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While sitting in his office on a sticky, mid-summer day in Central Florida nine years ago, Steve Gober mentally prepared to get his ass kicked.
Chien-Ming Wang, a Washington Nationals pitcher who was rehabbing his shoulder, had just told Gober, then the team’s minor league medical and rehab coordinator, that he would not be throwing that day. If that’s the case, Gober responded, then maybe you should quit—retire and go back home to Taiwan.
“I actually got scared when I mentioned it,” Gober says. “I thought he was going to kick my ass. He’s a big guy … That really lit a fire under him. He got pretty angry at the office. He was very professional, not disrespectful, but that definitely pissed him off.”
Luckily for Gober, the 6-foot-4 pro baseball player didn’t take his frustrations out on him. Instead, Wang stormed out of the room. Later that week, he returned to the office. Wang told Gober he wanted to throw.
From that episode, Gober and the Nationals saw the quiet competitiveness and burning desire to play that made Wang one of Major League Baseball’s most electrifying pitchers in the mid-to-late 2000s. Wang rode his sinker (a fastball pitch with tremendous downward motion that often produces ground balls) to back-to-back 19-win seasons for the New York Yankees in 2006 and 2007. In his native Taiwan, Wang became a superstar, dubbed the “Pride of Taiwan,” and redefined the possibilities for professional Taiwanese baseball players.
But a rash of injuries, including a 2008 foot sprain while running the bases, derailed his time in New York. The Yankees let him become a free agent not long after winning the World Series in 2009. Fans in D.C. may not remember Wang’s brief and unspectacular tenure with the Nationals, but the team would play a pivotal role in his comeback journey, which is chronicled in the 2018 documentary, Late Life.
“I’m really grateful for the Nationals for giving me the opportunity to rehab,” Wang says in Mandarin. He recently visited D.C. to promote the film at the Twin Oaks estate, home of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). “It was right after my major surgery. The Nationals gave me another chance to play in the major leagues. They didn’t give me pressure.”
Before Taiwanese-American pro basketball player Jeremy Lin—i.e. “Linsanity”—took over the NBA and Taiwan in 2012, there was the “Wang-derful” sensation in the Bronx.
According to director Frank W. Chen’s documentary on Wang, Taiwan’s largest daily newspaper claimed it sold up to 300,000 more copies the day after Wang’s starts. Time magazine named Wang one of its “Heroes & Pioneers” in its 2007 “Time 100” list. His face lit up billboards, and tabloids followed his every move in a country obsessed with baseball.
Taiwan, an island in East Asia with a population of 23.6 million, has more Little League World Series titles (17) than any other nation.
“He was really the face, the voice, the spirit, and the pride of Taiwan, at least when he was still in prime time,” says Stanley Kao, the TECRO representative to the United States. “Nineteen wins a season, two in a row with the Yankees. Yankees. People in Taiwan … they stayed up until 3 o’clock in the morning watching his games. That was really something.”
“I would say he’s Michael Jordan,” adds Chen, when asked which American athlete would compare to Wang’s stature in Taiwan. “He’s a household name. He brought Major League Baseball interest into Taiwan.”
Chen first met Wang in 2013 while he was playing for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders, the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. At that point, Wang’s star power had dimmed. Chen had dinner with him at a Ruby Tuesday in northeast Pennsylvania without any reporters or autograph-seekers nearby.
As they parted ways, Chen noticed Wang struggling to get into his rental car—an image that inspired Chen to make the documentary.
“I was like, no one ever talks about his private life and his struggles, trying to make it back into the big leagues,” the director says. “It’s always the glam and glory of him pitching in the major leagues. I wanted to depict and tell a story of a different side of a ball player, because that’s a side that people rarely see.”
The film captures Wang’s peripatetic journey through small-market baseball stadiums across the country, including his stint playing for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball in 2015. In the documentary, Wang describes traveling to so many places that he would forget which city he woke up in.
This was the side of Wang that his Nationals teammates didn’t witness. To the few that played with him in D.C. or faced him on opposing teams over the years, Wang was a gentle giant with a monstrous pitch.
“He sinker balled it, but he knew what he was doing with it, where he would throw it and make it bigger certain times and shorter certain times. He was a really smart pitcher in that way,” says Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who played with Wang in 2012. “I was with [the Oakland Athletics] when I faced him and he was with the Yankees and he won all those games. He was good, man. I never got a hit off him. He was good.”
A year after his confrontation with Wang, Gober paced back and forth in Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s box suite overlooking home plate. The pitcher and trainer had come a long way since their dustup in Florida.
Eddie Longosz, the Nationals’ director of scouting operations, has observed that relationship first-hand. Longosz started with the team as an intern, and his first assignment was to pick up Wang at Orlando International Airport. He was nearby the day when Wang walked out of Gober’s office in anger, and remembers that the pitcher returned to practice the next day.
“Gobes, he’s always going to get the best of you no matter what,” says Longosz. “And Chien-Ming, he carries himself very quietly, but on the inside he’s a competitor, which you don’t always see until he gets on the mound.”
When Wang first joined the Nationals in 2010, Gober had never treated a player that had undergone arthroscopic surgery to fix a shoulder capsule like Wang. Unlike with Tommy John surgery, few pitchers resume their careers after shoulder operations. According to Longosz, Wang’s then-agent, Alan Nero of Octagon, convinced Rizzo to take a chance on Wang.
“Riz is a firm believer of where if you had the stuff before, it’s going to come back,” Longosz says. “The ability he had before, the strength, and we knew about the work ethic, which was the biggest thing with him. He was going to make it if he could.”
Throughout months of rehab in Florida, Wang slowly made progress. In the meantime, Gober and Wang went to dinner regularly and played “lots of golf” to pass the time. Gober teased Wang for being a huge celebrity in Taiwan and joked that because of that, one day he might be famous in Taiwan, too.
On July 29, 2011, he watched anxiously as Wang made his Nationals debut. Gober felt like a proud parent.
“It was just really special,” he says. “The start didn’t really go as we had planned but just the fact that he got there was just so rewarding for me.”
The batter barely moved. The pitch, a fastball down the middle, measured at 93 mph. Strike three.
Bryce Harper, then a Nationals superstar outfielder, headed back to the dugout, the announced crowd of 33,729 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, roared.
Wang would go on to strike out the side in the top of the ninth, making way for a 7-6 Royals’ walk-off victory on May 3, 2016, and picking up the win. A month earlier, Wang pitched in his first MLB game since 2013, when he played one season with the Toronto Blue Jays.
In 2016, Wang would finish 6-0 with a 4.22 ERA in 38 relief appearances for the Royals. His comeback resonated across the country, including among the D.C. media, which covered his return.
“It was cool seeing him, just the path that he took ’cause I think it’s something that’s not really examined too much in sports—the guy who gets the taste and falls off and has to work his way just to get back there,” says Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who overlapped briefly with Wang. “It’s a testament to his mentality and his drive to prove everybody wrong.”
Wang now splits his time between Orlando and Taiwan, where he serves as the pitching coordinator for the Fubon Guardians, a Chinese Professional Baseball League team based in Taiwan. He primarily helps with the team’s minor league players.
At 39, Wang has not pitched competitively since being released by the Royals in September 2016. Longosz, the Nats’ scouting director, predicts that Wang has moved on to the next chapter of his life. His MLB days are certainly in the past. But Wang is keeping the doors open for pitching again—no matter what level.
He has yet to officially retire.
“I’m reluctant to leave the game,” Wang says. “I don’t want to fully retire in case there are opportunities in the future and [if] I have that itch to play, then maybe I will.”