Monday, October 22, 2018

Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story

Baseball fans insist the National League rules are better than the American League’s, but the experience of Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang ought to make them reconsider. While running the bases during an interleague game, Wang suffered an injury that short-circuited his career for years. He was the fastest pitcher to reach 50 wins since Dwight Gooden, but during his post-injury years, Wang suffers the indignity of getting cut by triple-A and double-A teams. That is where documentarian Frank W. Chen caught-up with the former Yankee in Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Wang was the first Taiwanese player signed by the Yankees and by far the highest profile Taiwanese player in the Major Leagues. As a result, he became (and to a large extent remains) the focus of intense media attention and national pride in the Republic of China. For Wang, it has been an honor and a burden, especially following his injury.

After the Yankees cut Wang, he kept plugging, first in the Majors and then the minors, hoping to prove he could still compete on a professional level. Unfortunately, his body often refused to cooperate. It is downright depressing to see the man chosen to start the first home game at the new Yankee Stadium reduced to accepting a contract in the independent baseball league, but it happened. Yet, even though Wang’s story is all about sinkers, it is not a downer. There will be a third act. It is not exactly the Hollywood-style triumph we might chose to script for him, but Wang definitely proves his grit.

The truth is, it is the imperfection and struggle that makes his story engaging. Frankly, Wang is so reserved by nature, he never really reveals much to the audience. However, the emotions expressed by his wife, coaches, and trainers is quite moving—and more than sufficient to keep viewers invested.

You can tell what the loss of Wang’s potential (a 19-game winner two seasons in a row) meant to the Yankees when former GM Brian Cashman sits down for an interview. It is also quite poignant to watch Wang’s visit with the now deceased Billy Connors (former Yankees VP of player development and supplemental pitching coach), because they are both trying to raise the spirits of the other.

It is impossible to watch Late Life and not wonder what might have been if Wang were not running the bases during a non-rivalry, regular season interleague game. Sure, purists argue pitchers are less likely to bean players when they also have to stand in the batter’s box, but by the same logic, should we bring back leather helmets so football players will avoid knocking heads? Regardless, Late Life is a compelling real-life sports story, particularly since it involves the New York Yankees. Highly recommended, Late Life opens this Friday (10/26) in New York, at the AMC Empire (and it is currently playing at the Regal Rockville Center 13, for fans who remember Wang’s stint with the Nationals).