The mental toughness and determination of Chien-Ming Wang (two-time 19 game winner for the New York Yankees), the pitcher who suffered a serious leg injury in 2008, running the bases, is explored in Frank W Chen's atypical portrait Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story. Through interviews shot by Hai-Tao Wu that include Neil Allen, Dave Eiland, Steve Gober, Hung-Chih Kuo, Billy Connors, and Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, we get baseball's point of view on the struggle a player goes through in an attempt to make a comeback.
Chien-Ming Wang with his son Justin: "His son already started school in Florida, the family couldn't travel with him all the time."
Chien-Ming Wang's wife Charlene Wu and their son Justin, his longtime agent Alan Chang, the rehab team of Randy Sullivan and Ron Wolforth in their own unique perspective show us the cost the baseball player pays as the setbacks mount. Chien-Ming known is his home country as The Pride of Taiwan (and don't forget Ang Lee), is seen tirelessly working on trying to save his career and get back to the Major Leagues before it is too late.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Do you usually get interviewed by baseball fans?
Frank W Chen: Yeah, usually I find our audiences are with a baseball passion. They find all these little details they ask me about, so I always ask back, "Are you a fan?"
AKT: As I am not, my questions will be mostly about all the other things you show in your film. For example the beginning, which I thought was great. The first question is "What is a Yankee?"
FWC: Well, he pitched for the Yankees. Yankees has a super long tradition.
AKT: Oh, no, I meant in your film, a little child is asking that question. I believe it's the first question we hear. And Chien-Ming Wang is first referred to as a father. "That's Justin's dad." It already establishes one of the main strands. How did it come about that you started with the children?
Frank W Chen on Chien-Ming Wang: "How do you cope with the rise of fame and now that you're in the minor leagues and you're not the same anymore?"
FWC: It was completely natural. We were filming a scene with Chien-Ming Wang on the field. And these little kids just walked by. And I thought this could be interesting so I asked the camera guy [Hai-Tao Wu] to start rolling. And I saw the kids were excited to see him because they're his son's school mates. And apparently their mother told them that he used to be a baseball star.
So that's the conversation: "Oh, yeah, my mom told me that you're famous." And Chien-Ming, he's a humble guy, he said "Yeah, I used to be but not anymore." That sets the tone of this film. How do you cope with the rise of fame and now that you're in the minor leagues and you're not the same anymore? I find it really compelling that he admitted that in a joking way to little kids.
AKT: It also shows him as a father. The film is so much about fathers and sons.
FWC: The last few years of his career he had to go on to many different teams and because his son already started school in Florida, the family couldn't travel with him all the time. So there is this distance. In the film we talk about him being away for 200 days during the season. That was tough on the little boys [Justin and Wellington]. I felt the same way too because of my own upbringing.
Randy Sullivan of the Florida Baseball Ranch training Chien-Ming Wang: "He is often meeting setbacks but the next day he comes back to work."
You know, my parents sent me to Canada when I was young. And I never lived with my father since I was 13. I only get to see him two weeks per year. There's always that sentiment I had to deal with and I saw that with Chien-Ming.
AKT: It's very strong. My favourite shot in the whole movie is the one where you show the boy's toys looking outward, instead of facing in. Hulk and whatever other action figures he has on the window sill are looking for the absent father to come home.
FWC: Yeah, I love that shot.
AKT: The reference to fathers doesn't end there. The coach Neil Allen calls himself Chien-Ming's "US dad." You can find that relationship elsewhere?
FWC: Exactly. Because he came to the US to play baseball when he was 20 years old without knowing any English at the time. This father figure, which is your coach, became really prominent because he's so far away from his dad on the other side of the globe, because his family is in Taiwan. So Mr. Neil Allen, who taught him how to pitch the sinker ball, kind of became this father figure for him.
AKT: And there are actually a lot of tears in your film - which you might not necessarily expect in a film about baseball. He [the coach] is the second one to tear up. The first one is his agent.
Frank W Chen on Chien-Ming Wang: "In the film we talk about him being away for 200 days during the season."
FWC: Alan [Chang].
AKT: He speaks about the great role model Chien-Ming is for his own son. The tears just happened?
FWC: Yes. I have to admit, in any movies I see, I don't like too many tears. But for some reason, Chien-Ming has the power to bring out all the real emotions of people around him. He's just that kind of people. He's very humble and very approachable.
Alan is his agent, whom he'd known since 1997, 21 years, and their relationship grew really really strong. Their families are friends too, their kids all play together. It shows the true bond between an agent and a player. I could think about Jerry Maguire, the [Cameron Crowe] movie, where the bond is so strong [between Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr.], it's not your usual client player relationship.
AKT: There are some unique sequences in your documentary. I am thinking of the visit to Billy Connors, for instance. You dedicated the film to him.
