19 wins; then, he won 19 again the next year. He wasn’t exactly dominant — he hardly struck guys out or shut teams out — but every time the biggest team in baseball needed a win, they turned to their man from Taiwan.
His startling success in America made him an icon back home in Taiwan, a country with an oft-overlooked passion for baseball. A 2008 Sports Illustrated feature recounted Taiwanese citizens calling him “Taiwan zhiguang (the pride and glory of Taiwan).” Taiwanese officials praised him: “Wang, he’s our only consensus,” said Ben Shao, press director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. “When our congressmen are debating, they’ll stop their fighting, watch Wang pitch, then go back to fighting when the inning is over.”
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After his injury, things went downhill rapidly. He was obliterated by opposing offenses in 9 starts in 2009, the year the Yankees eventually went on to win their most recent championship. The man once seen as the pride and glory of a nation could not even make a major league roster for two years. His return with the Washington Nationals started well, and then fell flat after hurting his left hamstring in March of 2012.
He’d continue to work back to the MLB stage, eventually finishing his career with the Kansas City Royals. His full journey was chronicled in “Late Life,” a documentary which, while at times feeling a bit sappy, overall outlines an inspirational story. It’s chock full of training montages, tearful interviews and smile-worthy stories. You can watch it in its entirety on Netflix now.