SURPRISE, Ariz. — So why is veteran left-hander Bruce Chen still pursuing the chance to pitch for China in the World Baseball Classic — he hasn’t yet been certified — when he faces a stiff challenge this spring to hold a job in the Royals’ rotation?
Respect for the past.
“My grandparents moved from China to Panama at a very young age,” he said. “Their parents, my great grandparents, sent them over to get a better life. That’s hard. I’m a parent. You want your kids to have a better life, but it’s hard to send them away.
“But my great grandparents did that. They sent my grandparents to Panama, but they didn’t live in the city. They lived in the backwoods, and that’s why it’s hard to find some of the records.”
The lack of those records is what appears to be holding up Chen’s eligibility to play for China. But time is running short. Chen needs to depart from the Royals’ camp on Feb. 24 if he is to join the Chinese team in time for its round-robin games in Japan.
“The Royals have been great in working with my situation,” he said. “If I need to go, they’re going to speed up the process so I can be ready — because I need to make sure I do a good job for Team China.
“But if I’m not going to go, they don’t want to push me — especially since spring training is longer this year. We have a lot of guys who they want to give some exposure, and they wouldn’t have to push me at the start of camp.”
Pitching coach Dave Eiland, at this point, plans to accelerate Chen’s conditioning beginning Tuesday when the club’s pitchers and catchers swing into official drills after several days of unofficial conditioning workouts.
That preparation is paramount for Chen because he will be expected to pitch multiple innings — in contrast to one-inning outings generally projected for Royals relievers participating in the WBC such as Tim Collins (United States) and Kelvin Herrera (Dominican Republic).
The round-robin bracket in Japan is one of two in the Far East and starts five days earlier than those in Puerto Rico and Phoenix. That makes it an even tighter fit to get properly conditioned.
“Look, if you’re not going to go,” Eiland told Chen, “let me know as soon as possible. I don’t want to throw you out there too soon (in spring training). I want to make sure you’re ready for the regular season.”
Chen trained for three days last week with the Chinese team in nearby Peoria and said he hopes to hear by Tuesday whether he’s eligible to play in the WBC.
“I understand the WBC people, China and everybody has been trying to do everything they can,” he said, “but, at some point, I’m going to have to make a decision.”
Not pitching for China certainly offers a benefit; staying in camp should bolster his chance to keep his spot in the rotation.
Despite going 34-29 since joining the unit as the replacement for an injured Gil Meche in late May 2010, Chen now finds himself battling Luke Hochevar and Luis Mendoza for the final spot after the Royals added Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis in offseason deals.
“There are two ways to think about it,” Chen said. “You can get mad or you can think, ‘You know what? You always want to play for a championship team, and in order to play for a championship team, you have to have good players.’
“That means some people are going to be shuffled around. Some people are going to have to do jobs they might not like. Some people are going to have to battle for things they have to do before.
“I see it as a great opportunity for us to make it an exciting season. I’m not going to put my needs or priorities above the team. We have a very good team, and I have to battle for the fifth spot.…
“If somebody is better than me then, by all means, give him the ball. We have to send our best five out to pitch every five days. If I’m one of those five guys, then give me the ball. If not, give the ball to someone else.”
Meanwhile, he waits to hear whether he can pitch for China.
“People have told me that I’m crazy to do this,” Chen said, “because I’m leaving the Royals when I have to compete for a job. They’ve told me, ‘You go over to Japan, when you come back, it’s going to take three-four-five days to get adjusted. It’s a 16-hour difference. All of this stuff.
“But it wasn’t just my great grandparents. My grandparents worked hard and sent my parents to Panama City so they would have a better education and a better life. And my parents worked very hard so I could go to a private school.
“Now, I’m in the big leagues, but it all started with a dream by my great grandparents, who sent my grandparents to Panama to get a better life. And now I have that better life.
“If I didn’t try (to play for China), I would feel like it was a slap in the face to my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents for all of the stuff that they did for me.”