The Miami Marlins’ Opening Day pitcher might be unfamiliar to local baseball aficionados, but he is a headline-making celebrity in his native Taiwan, where the populace will pause to view the TV broadcast of Tuesday’s 7:10 p.m. game against Detroit at 7:10 a.m. China Standard Time on Wednesday.
Most businesses will allow employees to come in late so they can watch Wei-Yin Chen launch Miami’s 24th season.
Chen wasn’t the obvious choice to start another promising campaign for the Marlins, who are attempting to return to the playoffs for the first time since they won their second World Series title in 2003. That would be Jose Fernandez, the ace with a fastball to match his temperament. But team management decided to take a cautionary approach to Fernandez’s surgically epaired elbow and place him on a schedule that gives him more days of rest.
Chen was the practical choice. The steady lefty is projected to be the rock of the rotation and even a paragon of durability for the entire team, which hasn’t lived up to expectations since moving into Marlins Park five years ago.
Chen, 30, acquired from the Orioles, was 46-32 in four years in Baltimore, where he logged 117 starts and a 3.72 ERA. The Marlins are paying him $80 million over five years and counting on him not to be another free agent flop, like Heath Bell, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Michael Morse.
“Stability is a big theme for a team that came together at the end of last year, which made us mindful of adding the right pieces to an incredibly talented core,” said Michael Hill, the Marlins president of baseball operations. “Chen brings composure, consistency, focus, professionalism and quality talent. He pitched in the most difficult division in baseball in a league with an extra hitter. It jumped out to us that he could be a stabilizing force to pitch with Jose and our other young arms.”
Chen said command of the strike zone is one of his strengths.
“Even though I’m a fastball guy, unlike Jose who throws 98 mph I’m throwing 92-93, but still I have confidence my fastball will be one of my best weapons along with my curveball and changeup,” Chen said through his interpreter. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and is studying English.
Chen will be the second Taiwanese player to start on Opening Day, following in the footsteps of Chein-Ming Wang, who opened for the Yankees in 2008. He’s the fifth Asian player to sign with the Marlins, joining Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki on the roster.
Chen will have a loyal cheering section on Tuesday yelling Jia yo! — “Let’s go!” Miami’s Taiwanese community is planning to support one its own who made it from the island to Major League Baseball. Baseball was popularized in Taiwan when it was a colony of Japan.
“It’s pretty exciting for our small but active community,” said Anthony Kang, an attorney with Arnstein and Lehr who grew up in Taipei before moving back to Miami at age 15 and graduating from Miami Palmetto High, Duke and Washington University’s law school. “Just like baseball is the national pastime in the U.S., it is the primary sport in Taiwan.
“There’s such a close following of American culture in everything from sports to movies to music, and now we have a Taiwanese player starting Opening Day for an American team. You don’t want to miss that if you can attend in person. All the Taiwan newspapers will have him on the front page.”
Kang, who plays in a local adult baseball league, recalled waking up in the middle of the night as a kid to watch Taiwan’s powerful Little League teams play in their World Series. He also followed the Taiwan Major League, which was hit by gambling scandals but has built back up to four teams. Basketball is also popular in Taiwan; Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin is of Taiwanese descent.
“I think Chen has a personality similar to our local business people here — not flashy and loud but they are very successful in their jobs,” Kang said. “He is not overpowering, but he can be a workhorse and give six-seven solid innings to the Marlins, who haven’t had a healthy rotation in years.”
Hill said Chen and Suzuki have given Marlins’ scouts an incentive to expand their horizons.
“Being in Miami we’ve been very active in Latin America, but we want to be more active in Asia,” Hill said. “The goal is to find talent wherever it may take you.”
Chen played on Taiwan’s (called Chinese Taipei) Olympic teams in 2004 and 2008 and for Japan’s Chunichi Dragons for four years.
He grew up in Kaohsiung, a small city in the south where his parents worked in the construction business and traveled often. His older sister Shu-Ping often took care of him and his brother. He started playing baseball at age 10, was converted to pitcher because he was left-handed and idolized Randy Johnson.
Since moving to the United States, he has learned to love American steak, the Capital Grille restaurant and rapper Nelly.
“The biggest hurdle is the language barrier,” said Chen, who is married with two sons. “The food and culture is fine, but I am trying hard to learn English.”
Chen said he likes Miami’s ballpark — which he called “spacious” compared with Baltimore’s — the weather, his teammates and manager Don Mattingly, who decided to go with Chen on Day One.
“I was surprised at first because I’m new, and we’ve got a lot of great pitchers here, including Jose,” Chen said. “I’m happy they trust me with the Opening Day start.”