This man is an island
This man is an island
Yankees' Wang is everywhere and everything in Taiwan
By ED PRICE
Published : June 15, 2007 / The Star-Ledger
When Chien-Ming Wang flew home to Taiwan after last season, he tried to keep his itinerary a secret. Word leaked out anyway.
After his plane landed at Taipei -- for a layover, no less -- airport police were needed to help Wang negotiate a crowd of reporters, paparazzi and fans.
He faced the same problem when his connecting flight landed in Kaohsiung. And after an hour drive to his hometown of Tainan, he and his wife waited in their car for an hour for 200 more fans, reporters and cameramen to disperse.
"I'm very happy to see the fans there," Wang said recently, "but it was hard to get home."
Such is the life of a celebrity in a country that doesn't have many.
Wang, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday night against the Mets, is the ace of the Yankees pitching staff -- last year he won 19 games and finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting. Yet, he can walk the streets of Manhattan without getting noticed.
But in Taiwan, Wang is a combination of Bruce Springsteen, Tiger Woods and Brad Pitt. His fellow countrymen often refer to him as Taiwan zhi-kuang, or "pride and glory of Taiwan." Time magazine even included Wang in a recent list of 100 people whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.
"There's a lot of politics in Taiwan, but everything stops for Chien-Ming," said Andrew L.Y. Hsia, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York. "People have different political parties, different political philosophies, but when they talk about Chien-Ming ..." Hsia then stopped what he was saying and gave a thumbs-up sign.
Steve Wilson, a former big-league pitcher from Canada who now lives in Taiwan, has seen the cult of Wang up close.
"This past winter was a whirlwind for Wang," Wilson wrote in an e-mail. "He was about as big as a celebrity can get in a country."
Being a celebrity doesn't come natural for the quiet 27-year-old pitcher -- and even that fact is used in the increasingly intense marketing effort that surrounds him. Nike, for example, runs an ad campaign in Taiwan that features the 6-3 Wang and the slogan, "I just pitch." The billboards show Wang zipping his lips and the Chinese character for "silent."
That's not by accident. Wang's reluctance is part of his appeal in his home country.
"He represents Taiwan -- very hard-working, very humble people," Hsia said.
It's also a country where someone can toss a ball into his family's doorway, with a note attached saying, "Please sign this and I will come back to pick it up."
"It doesn't seem to bother him," Wang's agent Alan Chang said. "He understands the job that he does and he just goes out and does it."
He also gives Taiwan, which has 23 million people in an area about twice the size of New Jersey, a presence on the international stage. That's no small deal for a country that lives with the constant shadow and threat of the People's Republic of China. Not only has he succeeded in the majors for the world's most famous baseball team (the three other Taiwanese to reach the majors have had limited success), but Wang has played on national teams in two Olympics and the Asian Games.
Wang's success has certainly made him richer. Commercial images of him are everywhere in Taipei. Besides Nike, he has deals with McDonald's, Ford, Acer computers and a major Taiwanese bank. He appeared in TV ads aimed to boost Taiwan's national image (a New York cabbie asks Wang, "Where is Taiwan?" and Wang answers, "I will show you").
Acer last winter produced a special edition laptop in Yankees colors with Wang's signature on the case. The company claimed that being associated with Wang helped it increase its product turnover by 10 percent and lowered the average age of its customer by 3.7 years.
"This last off-season was a phenomenon," said Nova Lanktree, who handles marketing for CSMG, the agency that represents Wang.
Wang said he uses his endorsement fees for children's charities in Taiwan.
Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president for international business operations, said Wang is by far the most prominent athlete in the history of the island of Taiwan.
About 25,000 fans showed up in Taipei last month for the Major League Baseball Festival, an outdoor carnival of sorts where fans could hit in batting cages, run bases and have baseball cards made of themselves.
"He creates more marketing in that country than we've ever had," Archey said.
FEELING THE IMPACT
Then there's the indirect effect he single-handedly has on some Taiwanese businesses. Newspapers there charge higher ad rates on the days he pitches and the days after.
Six Taiwanese TV networks, four newspapers and a wire service have reporters covering Wang in New York. His pitching schedule is major news, since fans will fly to the U.S. to see Wang and need to know which games he will pitch.
In past years, the public-television network in Taiwan carried Major League Baseball, since it was considered a public service to show Wang's games. This year, MLB negotiated a three-year deal with Formosa TV, the nation's largest network, to show his starts and 30 additional games. Thanks to Wang's popularity, the per-year fee nearly tripled -- reported to be about $1 million.
Wang's games are televised live, despite the 12-hour time difference from New York, and replayed again in the evening. Big games, such as the playoffs, are shown on big screens in hotels and a giant one near Taipei's City Hall.
Earlier this season, when Wang came off the disabled list to make his first start, Reuters reported "thousands of local fans, including presidential hopefuls Yu Shyi-kun and Frank Hsieh, got up early to catch the start."
Wilson, who with his wife owns an English school in Taiwan, sees Wang's impact every day.
"Of my 200 students, I'd say that 100 have Wang Yankee shirts and wear them a lot," Wilson wrote in an e-mail. "We've got one little guy about 10 years old that wears a Wang shirt pretty much seven days of the week."
But in New York, Wang avoids the spotlight. Fans don't know much about him because although his English is decent, he is shy in any language and therefore provides few sound bites.
During the season, he mostly stays in with his wife, on the road or at their Fort Lee home. He tries to pass off his hero status back home, saying, "If you think about it too much, you've got too much on your mind."
As the ad says, he would rather "just pitch."
In New York, "I can go anywhere," he said. "In Taiwan, it's crazy."