Chen still hopes to represent China in Classic
Veteran lefty, born in Panama, needs to document Chinese heritage
PEORIA, Ariz. –- Under a bright sun and blue skies, Team China this week began preparations for the upcoming World Baseball Classic on the Mariners' side of the Peoria Sports Complex.
The 28 players, mostly from mainland China, wore red caps and clean white uniforms with red lettering, the numerals blazing in red on each of their backs.
Bruce Chen, the veteran left-hander now with the Royals, is wearing No. 20 and is the only Major Leaguer in camp. But whether he's able to play for China when it opens its bracket in Fukuoka, Japan, against the Japanese on March 3 may depend on a quirk in the tournament rules.
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To play for a team, a player must have a parent or grandparent who was a citizen of that country. Chen is of Chinese descent, but he was born and raised in Panama long after his grandfather emigrated there from China.
Chen played for Panama in the 2006 tournament and was ready to do so again this time, but Panama was knocked out by Brazil in the qualifying rounds. That's why he's in this predicament.
"My grandparents are not alive," Chen said. "Since I was born, I was brought up with Chinese culture. This is a special, one-time opportunity for me to represent my grandparents. I'd just be very honored and thrilled if this could happen."
Here's the problem: Chen's grandfather landed in Panama some 70 years ago, and Chen has no documentation tying him to China. Team manager John McLaren is in the process of making an appeal to Major League Baseball International officials in New York on Chen's behalf. Chen has forwarded whatever documents he has, and he is asking his parents to search for more paperwork in Panama, but it might not be enough.
"We're looking through the documentation now," said Paul Archey, MLB's executive vice president of international business operations, when reached by phone in New York. "If he can provide us official, government documents according to our rules, they would make him eligible, and then obviously he can play. At this point, he hasn't been able to do that, but we're working on it."
It's understandable why McLaren wants the well-spoken and thoughtful Chen on the team. Chen would be a professional in a sea of amateurs, and even though Chen is not officially on the provisional roster, he is in camp anyway to work with the younger players and to show his support as a solid teammate. Plus, the Chinese are in a tough bracket, with Cuba, Japan and Brazil, and McLaren needs Chen to start against the Japanese for his club to even have a chance.
"He's a wonderful kid," McLaren said of Chen, who at 35 is no kid. "You can just see it. He's like a magnet. All the players just go to him. I can see by the gleam in his eyes that he just feels it here. This is where his family came from, and he just enjoys being here with these guys."
But rules are rules, as McLaren well knows. At 61, he's a lifetime baseball man who once managed the Mariners and, more recently, was a coach and briefly a manager for the Nationals.
McLaren has asked Chen to have family members dig through the small-town courthouses of Panama for further documentation. But Chen, who has a 71-72 record and 4.60 ERA for 10 teams in 14 big league seasons, says it's not that easy.
When Chen's grandfather landed in rural Panama, authorities changed his surname, from Li. Chen said that the Panamanian documents he has notes his grandfather's name as Jose Chen and that he was born in China, but he doesn't have an official Chinese document to complete that link.
Chen is perplexed, because the issue highlights the restrictions of the tournament, not the spirit of it.
"In China back then, I don't think they issued birth certificates," Chen said. "It was a long time ago. I've talked to other people from China, and their grandparents don't have birth certificates, either. When they moved, they moved. These are sad stories. My mom left China when she was 12 years old. Once my grandmother moved, there was no way to ever see her mother again -- not even write her a letter. She never knew what happened to her. Once in a while she would tell the stories to my mom, but that was it.
"So it's very hard. That's the hurdle we have to get over. We have Panamanian documentation that my grandfather was born in China, but that's the Panamanian documentation."
Chen has about two weeks, as final rosters for the tournament must be set by Feb. 20. After that, players can only be replaced because of injury, and when the games start the restrictions become even tougher.
As for his Major League outlook, Chen has one year remaining on his two-year deal, worth $4.5 million, and after an 11-14 season in 2012, he'll be trying to secure his spot in the starting rotation. He'll move to Royals camp in nearby Surprise later this week and await word about the Classic. If he qualifies, he'll leave the Royals later in the month and return after the bracket is finished, on March 6.
"I know the responsibility I have to the Royals," he said. "People tell me I'm crazy, that I'm fighting for a spot [in the rotation]. But I want to do this as a tribute to my grandparents for all they did to give my parents a better life. I think it's the right thing to do -- to go over there and show that I'm proud of my Chinese descent. This is a very special opportunity. I have this only one time. If I don't try to do this, if I don't at least try, I think it would a slap in the face to my Chinese ancestry."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.