Since he was a little boy, all he’s ever known is throwing a baseball. I don’t think he wants to give that up. And I think that it’s hard for him to imagine what his life would be like after that, if he didn’t have that.
Late Life is a documentary about Chien-Ming Wang, a Taiwanese-born former Yankee who had a remarkably promising career derailed by injuries.
I still remember hearing the bad news in June of 2008. Wang was helped off the field in the 6th inning, unable to put weight on his right foot. In moments like that, I’m the sort of fan who immediately believes the worst-case scenario is inevitable. And yet, as pessimistic as my fandom can be, I never could have anticipated how bad things would get for the man affectionately referred to as the ‘Pride of Taiwan.’
His initial injury happened during interleague play, against an Astros squad that still played in the National League at the time. Wang ended up on the basepaths in the 6th inning, something pitchers in the American League don’t practice. Rounding third on a single by Derek Jeter, he felt a pop in his right foot, followed by the pain and warmth often associated with a ligament injury. He’d torn apart the inside of his foot, and would go on to miss the rest of the season.
Upon his return in 2009, the injury caused a change in his mechanics, and a problematic compensation in his delivery, shifting undue strain to other joints and muscles. The result was immediate ineffectiveness. After that came a long list of subsequent injuries — including those to his hips and his bicep — culminating in a massive shoulder injury.
He was never the same pitcher again.
In New York, every Yankee fan could foresee the glory ahead of him. He was going to anchor the Yankees rotation for the next decade, his devastating sinker inducing ground ball after ground ball. When it was on, his sinker was like Mariano’s cutter. Hitters knew it was coming, yet were still powerless against it. It was as if the baseball was made of lead when it left his hand. We all believed the Yankees would sign CC Sabathia in the offseason, and the one-two punch of Sabathia and Wang would be a huge step toward building another dynasty in the Bronx.
Back home, 23 million people obsessed over his every pitch, as their native son achieved international success. He was Taiwan’s biggest celebrity.
You could feel it. Wang’s destiny was assured. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
The same pitcher who won 19 games in back to back seasons, and finished second in AL Cy Young voting in 2006, now found himself relegated to the fringes of the MLB. Eventually, he wound up on an unaffiliated independent team, unable to find a single MLB team willing to offer him a minor league contract.
This is where Late Life picks up his story, following him as he tries to get back to the big leagues one more time. That’s a tall order for a man in his late 30s, an age when most players have accepted retirement, and the rest know it’s just outside the door.
The film follows Wang’s struggle to steal back his career from the jaws of time.
His stubborn persistence is inspiring. He refused to give in, in spite of all that his injury had taken from him; even in the face of the all but certain reality that his career was over.
Seeing a man who seemed destined for greatness brought low, a man who inspires love and devotion from everyone he comes in contact with, broke my heart.
And it is gut-wrenching to see the pain his family experiences as a result of his prolonged time away as he fights for his dream. It’s hard to watch his eldest son, who worships him, say goodbye again and again.
Yet, through it all, Wang fought on.
We only get one life. There are no do-overs. We don’t get to restart from a previous save. To see the promise of a young Chien-Ming Wang stolen by such an arbitrary event hammers home the transience of everything we know. Our lives rarely turn out the way we’d hoped. Wang’s certainly didn’t.
The only thing we can control is how we will respond when things go wrong. For Wang, as the onslaught of time was drawing his life as a pitcher to a definitive end, he persisted. He fought tooth and nail for every inch he could reclaim of his lost destiny.
I hope, when I inevitably face similar odds in the future, that I will do the same.
Next up: Pride of the Yankees: the 1942, Gary Cooper-led homage to the life and career of Lou Gehrig.