FWC: Yeah, he passed away this year [on June 18].
AKT: The animals! Did you know that he had a zoo at home before you arrived?
Frank W Chen on Chien-Ming Wang: "The last few years of his career he had to go on to many different teams ..."
FWC: I did not know this.
AKT: Donkeys coming in, dogs, cats, parrots!
FWC: It was crazy! The whole space. It was in Tampa, Florida. I knew there's this coach in Florida and I asked Chien-Ming "Hey, you've got this coach, right?" And he said,"Hey, you want to see him? Let's go." He called him up and then we just went there, unprepared, totally. We were about to go to dinner and he said "Oh, let's go and have dinner with him." The whole space, first of all, looks like a museum.
AKT: Memorabilia everywhere.
FWC: It's crazy, I've never seen that much memorabilia in somebody's place. And then all these animals just started popping up. I thought, oh my god, I got to get all those shots in there. It's a zoo, it's a museum and it's also, again, another father type of figure that oversaw Chien-Ming's growth.
AKT: I like your shots of nature. You have geese flying overhead and a stunning image of purple blossom trees in the suburbs somewhere when he visits his old schoolfriend's house and has Taiwanese dishes prepared for him.
Frank W Chen: "For those few throws, the few pitches, there's eight times, ten times more preparation work behind it that not many people get to see."
FWC: I always wanted to place him in a context in the North American landscape type of context because that's where he pursued his dream. With these establishing shots the viewer gets to know what might look a little foreign to our Taiwanese viewers when we played in Vietnam, but it is something that he sees every day. So for me it's super important to establish it.
AKT: The displacement and the journeying, the fact that he is constantly on the road with no stopping, means that he can only really find a home within himself. I think his wife [Charlene Wu] says at one point that the only thing that stays is the soul. And his work ethic. That is something you show very well - how much work it is. How to be this level of professional baseball player, you have to do all of this work.
AKT: I have the sense that often today in much of the media coverage it's pushed aside. It is a pretend they are just stars, born with some ability to throw a ball, or something. And the work is minimized. Do you agree?
FWC: I totally agree. I'm guilty of that myself, growing up as a baseball fan. Until I got to know Chien-Ming. I'm just like everybody else, I would criticize any player "Why isn't he performing, he's getting a big contract?" Until I met him and spent time with him. For those few throws, the few pitches, there's eight times, ten times more preparation work behind it that not many people get to see. When he's really in pain, when he's dealing with all these setbacks.
Frank W Chen: "Chien-Ming has the power to bring out all the real emotions of people around him."
AKT: At the Florida Baseball Ranch - how intricate the work is!
FWC: It's such a small space.
AKT: It looks like nothing, at some ghostly shopping plaza.
FWC: But the things that he does in there, day in and day out! It's incredible.
AKT: As Justin says, his father plays baseball "for real."
FWC: I had a newfound respect for anybody - whether you're a professional athlete, or you're a singer, a musician, an architect - there's the work behind it that's the real work.
AKT: As not necessarily any kind of baseball fan, I got so much from your film and I thought maybe some of the baseball fans might be disappointed to see all the work. That they could say "Oh no, don't destroy the magic, I want to be blind!" I think it's necessary.
FWC: Yeah, it is another level of understanding.
AKT: A great interview is with Steve Gober, the Rehab Coordinator of the Washington Nationals.
Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story poster - in US cinemas
FWC: It's the story that he just asked him to give up and go home. To me it shows that Chien-Ming, who is always a warm and humble and quiet person, that was actually one time that somebody in the baseball field actually pisses him off. And he was really mad, like, in a way you're looking down on me. And he actually left for the day. It just goes to show his character. He is often meeting setbacks but the next day he comes back to work.
AKT: What is he doing now?
FWC: He just flew back to Taiwan and he took on a coaching job for a professional team in Taiwan. Just this week. He started today [October 25] actually.
AKT: With his family?
FWC: No, the family is still in Florida. Justin gets to go to school.
AKT: Early on in the film, you show Chien-Ming at the gas station - is this meant as a metaphor? The meter is running? That's when you explain what happened to him, the injury.
FWC: I wanted to establish him as a character. So the gas station is a good metaphor because when I first met him it was in Pennsylvania, a small town, and he drove a very small rental car. We said to him, the scene we have is for all the viewers to understand what you were before and what you are now. The first time I met him was actually at a small plaza with a Ruby Tuesday, gas stations, and malls. It was 2013 when I first met him.
AKT: At the end of your film he throws two balls into a lilly pond. One sinks. So it's sink or swim?
FWC: It's a question for viewers. Do you see the glass half full or half empty? We fade out with another ball still floating. So do you see the ball sinking or do you remember the ball as floating? And that was sort of an ambiguous ending to his career and this film.
Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story is in cinemas in the US.