Kansas City Royals pitcher Chien-Ming Wang throws in the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during a spring training baseball game Friday, March 11, 2016, in Surprise, Ariz. Arizona won 12-3. (John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star via AP)
Photo: John Sleezer
Photo: John Sleezer

Chien-Ming Wang could be Royals' next reclamation project

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The latest comeback began with a phone call, a baseball Hail Mary on a quiet day last November. It lasted 45 minutes in all, a series of inquiries and questions and a dose of skepticism from an aging 35-year-old pitcher.

Chien-Ming Wang was not yet convinced -- not completely, anyway -- but he had few places to turn. This new plan represented hope. A decade ago, he had won 19 games in back-to-back seasons for the New York Yankees. By last summer, he was still lost into the darkness, his career beginning to fade away.

He had not pitched in the big leagues since 2013. His once vaunted sinker topped out at 89 mph. His arm barked between starts and required a thick layer of ice to dull the soreness. His resume now included the taint of independent-league ball; he had spent a short stint last summer with the Southern Maryland Stone Crabs of the Atlantic League.

So as the offseason began, at the suggestion of his agent, Alan Chang, Wang sat on a conference call and listened to the ideas of Ron Wolforth, an idiosyncratic pitching guru who promised help. Wolforth, the owner and founder of the Texas Baseball Ranch, has forged a career on two things: Teaching young prospects and nurturing reclamation projects. He brought back Scott Kazmir from the depths of independent ball. He worked with Barry Zito in the twilight of his career. Perhaps he could work his magic again.

As Wang sat on the other end, Wolforth laid out his methods in simplistic -- yet detailed -- terms. The program would not put Wang in a box, Wolforth told him. They would not quash his individuality. Most important: They could help him regain his velocity.

By the end of the conversation, Wang agreed to a three-day session in late November. Wolforth boarded a flight to Tampa Bay, Fla., near Wang's home in Orlando, Fla. They met at the Florida Baseball Ranch, a satellite facility in nearby Brandon, Fla. The meeting, Wang says, was a turning point.

"There's nothing to lose," Wang says now. "Why not give it a try?"

Three months later, Wang is here at Royals camp, in the midst of another comeback bid. When camp began, he was something like a 35-year-old lottery ticket, another veteran pitcher in a crowd, a genuine long shot. Then he started throwing.

For Wang -- and the Royals -- the early returns have been promising. His sinker is humming again, hitting 95 on the radar gun, according to one scout. He has allowed just one earned run in six innings, recording three scoreless appearances. His new manager would like to see more.

"Guys can bounce back," Ned Yost said. "He's still pitching. So it's an opportunity: Come on in and show us what you got."

For the Royals, the philosophy is a core principle; less mantra, more way of life. A year ago, the Royals conjured reliever Ryan Madson from nothing, signing the veteran reliever after he had lodged three years away from the big leagues -- and a year away from organized baseball. He responded by coming to spring training, winning a job, and posting a 2.13 ERA in 63 1/3 innings. When the season was over, he signed a three-year, $22 million contract with the Oakland A's.

In the offseason, the Royals set out to find the next Madson. In the early weeks of December, as club officials traveled to the winter meetings in Nashville, Wang's name surfaced as a possibility. Rene Francisco, the Royals' assistant general manager, received a tip: Wang was undertaking a new throwing program; he was healthy again. He was worth a shot.

"We had nothing to lose," Francisco says. "It was: 'Let's see if we can find another Ryan Madson.' "

A month earlier, on Nov. 29, Wang had sat down for his first consultation with Wolforth. In baseball circles, the Wolforth way is an unorthodox endeavor, if not outright controversial. It has dedicated pupils, like Indians starter Trevor Bauer, and some skeptics. Among the practices that Wolforth endorses: Shoulder exercises with a long tube; various forms of long-toss and the use of weighted balls; and the utilization of a "connection ball", an inflated ball that is tucked between the shoulder and forearm.

For Wang, once the ace of the Yankees' pitching staff, there was little to lose. From his rookie season in 2005 to the summer of 2008, he posted a 54-20 record and a 3.79 ERA. He was only 28 years old.

His career began to crumble as his body gave way. In June 2008, he suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament in his right foot and missed the rest of the season. A year later, the foot problems manifested into shoulder issues and Wang underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in 2009. When he returned to the big leagues in 2010, he never recaptured his old form.

"It was disappointing," Wang said.

As Wolforth inspected his new student, he began with a series of assessments -- or audits, as he calls them. Wang underwent a pain audit, where he identified areas of discomfort. Next there was a recovery audit. Then a mobility and stability audit, among other tests. And finally, there was a performance audit, where Wolforth pulls out a four-quadrant strike zone and asks a series of questions.

"If I asked you to throw 100 fastballs to this spot, how many could you execute?"

The tests revealed a number of things, Wolforth says. For one: Wang had a difficult time throwing his sinker to the outside corner against right-handers, a sign of a mechanical issue with his front side. He was also failing to harness the power from his legs. At 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, Wang has the build of a power pitcher. But for much of his career, Wolforth says, he survived with an arm that could touch 93 with little help from his legs.

"He asked: 'Am I going to have to change anything?' " Wolforth recalls. "I said: For the most part, no. But you're going to have to use your legs a lot more."

After three days in Florida, Wolforth formulated an offseason plan for Wang. He returned in January for another checkup. Wang was eager to master his altered delivery.

"He was an exceptional student," Wolforth said. "Not just a good one. He might be one of the best students I've ever had."

In the early days of spring training, a documentary film crew followed Wang around the Royals' complex. As Wang ran sprints on a side field, a camera captured the workout. Back home in Taiwan, where Wang grew up, he remains a national celebrity. His movements are tracked. His career followed. His life under the spotlight.

As Francisco points out, Wang doesn't need any of this. He doesn't need to be here, still working his way back at age 35. Which is one reason the Royals were interested.

"He doesn't need the money," Francisco said. "He's a star in Taiwan. But he's still out here."

For now, though, Chien-Ming Wang's latest comeback continues. The film crew will keep following him. The ending remains uncertain.

"I've been up there before," Wang said. "I just feel like it's not time to give up yet. I'm still trying to make it back."

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