Wang to take center stage in Taiwan finale
Right-hander will don home threads and oppose MLB All-Stars
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- Michael Morse is a fascinating Major League success story in his own right, but he knows a true A-list superstar when he sees one.
After hitting a towering home run in Friday night's victory over the Chinese Taipei national team in the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series, Morse was asked five questions in a postgame interview room packed with Taiwanese media members.
One of the queries was about the homer, which soared far above the 400-foot sign on the center-field wall.
The other four, of course, were about his Taiwanese teammate on the Washington Nationals: a tall, quiet right-hander named Chien-Ming Wang.
"I can't even imagine what it must be like to be Wang here in Taiwan," Morse said. "He's easily the biggest celebrity."
Morse is not even close to kidding. It's what happens when a small, baseball-crazy island nation of 20 million people produces a two-time 19-game winner for the New York Yankees, and it's what happens when the same pitcher later returns from a career-threatening injury to pitch for the big league team in Washington, D.C.
Wang met with a throng of local media for the first time before Saturday's Game 4 of the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series. It was a day before he was scheduled to pitch the series finale, which will be played at Cheng Ching Lake Stadium and broadcast on MLB.TV and MLB Network at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Fresh off a successful late-season comeback with Washington (4-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts) -- one that came after he missed almost three years with a torn right shoulder capsule that dated back to his days with the Yankees -- Wang seemed relaxed and happy. However, he is not exactly in prime pitching condition a month removed from the Major League slate.
"I'm definitely satisfied with the comeback, but there's still room for improvement in my velocity and command of my pitches," Wang said through an interpreter.
"I would like to thank all the fans. They are definitely very passionate. And even when I play in the States, they come out and cheer for me. And even for these two years when I wasn't on the field, they didn't give up on me and they still cheered for me. And I finally came back and I'm very thankful for the fans and all their support."
Those words were sure to echo across Taiwan, where Wang's likeness graces the cover of the souvenir programs for this event and his every move is chronicled by the nation's news camera and paparazzi. Of the many images and experiences the Major League All-Stars have savored for the first time during this tour, Wang's importance to Taiwan is among the most unforgettable.
"Obviously, Wang is like a national hero here," said fellow Nationals pitcher Collin Balester, who, along with Nationals lefty Ross Detwiler, crashed the Taiwanese press conference to surprise and greet their Washington teammate before Saturday's game.
"You hear about it in Spring Training, you see all the reporters. It almost looks like it does here right now but in Spring Training. So you kind of wonder what's going on, but once you come here, it's great to be here to support Wang and see how baseball is in Taiwan."
Balester, Detwiler and Morse also expressed gratitude that Wang will officially be their teammate for at least another year. The Nationals announced on Friday that Wang signed a one-year deal to remain in Washington, and he said he was eager to jump back in the starting rotation.
"I'm very happy that I signed with the Nationals, and I thank the Nationals for giving me the opportunity to come back to the Major Leagues," Wang said. "I feel good [physically], and hopefully next year I'll have a good season."
In the meantime, Taiwan is going Wang-wild. Sunday's game is sure to sell out, and reporters were busy Saturday asking as many Major Leaguers as they could about what it will be like to face the sinkerballer.
MLB Asia vice president Jim Small said this type of admiration is par for the course in Taiwan.
"You can see the fervor that surrounds him," Small said. "I've spent a lot of time here, and he's the first Taiwanese global superstar. Not just baseball. Not just sports. He's made Taiwan famous in the U.S. and around the world.
"Part of it is that he's a great pitcher and he has two 19-win seasons. That's obvious. But it's more than that. He's a physically imposing guy. He's so big and so special. That adds to it as well. It creates an aura about him."
The aura extends to his own clubhouse, where Wang said he is grateful for the opportunity to lead by example and help the Chinese Taipei team improve. The team has been impressing the MLB All-Stars with its tenacity, its young arms and its discipline at the plate.
"I'm able to pass on my experience to some of the young kids that are on the team," Wang said through an interpreter. "Right now, I'm not in my top pitching shape because it's been a while since the season ended, but I'm thankful to have this opportunity."
Wang said he's also grateful to reconnect with current and former teammates, including Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. The two were Minor League teammates and made their Major League debuts within four days of one another in early 2005.
"He was a great teammate," Cano said. "He was a great player but he was a better person than player. It's good to see him back again on the field and healthy. I hope he continues to stay healthy, because if he stays healthy, I know he can put up some good numbers."
That's what Wang and the Nationals are hoping for 2012, and that's what Wang and Chinese Taipei are hoping for Sunday afternoon.
Either way, the stage has been set for a perfect finish to a memorable All-Star Series, with the host country's main man on the mound.
"I'm happy to be pitching again," Wang said. "And I'm happy to be here."