TAIPEI (Reuters) - A chain of injuries suffered by New York Yankees player Wang Chien-ming has thrust a pair of more obscure Taiwan-born Major League Baseball (MLB) pitchers into the limelight as dejected fans in Taiwan seek someone else to support.
MLB followers on the baseball-crazy island needed somewhere to turn after Wang missed much of last season with injuries.
Agents are pushing to get relief pitchers Ni Fu-te of the Detroit Tigers and Kuo Hong-chih of the Los Angeles Dodgers into the public eye in Wang's stead, though some observers say the pair have a way to go yet to fill their compatriot's shoes.
During the MLB off-season, their agents have been seeking more attention for the pair from merchandisers and would-be sponsors. They have also spoken to television networks in Taiwan about broadcasting more games.
"I've heard that fans have become more mature, that they know Wang Chien-ming is not the only player," said Alan Chang, director of Taiwan baseball for Octagon, a sports management firm that went to bat for both men this year to seek exposure.
Ni and Kuo both appeared at a fundraiser for victims of a deadly August typhoon in Taiwan. Kuo has landed sponsorships with Nike, the fast food chain Subway and Smart Media International, and jerseys bearing the players' numbers are on sale in sports shops in Taiwan.
"All these guys are unique in their own ways," Chang said. "They're all national heroes."
Often marginalized by giant economic powerhouse China, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, the Asian island looks to its heroes abroad for global recognition.
Before 2008, Wang was a league sensation whose sinker balls had earned him a 54-23 career win-loss record and a line-up of product sponsorships in Taiwan. He remains a household name in his homeland and jerseys sporting his number 40 are a common sight.
Three other Taiwan-born players in the U.S. major leagues have struggled to stand out. One, Tsao Chin-hui, has been named as a defendant in a 2009 season game-fixing probe involving Taiwan's local baseball league.
Unlike Wang, a starting pitcher usually responsible for winning or losing games, Ni and Kuo are relief pitchers who come in almost at random when starters do poorly or get tired, making television coverage hard to plan.
"To say that Wang Chien-ming will be replaced by these other two because he was injured, I wouldn't go that far, but Taiwan's Yankees viewership has been affected," said Kang Cheng-nan, a physical education teacher at National Taiwan University.
"The other two need to be monitored for longer but if they do well, fans will watch," he said.
Wang has sat out much of the past two seasons and it is unclear how the Yankees will treat him in the future.
He had a foot injury in 2008 and, after several poor showings in early 2009, went back on the disabled list -- first with a hip muscle weakness and then with a shoulder problem that needed surgery.
Left-hander Ni has been described by the MLB website (www.mlb.com) as a "valuable piece" of the Tigers' relief pitching staff since his debut in June.
Ni, 26, ended the 2009 season, his first in the U.S. major leagues, with a respectable earned run average (ERA) of 2.61.
"I never expected that after being kicked up to the majors I could get into these games so fast," Ni told a news conference after returning to Taiwan. "I don't think I can improve any further on my actual ball-throwing speed."
Kuo, 28, has a reputation for staying in play after five seasons despite four shoulder operations. He finished the 2009 season for the Dodgers with a solid ERA of 3.0.
Asked about the prospects of a salary raise at a recent Taiwan media event, Kuo answered with characteristic deadpan humor that "the more the better."
When either player appears on television, Taiwan fans watch with open minds.
"I personally think no one can replace Wang and I hope he can come back," said Yang Chi-hsiang, a second-year university student and softball player in Taipei. "But the other two are Taiwan players, so we'll support them."