The storm had passed, so Chien-Ming Wang waited near a bog of mud and gravel that doubled as the right-field line.
Rusting bleachers held water instead of fans.
Steam rose from the line of trees beyond Pfitzner Stadium’s outfield wall, touting a free inspection from Dodson Pest Control.
Nerves fluttered through Wang, though you’d never guess from his impassive face. The right-hander used a sinker that may as well have been a bowling ball to win 55 games over five seasons with the New York Yankees. But wrapped in the uniform of the Single-A Potomac Nationals two weeks ago in Woodbridge, Va., for a game rain already canceled, Wang felt like a rookie, a baseball beginner.
A coach fished baseballs from a battered shopping cart and lobbed them to hitters in a cage used during games for the speed pitch. Each thwack of bat on dirty ball echoed through the empty place.
“In my life, I’ve been hammered by some heavy blows,” Brooks and Dunn wailed over scratchy speakers, “that never knocked me off my feet.”
Seven hundred-fifty-four days have passed since Wang’s last major league pitch, served up for a long two-run home run. Seven hundred fifty-four days of wondering if his body would fail him again, if his right shoulder would ever feel normal, if his career was in jeopardy.
“I’m learning,” Wang said through his interpreter, John Hsu, “how to trust myself again.”
After six minor league rehabilitation starts over the past month, Wang starts Friday for the Washington Nationals against the New York Mets. The worry he felt about discomfort in his shoulder is fading, like the puddles he dodged in Pfitzner Stadium’s outfield that slowly seeped away.
Running the bases in 2008, Wang sprained the middle of his foot. After the injury, he wasn’t the same. A stint on the disabled list for hip weakness followed. When he returned, Baseball Prospectus estimated his release point was 5 inches higher. That can ruin a pitcher’s statistics, arm or both. By the time Wang’s last pitch was deposited into Yankee Stadium’s right field stands by Toronto’s Adam Lind, Wang was 1-6 with a 9.64 earned-run average. Later that month, surgery repaired a torn capsule in his right shoulder.
Wang, a two-time 19-game winner, disappeared into baseball’s shadow world of rehabilitation, extended spring training and instructional league at the Nationals’ facility in Viera, Fla.
“This has been a long process,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris wrote in an email, “but through it all he maintained a great focus on the big picture, stayed the course daily with necessary attention to detail and never fell into any of the mental peaks and valleys that can come with a prolonged rehab.”
Wang defined by sinker
Last month, Wang threw 10 or so sinkers in his first rehabilitation start with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns.
“What was that?” one Suns player asked pitching coach Chris Michalak.
“That,” Michalak replied, “was a big-league sinker.”
The pitch defined Wang’s five seasons with the Yankees, as much as his idolization in his native Taiwan, where he remains the country’s most popular athlete. Much of Wang’s comeback depends on the pitch - once one of baseball’s best - that dives toward the dirt between 90 and 94 mph. Batters pound the ball into the field. Sixty percent of the balls put in play against Wang were on the ground.
The pitch was born on a lark, when Wang played catch on the side one day at Triple-A Columbus in the Yankees‘ system. Catcher Sal Fasano tossed his version of a screwball, breaking from left to right and sometimes sinking, to Wang. Fasano, who now manages the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, showed Wang the grip. Wang threw it a few times before Fasano summoned pitching coach Neil Allen. The makeshift screwball turned into a sinker.
“It seemed to be a perfect storm,” Fasano said, “And the right pitch for him.”
A sinker solved a significant problem for Wang: Hiis fastball touched 95 mph but was as straight as the first-base line. Thrown from the same arm slot as a fastball, the sinker moved.
Allen shortened the landing spot for Wang’s left foot by a couple of feet. Those inches allowed Wang’s arm to travel longer and his fingers to stay on top of the ball. That provided the ball’s devastating sink. His 6-foot-3 frame and long fingers seemed made for the pitch.
The ball came off Wang’s right hand heavy, the sort of pitch that breaks bats. Eight inches of movement in the 10 feet before the ball crossed home plate became commonplace.
“His late life was astounding,” Fasano said.
Wang was quiet then, almost to the point Allen felt sorry for him. But each time Allen spied Wang alone in the dugout, he was studying other pitchers’ mechanics. The pitcher, teammates recall, acted as if he had something to prove.
“He’d do anything you asked, but he’s got to trust you,” said Allen, now the Triple-A Durham Bulls’ pitching coach, in a voice something like a father’s. “He was the easiest guy to grab hold of I ever had.”
In the six rehabilitation starts, Wang’s fastball velocity ranged from 86 mph to 94 mph. That doesn’t matter as much with the sinker. The pitch felt a little better to Wang each game, as he allowed 28 hits and stuck out 17 over 28.2 innings. Locating the pitch most concerns him.
“It is the hard, late-bottoming action that makes it so effective,” Harris wrote. “True sinkerballers, which Wang is, don’t have to manipulate as much and have more consistent vertical sink that hitters have a difficult time lifting.”
At Pfitzner Stadium, a beam of sun fought through the dark sky and reflected off the bog up the right-field line.
Two Kinston Indians players, with no game to play, spied a discarded pile of dry ice by their clubhouse, shoved pieces into water bottles and scampered away. Each explosion seemed to shake the small stadium.
Worried glances shot around 26 Taiwanese fans, unaware the game was canceled. One couple flew from Orlando, Fla., to see Wang pitch. Another waved a red, blue and white Taiwanese flag.
They clustered next to a rusted chain link fence, in No. 40 Yankees jerseys and Nationals hats so new the bills remained straight, with cameras and smiles snapping every time Wang moved. With two Taiwanese television crews filming, Wang ambled over and signed gloves and hats and pictures protected by cellophane sleeves.
The autographs finished. A cheer followed Wang as he walked away, interpreter in tow. One cameraman set down his equipment and lit a cigarette.
The storm was gone. The wait was over.