Spring workout with Royals saved Chen's career
Lefty impressed KC brass while preparing for 2009 World Baseball Classic
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It was late February 2009, and the phone call flicked across this Spring Training town northwest of Phoenix from Bruce Chen's house to Rene Francisco at the Royals' complex.
Chen: "Rene, I'm getting ready for the World Baseball Classic, would you guys let me throw at your complex?"
Francisco: "Where do you live?"
Chen: "Right here, in Surprise."
Francisco: "Sure, just come on over."
Chen: "And, by the way, I'm looking for a job. I'm a free agent."
Francisco: "We'll come and watch you throw."
Francisco, the Royals' assistant general manager/international operations, smiled when he recalled the conversation.
"And the rest is history," Francisco said.
Good history for the Royals. Because the next morning -- March 1, 2009 -- Francisco and several other officials watched Chen, who hadn't pitched the year before, throw a bullpen session. Before the day was over, Chen signed a contract, and he has been winning games for Kansas City ever since.
It took Chen a while to get going. After all, he had missed most of 2007 and all of '08 because of an elbow ailment that required Tommy John surgery. By then, the left-hander was 30 years old and a 10-year big league veteran who'd already pitched for nine teams.
Sure, Chen had thought he might be washed up.
"Numerous times," Chen said. "In 2006, I didn't have a very good year with the Orioles[(0-7, 6.93 ERA]. I signed with Texas, got sent down, got hurt. In 2008, I didn't even pitch. And in 2009, I couldn't find a job until the Royals offered me a contract.
"I just kept working really hard to give it everything I could. Whatever happened, I didn't want it to be that I couldn't pitch because I didn't put in the effort."
What got Chen back into the flow was pitching for his native Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He did that just after signing with the Royals. Then he came to Spring Training and was assigned to Triple-A Omaha.
Chen did well enough that he was called up to Kansas City in late June 2009. The results weren't anything to write home to Panama about: He pitched in 17 games, including nine starts, and went 1-6 with a 5.78 ERA.
Combine that with his ill-fated 2006 with the Orioles and '07 with the Rangers, and in 62 games (21 starts) from '06-09, he had a 1-13 record and a 6.53 ERA. Ugly numbers.
Chen had his elbow fixed up and had managed to get back to the Majors with the Royals, but things weren't right.
"In 2009, I started getting all these injuries because I didn't use my body for two years," Chen said. "So I got a lat strain, my oblique, my knees -- all these things I never had before, but I realized I hadn't pitched in two years and these things were going to happen because my body's readjusting again."
He resolved to turn things around.
"When I look back on all of the stuff, people look at the Tommy John surgery as the turning point of my career. I don't see that. I see the end of 2009 as the turning point of my career," Chen said.
"Why? Because I was going through some personal issues, a divorce, but I came here [to the Surprise complex] and this is the first time I worked out in the offseason, professionally with a group."
Supervising that group of Royals was Ryan Stoneberg, then the Minor League strength and conditioning coach, who now holds that position with the big league club.
"Bruce is a really nice guy who's very receptive to instruction," Stoneberg said, "and I think he just found himself in an environment where we gave him a lot of TLC, a lot of quality instruction."
Chen strengthened the weaker areas of his body, and in 2010, he paced the Royals' starting staff with a 12-7 record. He signed back as a free agent and led the '11 team in wins again with a 12-8 record.
During this time, Chen had found a natural soul mate in then-Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, a lefty who had pitched for 19 seasons in the Majors.
"I could relate to him. He understood," Chen said.
McClure said that Chen was leaving too many pitches up, needed to sink the ball and should try a sidearm delivery to keep left-handed hitters uncomfortable.
"[McClure] taught me to do everything necessary for me to succeed and pitch in the big leagues," Chen said. "That's why I dropped down with my arm angle. He's the one that taught me the cutter, the one who taught me how to watch the videos for my approach -- study everything I can so I can be a better pitcher."
McClure left after the 2011 season, but Chen again signed with the Royals as a free agent -- this time for two years. In '12, he again led the team in victories with an 11-14 mark.
Now Chen, who epitomizes the "crafty lefty" image, throws a variety of pitches from a variety of angles at a variety of speeds.
"And [current Royals pitching coach] Dave Eiland really understands the scouting reports, and what he tells me makes sense and I start grouping people in different categories," Chen said.
There was a different twist to Chen's 2013 season. He began in the bullpen and did well, eventually returning to the rotation in mid-July. He finished with a 9-4 record and a 3.27 ERA, the second-best ERA in his 15 big league seasons.
"Bruce has been our best pitcher, really, for the last three years," manager Ned Yost said. "He brings consistency, not only on the field, but in the clubhouse with his life and energy and his leadership in there. Just a steady guy."
That is why the Royals brought him back as a free agent once again this year to be their fourth starter.
There's a Panamanian angle to this season for Chen, too. He needs just three victories to reach 83 and pass Mariano Rivera, the retired Yankees great, with the most wins by a Panama-born pitcher. (It should be noted, however, that Rivera holds a lead over Chen in saves, 652 to 1.)
Chen, 36, grew up in Panama, where there's a large Chinese population that stemmed from workers building the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. His grandparents settled there in the '40s.
His parents, Jose and Luisa Chen, along with his brother Kastulo and sister Karla, are all involved in operating a company that installs gas-pumping equipment in Panama. His father, an electrical engineer, was also a slow-pitch softball player, which is how Bruce got hooked on ball.
"I loved it," Chen recalled. "My dad saw that I liked it, so he started putting me in Little League games; I was horrible, but the more you practice and the more you go, the better you get. He was the one who actually encouraged me to keep going. I was never really strong, so when I hit, I didn't have that much power and when I threw, I didn't have that much velocity -- not that I have a lot right now."
When the Royals held a special fathers' trip last season for many of the dads, it was Jose Chen who stole the show by blasting the ball in batting practice.
"It's not official yet, but if we have the fathers' trip again, he's going to come. He has a title to defend. That was main reason I signed back," Chen said with a grin. "My dad had a great time. It was the first time that we were hanging out, just me and him, since I was a kid."
Chen had chances to sign elsewhere, but he felt a special kinship with the Royals.
"My wife, Mary, is from Kansas City and she never told me, 'Hey, sign with this team.' But when I told her I was going to sign with Kansas City, she was very happy," he said.
Chen still makes his home in the Phoenix area, where his daughters, Gabriela, 10, and Adriana, 6, also live.
He has some fine memories with the Royals -- an Opening Day start in 2012, a no-hit bid against the Angels, two Royals Pitcher of the Year Awards, a two-hitter against the Rays for his first career shutout -- among other things.
Yet nothing got him revved up like the Royals' bid for the playoffs last year. For all his experience, Chen has never been in the postseason, and the Royals haven't been there since winning the 1985 World Series.
So Chen feels his best memory is yet to come.
"I want to have the memory of getting to a postseason and seeing that," he said. "We have to work very hard, but that would be my ultimate goal: to see people cherish the 2014 team the way they cherish the 1985 team."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.