08/13/12 2:50 PM ET
Chen finding comfort zone a long way from Taiwan
By Greg Luca / MLB.com
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," said catcher Matt Wieters. "It's kind of crazy how [he's] the same person in different worlds, [and] everybody has a different view of it."
Few athletes in America can move the needle the way Chen does in Taiwan.
Yu Chia Cheng and Guohua Zang -- 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, and 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, and although Chen's stardom isn't at that level quite yet, his following is only growing with each successful start. Cheng already describes 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!" reliever 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 said, turning to Matt Lindstrom in the next locker over.
"Watch out," Lindstrom cracked slyly.
"He carries himself with some swagger, but I didn't know he was Esquire material," reliever 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 [talk] 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 starting 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's 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."
With Jason Hammel on the disabled list, Chen has become Baltimore's de facto ace, leading the team with 140 innings pitched and maintaining a 3.79 ERA.
For whatever reason, Chen has flown under the radar with American fans, but that's just fine by him. 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.
One of the few times he's thrust himself back into the limelight 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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.