Fri, Aug 25, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Tainan ace evokes fond memories at old school

FAMOUS ALUMNUS The Yankees star is a role model at the school where he honed his skills just over 10 years ago, although the coach says he's seen better

AP , TAINAN

Twelve-year-old pitcher Nien Wen-fang throws the ball during practice at the Chunghsueh Elementary School on Wednesday in Tainan. Nien's idol is star New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-ming, the school's most famous alumnus. Nien and other members of the Chunghsueh team practice five days a week, two hours a day under the watchful eye of coach Liu Yong-song, who has been at the school for 20 years, including the time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Wang was on the squad.

PHOTO: AP

In a dimly lit classroom, the Chunghsueh Elementary School (崇學國小) baseball team yesterday crowded around a flickering television set to watch New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-ming (王建民) take the mound against the hometown Seattle Mariners.

Wang is Chunghsueh's most famous alumnus, a certified fireballer who has mesmerized the nation with his electrifying sinker, his pinpoint fastball and his 14-5 winning record, playing for one of the most storied franchises in all professional sports.

Local television broadcasts his pitching starts live -- usually early in the morning -- cable news stations show endless reruns of his most heroic moments, and newspapers describe his exploits with lavish superlatives.

Nowhere is the adulation more intense than at Chunghsueh, a large complex of stolid-looking classrooms and expansive playing fields in Tainan City, where a life-size statue of a Taiwanese baseball player dominates the main courtyard.

Twelve-year-old pitcher Nien Wen-fang explains what it means to have Wang as a role model.

"I absolutely idolize him," he says. "I want to be just like him."

Nien and other members of the Chunghsueh team practice five days a week, two hours a day under the watchful eye of coach Liu Yong-song (劉永松), a personable 53-year-old, who has been at the school for 20 years -- including the time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Wang was on the squad.

"Wang donated the statue in the courtyard," Liu says. "He comes here during the offseason to give our players tips. He's a big presence in our program."

The Chunghsueh team's designated field of dreams -- the same field where Wang played a little more than 10 years ago -- is a rough patch of infield dirt and unmowed grass, notable for its lower than regulation pitcher's mound, and its invitingly short right field fence -- both pitcher's nightmares.

But according to Liu, Wang wasn't phased by them.

"From the time he was in third grade I knew he had talent," he says. "But even more important was his personality -- he was quiet, self-contained and he didn't horse around with other kids."

Still, Liu says, he had no idea that Wang was destined for stardom in the US major leagues.

"The truth is," he says, "I've coached better players."

At a spirited team practice the day before Wang's start against the Mariners, it wasn't hard to see what he was talking about.

Under a blazing summer sun, one of Liu's charges sent what looked like a sure base hit deep into the hole between third base and short, only to have 12-year-old shortstop Lee Wen-chieh move sharply to his left, backhand the ball with the grace of a Taiwanese Omar Vizquel, and nail the runner with a bullet of a throw.

"Lee's not bad," Liu conceded. "Later this year he's going to California to represent Taiwan in a big competition."

Baseball is arguably Taiwan's most popular sport, introduced under Japanese colonial rule in the 1920s. But the local league and its players have been largely supplanted by Wang, whose exploits on American diamonds have captivated the collective Taiwanese imagination.

In the Chunghsueh classroom, Liu and his team watched admiringly as Wang mowed down the hapless Mariners in one of his more impressive recent appearances.

He pitched seven strong innings before being replaced by Mike Myers, as the Yankees went on to win 9-2.

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