Metaphors for life, dreams, old age and struggle attach themselves to baseball like no other sport.
The poetic poverty of the minor leagues, the futility of defying Father Time for one last year playing a kids’ game, the tragedy of decline, the nobility of attempting a comeback against all odds, common sense and what your body and your graying hair tell you, they’re all here in “Late Life: The Chien-ming Wang Story,” a new documentary arriving as we brace for another Fall Classic, baseball’s World Series.
Chien-ming Wang was “The Pride of Taiwan” when he played for the Yankees, a strapping sinkerball specialist and “ground ball machine” for the Bronx Bombers in the mid-2000s. He was “the ace” taking the mound for the marquee franchise in America’s Pastime.
His every move was covered by breathless media back in Taiwan, his every triumph front page news. He won 19 games in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. And then he got hurt doing something American League pitchers rarely have to do — run the bases. He had to watch his pitch-speed, his career prospects and his status decline as he could not engineer a comeback from what looked, by 2013, like a career-ending injury.
“He was a beast,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman remembers. “That injury cost us a great deal, and certainly cost him a lot, too.”
“Late Life” follows Wang as he takes one long last shot at glory, an athlete in his mid-30s, throwing in the mid-80s, lurching from one minor league club to the next, riding the bus again with kids and fellow has-beens.
He’s a humble man in this documentary, one further humbled by how far he has fallen. He had become an icon for Taiwanese baseball, and his fall was covered as eagerly as his rise in the local media.
Filmmaker Frank W Chen assembled archival footage from Wang’s heyday, a montage of his sinker sinking, another of it failing to sink as his skills, technique and body let him down. Taiwanese fans and Taiwanese flags filled Yankee Stadium when Wang was pitching, a baseball version of “Linsanity.”
We see the guy dubbed “The Next Great Yankee Pitcher” struggling with the Gwinnett Braves and South Maryland Blue Crabs. Wang affably shakes hands with children whose mom told them he used to be a Big Leaguer.
“What’s a Yankee?” the star struck boys want to know.
There’s an impressive graphic map showing all the towns Wang pitched for, coming up through the Staten Island and Newark clubs on to Yankee Stadium, kicking around Louisville, Charlotte and Tacoma as he tries to get the magic back.
His agent Alan Chang apparently never saw “A League of Their Own.” He breaks down in tears at his client and friend’s trials.
His parents, interviewed in Taiwan, remark how he’s “always been stubborn” and how he might need to “climb down from that highest tower” he once scaled.
Wife Charlene Wu delivers the unkindest cut of all — “You feel sorry for him.”
And yet Wang persists. “Late Life” tracks him through the 2015 and 2016 season, interspersing still photos of Wang’s childhood and early days in the minors with the formative Yankees who drafted him, coached him and profess to still believe in him, even though the club has moved on.
Billy Connors, retired Yankees VP for Players, is a friend and fan who tells the film crew, Wang and his agent “You should never give up on a guy who’s done it,” as in somebody who was once good enough to make the Big Leagues could always do it again.
Patrick Day, GM of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the Atlantic League, notes the world of has-beens and faded stars who fill the minors and notes, “Their worlds get crushed a little bit.”
Wang, in broken English and in Chinese with English subtitles, speaks soberly about the battle against age and fading skills, his two sons who are growing up without him and whether all this is worth it. That “Pride of Taiwan” title was more a burden than anything else, and he wears the surgery scars of a professional athlete who has had shoulder and knee problems more than once.
More tears from his agent, sad comments from younger Asian players who hate to see him like this, the works, the humbling nature of minor league bus travel, parks with railroads literally parked up against the outfield fence (“Brewster’s Millions” anyone?).
And then, just as we and he seem to have reached that “acceptance” stage of mourning, a little hope is dangled in front of Wang and the viewer. We see the fascinating rehab regimen of the Florida Baseball Ranch rehab in Brandon, Florida, rebuilding his mechanics and muscles for pitching in an older body.
Baseball’s hopes of spring, summer grind and funereal fall poke through in this sharp but narrowly-focused documentary. So does the games eternal “second chance,” that “You’ll get’em tomorrow, next week, next year.”
In Wang, we see a stoic Everyman, straining to defy time like the rest of us, working so hard he sometimes forgets to dye the gray out of his hair, trying to keep his head about him even as his agent breaks down in tears. If your team isn’t in the World Series, here’s a documentary to share a little hope. “Wait til’next year!”
MPAA Rating: unrated
Running time: 1:39