July 16, 2006
A secret no longer
Future pitching ace blossoms for Yankees
So many times Bubba Crosby had walked by Chien-Ming Wang on the bench and sensed something bubbling inside that his teammate would never allow to seep to the surface.
So many times Crosby found himself all but studying Wang's face for the slightest wince or wrinkle or pulse, a poker player searching for a tell from a player who didn't have one.
Still, Crosby had started learning so much more from Wang during their dinners on the road, their attempts to communicate, though his teammate from Taiwan spoke little English.
Soon, they had started to understand each other, even if every little word didn't always make sense. Soon, they were battling each other in video golf games, Crosby seeing more and more competitiveness as Wang would "kick my butt" then offer his own version of trash talk by using what little English he had learned.
"You (stink)," Crosby remembered Wang telling him time and again as the teammates would laugh.
So Crosby had started to see a glimpse of the personality Wang would never show on the field, where he had trained himself to keep everything inside, to hide the few bouts of nerves he battled so that no one could sense a weakness.
There was no point in being nervous, anyway - Wang had learned this long ago when he first started feeling the tidal waves in his stomach as he was about to pitch for the Taiwan junior national team.
That's when his coach pulled him aside and told him just why he needed to take the tournament in stride as he had any other game he pitched.
"It's the same game," Wang remembered his coach telling him and he followed that advice even when he reached the big leagues.
It's you and the catcher. Just throw the ball. That's it.
And that's the attitude that had allowed Wang to thrive on the New York stage, command the spotlight by keeping it from ever illuminating him to reveal anything more than the pitches with which he would so often induce outs.
But now as Crosby passed by Wang on the bench after the pitcher gave up a game-ending home run to Washington this May, all his surging suspicions were confirmed.
Now the placid pitcher who could remain utterly still whether he was pitching in a playoff game or listening to a raucous hip-hop song through his headphones finally gave way and revealed the passion that fueled him.
Wang flung his glove in frustration, the ferocity of the act stunning Crosby as much as the pitcher's 96 mph fastball jolts hitters suckered into settling in due to his smooth, breezy windup.
"All of us were kind of like, '(Whoa),'" Crosby said. "We were all surprised in a good way. Obviously it showed that he cared. He was battling for us because we had a beat-up bullpen.
"It was nice to see him get a little aggressive. I can see him sitting at the end of the dugout. He keeps to himself. I know he's quiet, but he's (ticked) off inside. But that day, a walk-off homer, he couldn't keep it inside."
Maybe it's just as well. Wang no longer has to hide anything anymore.
The 26-year-old who sneaked up on the Yankees and the rest of the American League as suddenly as his fastball does on hitters can no longer keep himself a secret no matter how rigid a poker face he owns.
He is no longer the little rookie who could, but the potential ace that must keep the Yankees alive through this second-half battle for their playoff lives.
Wang followed his solid surprise debut last season by posting a 9-4 record with a 4.00 ERA by the All-Star break this season, but that's not even what most excites the Yankees.
What sends a surge through people such as pitching coach Ron Guidry is not what Wang has done, but what he can do.
"Oh, he can be good," pitching coach Ron Guidry said. "I mean, he is good. He's as good as anyone else we've seen. We have a couple of good ones on our staff but he's just as good. He can be as good as he wants to be."
GUIDRY SEES it now in the way Wang warms up. The way he walks to the mound. The way he simply nods "OK" when his teammates turn to him and apply the kind of pressure once reserved solely for veterans.
"Hey," they'll tell Wang, "we need a big game from you today."
"OK," Guidry recalls Wang saying. "That's all he says, 'OK.'
"His presence on the mound (is impressive)," Guidry added. "How much he's grown.
"How far he's come. When he goes out there, he knows what he's supposed to be doing. He knows what he means to this team when before he was just a young pitcher last year. Now, as good as he's been pitching, he's the guy everyone looks to every five days to get you deep in a game."
That's fine. Bring it on. Pile on as much pressure as you want. While Wang offered that one snap by flinging his glove, he did so because he felt he let his teammates down. More importantly, he was able to let loose only because the game was over.
During the game?
"I just don't think about it," Wang said. "I just throw the ball. ... Just think of the catcher and don't think of anything else."
That calmly deceptive demeanor has done everything from impress his team's captain, Derek Jeter, to eventually depress opposing batters.
"Nothing fazes him," Jeter said.
Which helps him throw batters off.
Think of your typical pitchers who can throw in the mid-to-high 90s and you'll picture a pulsating, swearing, sweating combustible combination that heaves the ball to the plate in a violent flurry.
Now take a look at Wang, who delivers the ball with a butler's elegance, but a fireballer's fury.
"What impresses me is having as smooth a delivery as he does and hitting 96," Crosby said. "As a hitter you're expecting someone grunting like Billy Wagner.
"But he's so smooth when it comes out of his hand, you're not expecting it."
But the signs are sneaking out here and there around the clubhouse, even if Wang won't let them out on the field if there's still a game to be won. Crosby smiles as he says Wang "has a personality."
Jeter offers his traditional mischievous grin when he admitted Wang "knows more English than you guys think."
So, OK, Wang still has a few secrets left. But his success as a pitcher and the expectation that goes with that is no longer one of them.