Wang the best pitcher New York has to offer
Wang the best pitcher New York has to offer
By Steve Politi
Published : September 27, 2006_The Star Ledger
NEW YORK -- You want to know if he's starting to feel the excitement building in the city.
You want to know if he senses the extra pressure about to fall on his young shoulders, if he looks across the Yankees clubhouse and sees two $15 million question marks in Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina.
You want to know if a 26-year-old in just his second season thinks about his status as the only dominant starter for the two New York teams in a season expected to end in a Subway Series.
You try to put all of those ideas into one question, and when you finally finish, Chien-Ming Wang just flashes his goofy smile.
"No," he said. "Not really."
Is it the language barrier? Is it his naturally quiet and modest personality? Is it, as one writer speculates, that Wang is so unfazed by everything that happens around him, he actually is the first cyborg baseball player, a robot created in a lab somewhere deep beneath George Steinbrenner's house?
Because trying to delve into the psyche of the most important starting pitcher in the city is like trying to figure out the plot in that new show "Six Degrees." I had a 6-minute, 14-second interview with Wang yesterday before his final postseason tuneup today, during which I uttered roughly 1,378 words to his 43.
Will your role be different in this postseason, with Johnson nursing a sore back and Mussina an injured thumb?
"No. I have to do the same thing."
Is there more pressure on you, since Joe Torre will almost certainly name you the No. 1 starter?
Is this an exciting time, knowing your second postseason is just a few days from beginning?
"Yes. Very exciting."(Nods twice.)
You get the picture. And the language issue -- Wang is Taiwanese and chooses not to use a translator -- is only part of it. His teammates say this is just the way Wang is. He is always the same, whether he is facing a spring training start in Tampa or the Red Sox at Fenway.
That personality should serve him well in the coming weeks. The city seems to be ready to circle the dates for the Subway Series in black ink, to start breaking out the footage of Roger Clemens throwing the broken bat at Mike Piazza and get ready for extra traffic on the Triborough Bridge.
But glance at the starters for the two teams, and you'll see the N.Y vs. N.Y. matchup is hardly a lock.
Johnson has a stiff back and eight straight division series losses, and Torre said yesterday, "You don't know what you're going to get from him." Pedro Martinez was in tears after a recent start and is no lock for Game 1. Mussina has a sore thumb and one victory since July 30. Tom Glavine is 2-3 in his past seven starts. El Duque is pitching well but approaching AARP eligibility.
Steve Trachsel? Jaret Wright? Cory Lidle?
The closest thing to a sure thing is Wang, who, heading into this season, was perhaps the least likely ace. He is making just $353,175, which is less than Johnson and Mussina earn per start. But Torre will hand him the ball next Tuesday or Wednesday, and not only because he lacks other options.
Wang is among the American League leaders in victories, with 18, and ERA, at 3.57. He picked up a loss in his only start in the division series against Anaheim last fall but pitched well -- in fact, better than Mussina (a 5.40 ERA) and Johnson (shelled in that awful Game 3 start).
"There's a great responsibility that comes any time when you go out there on the mound with the Yankees, and when the postseason comes, things heat up a little bit, but I haven't seen any evidence of (him feeling the pressure)," Torre said. "I don't see much anxiety in what he does."
Of course, Torre also added, "I don't know. I can't get that out of him. I hope not."
What can you get out of Wang? For starters, he is unfailingly polite and accommodating. He lives in a small apartment in Fort Lee. He loves the fact he can go anywhere he wants in the city without anyone recognizing him, which certainly is not the case in his home country.
"I like it," he said. "I can walk in the streets with no problem."
Has he ever been recognized?
Not even his neighbors?
"Not even them."
How about his doorman?
"Don't have a doorman."
Okay. So much for the doorman angle. So you try another take on the pressure question: Will people start to recognize him if he delivers next month, if he proves himself as a dominant postseason pitcher who can lead this team deep into October, maybe even to a Subway Series?
He thinks it over.
"No," he said. "It will stay the same."
Wang smiles again. We may never know what the Yankees ace is thinking, but this much is clear: The Yankees have just five days to learn how to say "our best hope" in Taiwanese.
Steve Politi appears regularly in The Star-Ledger. He may be reached at email@example.com