By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; D01
VIERA, FLA. -- On Friday, just minutes before noon, on a baseball field situated between a church and a golf course and a strip mall, dozens of media members representing outlets halfway across the world took seats to witness something unprecedented. Forty white folding chairs were situated on the flat grass just behind the pitcher's mound at Space Coast Stadium, and here sat reporters representing the Apple Daily Taiwan, the Tai Liberty Times, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and the World Journal Chinese Newspaper -- outlets that heretofore cared little about the Washington Nationals' pitching situation.
Ostensibly, the noon news conference announced the union between a team and a pitcher. But because that pitcher was Chien-Ming Wang -- "the Michael Jordan of Taiwan," Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo said -- the spectacle felt more like a landmark international incident, and by the end of the whole ordeal, after all the questions about Wang's shoulder and hopes and expectations, team President Stan Kasten simply quipped, "Actually, we call Michael Jordan the Chien-Ming Wang of America."
For the Nationals, Wang-related fascination now becomes a self-evident truth, and not only because he'll attract disproportionate attention. Wang, conceivably, could also bring inordinate payoff. Wang is 29 years old and currently in the final months of recovery after July 2009 right shoulder surgery. When healthy, he is one of baseball's best sinkerball pitchers -- "a 15- or 20-game winner, no doubt," former and current teammate Ron Villone said. But right now, Wang is not healthy. The Nationals believe he soon will be, perhaps ready for the big league rotation by May. They added him at a relative bargain -- $2 million for 2010, plus up to $3 million in incentives -- because other ballclubs aren't so sure.
"There's no sure magic destination here," Wang's agent, Alan Nero, said after the news conference. "We're all just hoping and praying that the results will come from the effort. What we can tell you is the effort is being made."
"If he's healthy," Kasten said, "it's a spectacular deal."
Wang and the Nationals actually have plenty in common, because both sides are trying to recuperate from embarrassing seasons. The Nationals lost 103 games last year, worst in baseball. Wang, before the season-ending shoulder injury, went 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA, highest among all 452 big leaguers who threw at least 25 innings last year. (Second-poorest was Washington's Logan Kensing, 8.92.) Still, the Nationals feel certain they have an improved team. And Wang hopes to follow a similar arc.
"Of course my No. 1 goal would be to return to be among the best pitchers in Major League Baseball," Wang, speaking Mandarin, said through interpreter Alan Chang, "and I will do everything possible to make myself strong again."
As Wang spoke Friday, several of his newest teammates -- John Lannan, Matt Capps, Craig Stammen and Collin Balester -- observed from the perimeter, near the bay of television cameras. Lannan and Balester both tweeted during the event, with Balester noting how he'd surrendered to Wang his old uniform number (40). Asian media members asked at least two separate questions about this diplomatic transaction. "Went to the Wang press conference and got thanked for giving up my number," Balester wrote.
Wang will not be seen again in Viera, site of Washington's spring training complex, until March 8. The righty will spend the next 2 1/2 weeks at his preferred rehab site in Phoenix, the Fischer Sports Physical Therapy center. There, he will soon begin throwing off a mound. Barring setbacks, the Nationals hope Wang can enter their big league rotation sometime between May 1 and June 1.
Wang, by now, is well-accustomed to the scrutiny that will follow him. He won 19 games for the New York Yankees in 2006 and 2007, leading Major League Baseball in wins during that span. His injuries and struggles in the two seasons since hurt his reputation as a front-line starter, but always, he was trailed by the same comet tail of reporters.
Only this winter, though, did Wang see such probing from the ballclubs as well. After he was non-tendered on Dec. 12 by the Yankees, Wang was free to select his next team. Just the same, teams were free to inspect his shoulder, send him to their doctors, and eventually, watch him throw best he could. Within recent weeks Washington dispatched three scouts -- Jay Robertson, Ron Schueler and Phil Rizzo -- to watch Wang's Arizona pitching sessions. The final time Washington's scouts observed, Wang threw for 15 minutes, roughly 70 pitches, all on flat ground. The Nationals were looking more at his form than his velocity.
"We feel like the risk-reward was on our side," Rizzo said, "and combined with the medical reports we got it was something I thought we really needed to do."
Added Nero: "When Chien-Ming became available, the first team we heard from was the Nationals. And shortly after that we started hearing from other teams. There was a total of 15 teams that showed interest right from the beginning. But the process was pretty laborious. Everybody had to do their homework But the Nationals were the most sincere, they were the most aggressive, they were ahead of the pack. They did all of their due diligence and were very confident along the way. And any time you make a decision -- this was a big decision for Chien-Ming -- the spirit of it matters. It's kind of like dating. You don't enter into a relationship unless you feel real good about it. The Nationals seemed to care the most and they seemed to want him the most."