Chen's Classic prep sets example at Tribe camp

Chen's Classic prep sets example at Tribe camp

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Bruce Chen did not look like he belonged on the mounds at the Indians' spring complex on Wednesday morning. It was not just that the left-hander retired from the Majors two seasons ago, or the fact that he now works in Cleveland's front office. What stood out was the fact that Chen was wearing a blue hat.

The pitchers on either side of Chen wore the Tribe's Spring Training caps, which have a bright red front. The coaches leaning against the green backdrop behind the row of mounds don the all-blue version. It has become a source of friendly jokes aimed at Chen -- as master of one-liners himself -- as he prepares to pitch for Team China in the World Baseball Classic.

"It's a no-win situation," Chen said with a laugh. "If I go out there and I have the blue hat, everyone's like, 'Come on, you have to have the red hat so you can be like everybody else.' But, if I put on the red hat, all the coaches are going to say, 'Oh, now you think you're a player.'"

For the moment, Chen is both a coach and player.

Chen, 39, works as the cultural development coordinator for the Indians, who hired him for that job last year. In his role, the former big league pitcher helps young players transition to life in baseball and the United States. Chen is uniquely qualified for the task, considering he speaks multiple languages and has a diverse background. As an example, Chen was born and raised in Panama, but his grandparents were born in China.

His family heritage in China convinced the country's team to reach out to him in December to see if he would be interested in helping out in the World Baseball Classic. While in the Dominican Republic for the Indians in late November, a scout from Asia informed Chen that Team China was trying to get in contact with him. The former pitcher was a bit confused.

"I said, 'Do they want me to pitch, or be the pitching coach?'" Chen quipped.

Pitching was indeed what Team China had in mind.

Chen, who last pitched in the Majors in 2015 with Cleveland, ending a 17-year career that included stints with 11 teams, was intrigued. He ran it by his wife, who was supportive. He brought it up to his parents, and they responded with a level of excitement that convinced him it was the right thing to do. When Chen ran it by the Indians, they offered to help him with his temporary comeback and said they felt his training would be a good example for younger players this spring.

Chen headed to the Indians' Arizona complex to begin throwing bullpen sessions in January and found a catch partner in his friend and former teammate, Joakim Soria. Chen sent video footage of his mound workouts to Team China to show he was serious about the role. Ken Knutson, the Indians' throwing coordinator, teamed with Chen on a program aimed at improving his velocity, while Nelson Perez (the team's assistant strength and conditioning coordinator) came up with a workout program for the pitcher's specific needs.

"They went above and beyond anything that I expected," Chen said.

Manager Terry Francona said the team was happy to help.

"It's great for him," said the manager. "Whether he's throwing a bullpen or he's sitting in the coaches' room in the morning telling a joke, he's valued. Everybody feels the same way about him. We're just so glad that he's with us, because he brings so much to everybody. He crosses every culture there is. He can find a way to bond with anybody in that room, and it's really fun to watch."

On Feb. 28, Chen will depart Arizona for Japan, where Team China will face Japan, Cuba and Australia from March 7-11 in the Tokyo Dome. While Chen's wife (pregnant with their fourth daughter) and their youngest girl will not be making the trip, he will be joined by his parents and two of his daughters (ages 13 and 9). His oldest daughter has actually been learning Mandarin in school, too.

"She's anxious to speak to some of my teammates and see if she can really understand them," said Chen, who then smiled. "She's going to be my translator for the team."

Earlier this week, Chen was asked if he should be considered the ace for Team China.

"It's bigger than ace," he joked. "I'm the ace for 1 billion people!"

Asked for the word "ace" in Mandarin, he did not miss a beat.

"Bruce," he replied.

Kidding aside, Chen said his stint with Team China will be a great honor for him.

"It's a very unique opportunity," Chen said. "I know I haven't played in two years, but to be able to represent my heritage of my grandparents and be able to support baseball in China, it means a lot to me. ... Hopefully, we can pull off an upset."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.