You knew right from the beginning that Chien-Ming Wang was tough. I remember back in spring training of 2005, before Wang had even made the majors, a day when he had had to go on a “punishment run” after making a mistake during a fielding drill. As was the custom, Wang was allowed to pick a teammate go join him on the lap and most Yankees expected the young pitcher to pick another minor-leaguer.
Wang picked Randy Johnson.
Now sure, Wang knew Johnson a little from having trained with him in Phoenix, but still – picking one of the greatest pitchers of all time to join you in extra running? I recall John Flaherty, Jorge Posada and the other veterans being impressed. “That takes some real guts,” Flaherty said at the time.
Wang was part of the “youth movement” that marked the early part of the Yankees season that year, as the team was absolutely brutal over the first few months. Wang made his debut in place of the injured Jaret Wright (!!) at the end of April and less than week later he was joined by Robinson Cano, who was called up during a memorable crisis day in St. Petersburg.
That 2005 season was, in a lot of ways, indicative of what Wang’s career would be like with the Yankees: He pitched well, got a ton of groundballs (19 of the 29 hitters he faced in his debut hit the ball on the ground), got injured – he had a shoulder problem that cost him about two months – and had a decent but unrewarding postseason.
We all know how excellent Wang was over the next two years. Winning 19 games in back-to-back years – especially pitching in the AL East – is an incredible accomplishment, and Wang’s rise, along with Cano’s, was representative of the changing notion that the Yankees young players could be more than just trade chips. Wang had become – if you’ll pardon the self-promotion – a true “Ace in America” story.
That’s what made Wang’s downfall so difficult to watch. He was on his way to a third season as a frontline pitcher, going 5-0 in April of 2008 and was 8-2 when he tore ligaments in his right foot while running the bases against the Astros in July. An AL pitcher suffering a career-altering injury running the bases. It was freakish. And Wang was never the same.
I’m very much not a doctor but it’s generally accepted that Wang’s foot injury led him to alter his pitching mechanics, which led to even more physical problems; he was horrifically bad in 2009 and was finally shut down for shoulder surgery mid-year.
So now he’s gone. Good as he was, I believe the Yankees were right to non-tender Wang last week; paying him $4 million this year made no sense. Signing him back on a minor-league deal seems unlikely, too, since Wang is still ruffled by the the Yankees taking him to an arbitration hearing – over a grand total of $600,000 – in 2008, then crowed about winning. Given the situation now, it’s a shame that happened.
What does his future hold? Wang will surely have offers elsewhere. I’d bet on him ending up with the Dodgers, where Joe Torre (and deputy Larry Bowa) always liked him. Only time will tell if he can revive his devastating sinker.
Whatever happens, I’ll always remember Wang’s time with the Yankees fondly. He was quiet and unassuming, but he was tough. Just ask Randy Johnson.