Bruce Chen repeats the refrain as he walks through the Royals’ clubhouse, his professional home now for six seasons, his longest tenure in a big-league career that stretches back to 1998.
Bruce, a teammate will ask, what time is it?
“10 years!” Chen will answer.
Bruce, when does batting practice start?“
Bruce, when is dinner tonight?
His teammates know the punch line. Yet they still provide the setup. The scene often ends with Chen raising both arms above his head, the triumphant survivor, rejoicing in his ability at 36 to last in the major leagues. Recently the chorus changed: On March 31, Chen’s service time clock rolled forward, and now he has accrued 11 full years of big-league service.
“It makes me feel good that people are starting to recognize that it’s not just I got lucky and was able to sneak under the radar,” Chen said. “That people realize, ‘Hey, you know what? I’ve been able to sustain a pretty long major-league career.’
Today, Chen faces Cleveland with a chance for another milestone. One more victory will give him 82 for his career, which would match Mariano Rivera’s record for major-league wins by a Panamanian. Chen cherishes the potential record, just as he cherishes his endurance.
He has played for 10 teams. He is one of the last Montreal Expos left standing. He persists thanks to his studious nature, his dedication to the craft, his ability to manipulate a baseball and the genetic gift of being born left-handed.
With the Royals, where Chen is the eldest member of a youthful clubhouse, he doubles as cut-up and conciliator. When he shattered Billy Butler’s bat during a session of live batting practice, Chen signed the remnants with a note that read, “I own you,” and left it in the bathroom for Butler to find. When Luke Hochevar tore his ulnar collateral ligament, Chen counseled him on the rigors of rehabilitation and offered to bring his family dinner from Longhorn Steakhouse.
“He has a great heart for people, and a great heart for the game,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “He’s always gone through life with a lot of passion, sincerity. He’s always got the most out of his talent.”
As the Royals searched for an extra starter this January, Moore considered Chen’s diversified value. He posted a 3.27 ERA as a swingman in 2013. He would not complain if the organization shifted him to the bullpen to make room in the rotation for prospects Danny Duffy or Kyle Zimmer. Chen also mentors young Latin players such as Kelvin Herrera and Yordano Ventura.
Chen signed a one-year deal worth $3 million, with a $5.5 million option for 2015 and a $1.25 million buyout. Moore once praised Chen for possessing “the mind-set of a No. 1 starter.” One day during spring training, when discussing the aptitude pitchers must learn to succeed in the majors, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo referenced Chen as an exemplar.
“He’s a shell of what he used to be,” Picollo said. “But he’s way better, because he’s learned. He’s adjusted.”
Chen is far from a physical marvel. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008. On occasion his teammates tease the slight paunch in his physique, a gentle ribbing that allows Chen to return fire with one-liners. His fastball hums at 84.2 mph, the third-slowest heater in the majors. His ERA after three starts is an unsightly 6.60.
Yet he endures. When pitching coach Dave Eiland sketched his workout groups for the spring, he ensured that Chen was close to Ventura. He counsels Ventura on the finer points of pitching. He serves as a conduit for advice from Eiland and James Shields. He also translates for Ventura with reporters after games.
Chen has transformed his translation duties into performance art. After Ventura picked up his first career victory, Chen beckoned him to walk across the clubhouse to Chen’s locker to conduct his postgame interview. Chen continually harangues the team’s public-relations staff in search of a raise.
Is he serious? Hard to say. Like a fastball from Chen, you can see his mock outrage coming, but you cannot discern its movement.
A crowd gathered around Ventura after one appearance in spring training. Chen pulled out his phone. It was obvious no one was on the other end.
“Ventura is more important right now,” he said, his voice rising infaux
exasperation. “Babe, yes, I love you. But babe, if they have a 105-degree fever, that doesn’t matter, all right? We’ll deal with that when we deal with that. Let me just translate, and I’ll take care of that. OK? All right. Bye. Bye! BYE!”
“He’s one of those types of guys that tells the corniest jokes,” Shields said. “But he can tell it over and over and over, and it will always be funny, just by his delivery.”
Some movies are funny the first time but fade away upon repeated viewings, Shields explained. Others escalate in hilarity as time passes. Shields referenced his generation’s Holy Grail of clubhouse cinema.
“Bruce is like that ‘Dumb and Dumber’ type movie,” he said.
On a family road trip last summer, Shields pulled aside Jose Chen, Bruce’s father. Was he always like this? Shields asked. Ever since he was a boy, Jose said.
Chen grew up in a family of engineers. His grandparents migrated from China to Panama. He knows only a few Cantonese phrases, and he has never visited China. Chen jokes he speaks three languages: English, Spanish and an expletive.
His family always appreciated his success. But Chen now revels in garnering respect from peers young and old. He traded phone numbers with Jamie Moyer last season. This last spring, Greg Maddux, his teammate in Atlanta all those years ago, recognized him.
“I played with him 14, 15 years ago,” Chen said. “And he talked to me like he really knew who I was. So I’m starting to feel like all this hard work, all this perseverance is starting to pay off.”
As Chen spoke, Duffy sat nearby, lobbing the occasional witticism his way. Chen batted them aside and continued explaining how he “turned 11” on the first day of the season, and passed that service-time milestone.
“Bruce is going to get 20,” Duffy said.
“Now, that’s much better,” Chen said.
“He’s the ageless wonder, man,” Duffy said. Chen reached out to bump fists.
“I got your back.”