Bruce Chen is celebrating his 33rd birthday today, and it has been a well-traveled, and often curious, three-plus decades for the enigmatic southpaw. Chen has been with 11 organizations over 17 professional seasons, sporadically flashing brilliance but more often than not failing to deliver on his promise. Chen, who is of Chinese descent but grew up in Panama City, is 3-1, 4.15 in 14 appearances for the Royals this season.
Bruce Chen: I have no idea, but I’m very flattered that he thinks I’m very interesting. Over my career, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and I’m starting to look at baseball as something that’s fun, and not a job. I come to the ballpark and just try to have fun. I’m enjoying my time here in the big leagues. I enjoy batting practice, I enjoy being with my teammates, and I enjoy going to the cities and doing different things in different cities. Baseball is such a hard sport. It’s always negative, like if you walk a guy, or if you’re not pitching well, or if your arm hurts — there are so many negatives, so I try to make it as positive as possible. I try to be happy and try to enjoy every single moment that I’m here in the big leagues, because you never know when they’re going to take the uniform away from you.
DL: Between the big leagues and the minor leagues, you’ve played in close to two dozen North American cities. Which of them have you enjoyed the most?
BC: I enjoyed playing in Montreal and Ottawa, because they were kind of different. They used the metric system and different money, and they were speaking a different language; they were speaking French. I enjoyed being there, but I’ve also enjoyed the big cities like Chicago and New York. I also enjoyed some of the smaller cities, like Omaha…well, Omaha isn’t that small, but places like Danville, West Virginia. They have their own unique things and they really support their baseball. But now that I’m in the big leagues, I’d rather go to the big cities. My favorite cities are Chicago, Boston, Toronto and Seattle. They’re all very nice.
DL: Have you felt out of place in any of the cities you’ve played in?
BC: The small places, yeah. When I was first starting out it was kind of hard because you can’t find Latin food and a lot of people don’t understand where you’re from, like “Where is Panama?” They don’t understand what it’s like to come from a different country. They’re not used to outsiders, because they’ve lived in small towns. Usually, they grew up there and stayed there, and for us, being from different places — we were kind of different for them.
DL: How many languages did you speak when you broke into pro ball?
BC: Only Spanish and English. I know a little bit of Chinese, but not too much.
DL: Being bilingual, did you find yourself translating for many of your Latin teammates?
BC: Yes, I did, which helped me out a lot, because when I came here, some of the coaches couldn'‘t speak Spanish so they used me to translate, and that really improved my English. Sometimes, when the coaches would tell something to another player, I kind of learned from that, too. They were giving advice, and translating it to the other player, I learned that this is what they wanted and this is how it should be done — how they wanted them to throw a curveball, how they wanted them to do a pickoff move, how they wanted them to do bunt plays, everything. So I learned a lot just by translating for other players, and I also earned respect from the other Latin players because I was helping them with the language.
DL: Are most fans unaware that you speak Spanish?
BC: Oh, definitely. Fans and players, alike. I had some teammates who I would say “hi” to in Spanish and they’d be surprised. I’d talk to them in Spanish and they’d be, “How did you learn Spanish?” They didn’t know that I was from Panama. Some fans still talk to me in Chinese, or they’ll ask me where I’m from and I say Panama, so they say, “Oh, you don’t speak Korean?” Most people still assume that I don’t speak Spanish.
DL: You’ve now spent parts of 12 years in the big leagues. How do you think fans see you today – -what is your image?
BC: I hope they see that I like to have fun and that I enjoy and respect the game, but I don’t really know how they see me. Maybe they see me as more of a quiet guy that doesn’t say very much, but I’m pretty outgoing, talking to my teammates. I’m not loud, but by no means am I quiet. I also think that I have a good sense of humor, because I don’t take anything too seriously.
DL: In the eyes of many people, you’ve had a somewhat disappointing career. How do you see it?
BC: Well, I’m still playing, and there are a lot of things that could still happen, but yes, I know that I haven’t had the best [career] But even though there have been a lot of ups and downs, I’m very proud of my perseverance and the type of character that I think I’ve shown. I’m going to keep trying my best, because I’m very happy to be in the big leagues.