Chang's persistence pays off

New Orleans, La.-- Ray Chang's professional baseball journey started in stop-light towns like Beloit, Wisconsin where mayors double as maintenance men. But with every promotion, Chang, a 23-year-old with a gregarious school-boy's demeanor in a knocking-on-the-Major Leagues' body, plays in bigger, more glamorous cities.

He isn't quite two full seasons into his professional career, but the undrafted, a-scout-found-me-at-an open-tryout-shortstop, finds himself playing for the Portland Beavers, one call away from becoming a San Diego Padre.

"If you would have told me I'd be the starting Triple-A shortstop at the beginning of the year, I would have told you, ‘you're crazy,'" Chang, a Kansas City native says.

Ray Chang stands on a former kitchen floor in New Orleans.
Recently, he played in New Orleans, a City, it seems, in the eternal international consciousness. His travels have never taken a turn quite like this, he says.

In New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, where storm surges sometimes topped 20 feet, City-owned street signs rarely exist. At the intersection of Roman and Reynes, a centerfield to home plate's throw away from Hurricane Katrina's Florida Avenue Canal breach, a house sits doorless, a house sits roofless and a foundation sits houseless.

Several foundations on this block idle in the Louisiana heat. So Chang brought his glove. At least for a day, this former kitchen floor served a purpose. As he plays catch, the only returned resident on the block stops his yard work and stares.

Leaving the Lower Ninth for the higher ground of New Orleans, where the romance of the French Quarter and the majesty of Garden District mansions are, Chang turns back.

"That was mindblowing," he says.

"I'm glad I came," Chang says.
He went 3-for-4 the night before, but he'll never remember New Orleans for the baseball. He'll remember this stop for the nights in the French Quarter socializing in buildings nearly 300 years old, and for the disparity of existence between the haves and the have nots of the Big Easy.

The Lower Ninth Ward is nothing like he ever imagined, he says.

"I'm glad I came."

Chang fields ground balls with condensed movements. It's an orchestra full of flash and confidence. His glove pronates backwards forming a pocket possible only with rubber-band like left wrist tendons. The scouts who watched him at Rockhurst says he played too "Latin."

In 2005 on draft day, Chang wasn't called. "The Phillies told me they'd pick me up on day two," he says. "I couldn't have been more disappointed."

"I understand it now," he says. "Scouts need to see fundamentals. But the way I take ground balls, it's how I slow the game down."

Chang chuckles at the "too Latin" tag. "I met a guy playing for Las Vegas, a Taiwanese shortstop," he says. "I thought I was watching a mirror.

"This is how we play."

The Asian influence in professional baseball is bound to pose competition for the historical Central American hotbeds, critics say. In June, the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees just signed four Chinese National team players to minor league contacts. There are currently 11 Taiwanese players in the minor leagues. Koreans and Japanese players lead the Asian professional baseball movement.

"The Taiwanese players are movie stars," Chang says. "The infielder who plays for Las Vegas, the Taiwanese media are all over him."

After not being drafted in the spring of 2005, Chang found open tryouts all over the Midwest.

Chang heard nothing after his first tryout. The next week, he went a stop in Iowa and had interest but no offers. At his third camp, Chang was taking batting practice. His father was in the stands. "My dad called me over and says that a scout was on the phone," he says. "How would you like to be a Padre?" the voice said.

It was the sweetest eight words he'd ever heard, he says. The scout had seen his performance the week before in Iowa.

Chang's professional career began with a huge learning curve.

"I think I went 0-for-my-first-month in Rookie Ball," he says. "I would go home and dread being released."

The glove and his elastic wrists are what saved Chang's neck, he says.

The hitting learning curve straightened out by the end of the summer. The high-A class team in Lake Elsinore, Calif. needed a shortstop. They called Chang. He hopped Matt Bush, the #1 overall draft pick in 2o04 fresh into a four-million-dollar signing bonus who played at the low-A level in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Ray Chang surveys the devastation in New Orleans.
Chang's first pro paycheck was $425 . He now makes Triple-A minimum of $844 every two weeks. In Portland, his locker is next to a veteran infielder on a major league contract. He makes $8,000 a check. Chang is currently hitting around .270 and has started the majority of his 50 appearances since being called up to Portland in May.

Robert and Wendy Chang meet in a Hong Kong restaurant. Robert was a chef, Wendy a patron visiting from Shanghai. After courtship then marriage, their American dreams sent them to Kansas City.

"I've never asked them why they chose Kansas City," Chang says of his parents.

Twenty-five years ago, the Changs opened the Princess Garden restaurant in Kansas City. When Ray works there, sometimes as a host, waiter, busboy or a combination of the three, he speaks Mandarin in the kitchen and English on the dining room floor.

Chang was a homebody going into college. "Coach Burns from Rockhurst called me right before school started and persuaded me to stay in Kansas City."

The major leaguers he's played with and against including Major League all-stars like Shea Hillenbrand inevitably ask, "Where's Rockhurst?"

"A small school in Kansas City" he says.

"Greg Maddux took me and a couple friends out to lunch during spring training," he says. "I'm thinking, wow, I'm sitting across the table from a first ballot hall-of-famer."

With one more promotional phone call, cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and San Diego will be waiting. He may be to off to an even bigger City, though. He has try-out with the Chinese Olympic Team in October.

As the host country, China is guaranteed a berth in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, population 13,000,000.

"Me? An Olympian?" he says.

"Unreal, right?"

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