Chen finding comfort zone a long way from Taiwan (FULL)

Greg Luca/MLB.com

BALTIMORE — A smile is supposed to be the same in every language, but that’s not the way it works for Wei-Yin Chen.

In the Orioles clubhouse, Chen’s smile can be one of the only signs of friendship the non-English speaker has to offer, a simple representation of the likable pitcher his teammates describe as goofy, outgoing and energetic.

In Chen’s home country of Taiwan, that same smile is one of a national hero and Esquire cover model, a role it would be tough to predict for a player who is “just one of the guys” in Baltimore.

“He’s very quiet and soft-spoken around here, so you don’t see him as that big Brad Pitt figure I guess he is over there,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “It’s kind of crazy how the same person in different worlds, everybody has a different view of it.”

Few athletes in America can move the needle the way Chen does in Taiwan.

Yu Chia Cheng of the Liberty Times and Guohua Zang of the Taiwanese CTI TV — two of the many Asian media members that flock to Chen’s starts — can attest to that. Every Chen outing has been their top story since the day he arrived, as the millions of fans who put up with the 12-hour time difference to watch him pitch still yearn for more.

Baseball is Taiwan’s most popular sport, but only eight Taiwanese players have ever made it to the Majors. The most successful of those eight was Chien-Ming Wang, who finished as the Cy Young runner-up with the Yankees in 2006. Back then, every one of Wang’s starts was a national event. The media scrutiny became so fierce that Wang began refusing interviews to Taiwanese reporters.

Chen’s stardom isn’t at that level quite yet, but his following is only growing with each successful start. Cheng described him as a “national hero.”

“I am so proud to be Taiwan’s national hero, but on the field I don’t feel any pressure,” Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin, adding that his fans give him a “really warm” feeling. “Off the field, I feel pressure. That’s part of my life right now.”

Chen’s teammates see the way small pockets of fans with signs, jerseys and Taiwanese flags come out to support him at nearly every home and road start. They also notice the way he handles the throngs of media that have followed him since Spring Training.

But for Chen to appear on the cover of Esquire, a slot usually reserved for models, movie stars, world leaders and athletes on the level of Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Muhammad Ali? That caught them a little off-guard.

“CHEENO!” Troy Patton shouts as Chen walks by, hailing him with his clubhouse nickname while waving a photo of the newly discovered Esquire cover at him.

Chen simply smiles and nods, the best he can do in a lot of these situations.

“Look at him!” Patton says, turning to Matt Lindstrom in the next locker over.

“Watch out,” Lindstrom cracks slyly.

“He carries himself with some swagger, but I didn’t know he was Esquire material,” Darren O’Day said. “That’s big time, man.”

For O’Day, this fresh nugget will make for useful ammo. The team’s resident jokester, O’Day will crack wise at anyone’s expense, and Chen is no exception.

Back in Spring Training, it would’ve been tough for Chen to keep up. Trying to adjust to a new language and a new job in a new country with new teammates, Chen had — and still has — a lot on his plate.

But he’s made strides. Chen took about 20 classes with an English tutor during Spring Training, and he said he picks up new phrases from his teammates, who teach him “some English slang or English sentence every day.”

Chen has been able to communicate in baseball terms and hand signals since the spring, and he can always have a discussion through Lin, but he’s started to take matters into his own hands.

“He’s always goofing around, calling me the few insults he knows,” O’Day said. “In Spring Training, he didn’t know a bit of English. Now you can go up and B.S. with him a little bit. I’m sure next year we’ll come back and Chen will be making fun of me in English, no problem.”

Chen has even engaged his teammates away from the clubhouse, taking pitcher Zach Britton and one of the team trainers to a Chinese restaurant to show off the traditional fare.

If the team goes out to dinner on the road, Chen will be there with Lin, making sure he’s caught up on every joke.

“Whether or not he’s speaking the same language, you can tell how much fun he’s having and how much he enjoys it,” Wieters said.

Chen even joined the O’s clubhouse fantasy football league, something that has become a yearly tradition for the group. He was a part of the meeting Saturday to determine the selection order, and when it comes time for the team-wide draft party, Chen is expected to be there.

“That’s when it hit me: I think he’s kind of fit in to America,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He doesn’t really know football. He wouldn’t know a football from a hockey stick.

“He’s kind of fitting in to the kidding part. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

The O’s had a feeling Chen would fit in like this.

Director of player personnel John Stockstill and the rest of the scouting department first noticed Chen back in 2007, as part of the Orioles general “coverage scouting.”

Stockstill estimates that over the past five seasons, the O’s saw Chen pitch about a dozen games in person, plus another 30 or 40 on video.

They saw a left-hander with four average or better pitches, even on a Major League scale. They saw an “American-type pitcher,” one without any of the pauses typically found in the unorthodox delivery of Asian pitchers. They saw him vary the speed and depth of his breaking ball, a trait that has kept opposing scouts from getting a read on him. And they saw the deception he masterfully employs, forcing opposing hitters to consistently swear that his fastball comes alive halfway to the plate. It may be only 88-93 mph, but Stockstill said it plays more like 95 or 96.

The O’s saw Chen post the lowest ERA in the Japan Central League of Nippon Professional Baseball since 1968 with a 1.54 in 2009, and they saw him capture back-to-back League pennants in 2010-11. They saw his contract expire at the end of last season, then saw him pass on about six other Major League offers to sign a three-year, $11.3 million deal with the O’s.

Since then, they’ve seen nothing but promise.

“He’s a great teammate and a great disposition, and we are glad to have him,” executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. “He had already proved he could make a transition and play in the big leagues in Japan and make all the cultural adjustments. I saw that as a plus, and his talent was clear.”

With Jason Hammel on the disabled list, Chen has become Baltimore’s de facto ace, leading the team with 140 innings pitched. Tommy Hunter is the next closest with just 112, and he’s already been sent to Triple-A three times in 2012. 

Still, for whatever reason, Chen has flown under the radar with American fans. Maybe it’s his pedestrian strikeout total. Maybe it’s easier to lump him in with the rest of the O’s struggling rotation, since he’s the only one to dodge both injury and Triple-A in 2012. Or maybe it’s because he’s overshadowed by Yu Darvish among Japanese imports and by Matt Moore among rookies even in his own division, regardless of the fact that Chen’s numbers — 10-7 with a 3.79 ERA — are on par with those of both marquee players.

But that’s just fine by Chen. With all the eyes in Taiwan peering at him from across the globe, getting out of the spotlight for a while isn’t all that bad.

Besides, he’s got other things to worry about. On top of dealing with a smaller strike zone and pitching on shorter rest in a longer season — which he said has been the biggest on-field challenge — Chen has had to labor through tasks as simple as getting food and finding a place to live.

All of it is a small price to pay to be living his childhood dream, something he’s reminded of every time Nelly’s “Just a Dream,” Chen’s walk out song, starts blaring over the Camden Yards speakers as he takes his warm-up tosses.

“It’s always been my dream to be here,” Chen said. “I know Major League Baseball is the highest level in the world, and that’s why I’m so glad I can be here and pitch.”

Not just pitch, but fit in and be an integral part of a team in the midst of the Wild Card chase.

One of the few periods he’s spent away was during the All-Star break, when a contact at Nike set him up for the Esquire shoot in Los Angeles.

“It was a pretty special experience for me,” Chen said, “because that’s totally not my style.”

Of course it isn’t. As he posed in dark jeans, a designer jacket and an expensive watch, with his collar flared and his hair thickly gelled, they didn’t even want him to smile.

Greg Luca is an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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