The first time Jimmy Wang touched a baseball was in the second grade, at his elementary school in the Haidian District of Beijing.
The school’s affiliated university, the Beijing Institute of Technology, is ingrained in the history of baseball in China: It played a big role in reintroducing the sport to China in the 1980s after it was all but wiped out in the Cultural Revolution and is currently a perennial baseball powerhouse.
The Haidian District is a baseball hotbed as well, regularly sending their youth teams to compete in Japan and Taiwan as part of the MLB Play Ball initiative. If there was a place in all of China for a second grader to get exposed to the old ball game, this would be it.
That day, the college head coach was helping his elementary school counterpart gain interest for his own team by hosting an open tryout. Word spread like wildfire among Wang’s small elementary school class, and before he knew it, nearly every boy in the grade was lined up in front of the coach on the field.
The coach looked over the assorted seven- and eight-year-old kids, then had them line up on the field and pace out 30 yards. On his signal, they would turn and throw the ball as far as they could in his direction. It went unsaid, but the top few arms would end up earning a spot.
“That’s how it started,” Wang said. “Everybody went out and gave it a shot. I think I came in maybe top three or top five, there were definitely kids who were more athletic than me back in the day.”
It’s safe to say that none of Wang’s old elementary teammates who out-tossed him then could do so now. His massive growth spurt started in the eighth grade, after leaving China for the U.S. He started the school year 5-foot-8 and ended it 6-foot-1. UConn’s newest Sunday starter now stands 6-foot-3.
Even before he made the team, it seemed like half the campus had heard of him. He was the kid always hanging around the Rec Center, throwing down monster dunks and spiking balls into the next court in the Fieldhouse, and after, towering over everyone in the line at the South Grab ‘n Go.
His freak athleticism is a big reason why he’s been so quick to adapt to college hitters who are bigger, stronger and faster than their Chinese counterparts. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he can throw in the mid-90’s.
“The biggest difference is the athletic ability,” Wang said on the American version of baseball. “The players over here are bigger and stronger, so I just had to make certain adjustments against certain players. I might be able to get away with a fastball down the middle in China but it might not be the case over here.”
Even with his physical gifts, it was a long journey for Wang to even make the team. His parents sent him to the United States for high school in Jenison, Michigan and he wanted to play baseball, but due to rules for international students in athletics Wang was only able to pitch his junior year.
At UConn, Wang’s baseball journey began when he originally contacted head coach Jim Penders in the fall of 2017, looking to attend the open tryouts. Penders was intrigued, and he set up a meeting with Wang. He called pitching coach Josh MacDonald into the room, almost like he couldn’t believe his own eyes.
“He went to coach [Penders’] office first and coach called me in, and my reaction was pretty wide-eyed, here was this 6-foot-5, really athletic-looking kid looking to pitch,” MacDonald said. “He came on out, came out to the tryout, I think he hit either 91 or 92 at the tryout which is the hardest we’ve ever had in an open tryout for sure, and the story took off from there”
Wang threw in multiple practices, but would knock on Penders’ door again the day after pitching in his first fall game. He let them know that he couldn’t continue playing this season, quitting to focus on academics.
Wang’s UConn baseball career was tabled, the most memorable moment so far was Conor Moriarty hitting an absolute nuke off of him in his first at-bat.
“That ball still probably hasn’t landed yet,” Wang laughed.
Wang would be back at Penders’ office within a year, however. In the fall of 2018, he was ready to give baseball another shot.
“I wanted to shift my attention away from academics a little bit,” Wang said. “I was kinda stressed out [at] that point because, am I going to succeed academically, if I don’t then what am I going to do? So my dad brought up the idea of rejoining the baseball team.”
Wang knew that, because of the way he walked out on the team the year before, the coaching staff could easily turn him away. But Penders, MacDonald and co. were happy to have him back.
“We’re lucky that he did,” MacDonald said.
It was like he had never left, but Wang did retain something from the first round of tryouts, what he calls his “no fear mentality.”
“Since nobody really knew me, I didn’t have any pressure whatsoever because people don’t have expectations,” Wang said. “I just want to go out there and compete and do my job, see how the batter is gonna do against me.
Wang won’t have the advantage of surprise for much longer, given the way he’s been pitching early this season.
UConn’s early candidates for that third starter spot stumbled out of the gate: Colby Dunlop was 0-2 in his first two starts, giving up 12 earned runs, while Joe Simeone held an 8.93 ERA through his first four outings. The Huskies had to experiment, so they gave Wang the ball on Sunday, March 3 against Michigan State after a string of successful bullpen outings. He didn’t disappoint, throwing 4.2 innings without allowing an earned run, striking out three.
“When Jimmy got the ball he looked at least composed and ready to go and because some of the other guys weren’t doing it, he stepped in there and we’re very fortunate that he did,” MacDonald said.
He’s been slotted into that Sunday starter role ever since, and it’s fair to call it a success so far. Through four outings he has a 2.41 ERA and a 3/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, both stellar marks.
Wang owes a big portion of this success to the man he calls “Coach Mac.” The redshirt freshman was a blank slate for MacDonald to work with when he started practicing regularly with the team this fall; he hadn’t pitched in a competitive game in nearly three years.
MacDonald started with tweaking Wang’s breaking ball selection. He threw a fastball and a looping curve in high school, but soon learned from MacDonald that his slider had a lot more snap, pairing better with his fastball. The pitching coach also taught Wang how to throw a changeup, a pitch he had never tried before.
Now that Wang had a full three-pitch arsenal, MacDonald had to teach him how to effectively locate and how to approach hitters, sacrificing some velocity in order to hit his spots.
“Coach Mac definitely told me to become more of a pitcher than a thrower, because if you can throw a pitch 96 or 98 but don’t throw a strike it doesn’t matter,” Wang said. “He always tells us ‘get ahead, get ahead, attack the hitter,’ especially in the early count. If it’s 0-0 it’s okay to throw a ball right down the middle because you want to get ahead, you want to challenge the hitter.”
While he was revamping his pitching style and approach to the mound and adapting to a new, faster, stronger, tougher brand of baseball, Wang also had to worry about how he would fit in the team dynamic. He didn’t just want to fit in the locker room (although, as a walk-on, impostor syndrome was eating at him hard during those first few weeks). An important part of being a starting pitcher is knowing that your fielders have your back.
“I think that’s been the toughest challenge because I’m not proven, since I’m a true walk-on I had to start from scratch,” Wang said. “I had to do some extra work to get along with teammates because as a pitcher, you can have a nice outing but if your teammates don’t pick you up, it doesn’t work out.”
So in the early season, Wang would go up to each of the teams’ veterans — Anthony Prato, Michael Woodworth and Mason Feole, among others — and chat about baseball, practice and life in general. This helped Wang gain some much-needed confidence on the mound.
“I’ve been thinking that I’m not good enough to compete at this level because I’m a walk-on, but they’ve seen me behind the plate, they emphasized the fact that I am good enough to compete at this level,” Wang said. “Every time I step on the mound, with their presence, I am comfortable because I know that my teammates are going to make a play for me and I’m not going to get hit around.”
If there’s any trace of self-doubt in Wang that he’s part of the team, he doesn’t show it. In weekday games when he works the radar gun behind home plate, he’s joking around with his teammates in the field, throwing out jokes and taking them back.
There’s no question he’s a part of the team, and his role is all but guaranteed to grow from here on out. He’s learning on the fly in his first season of college baseball, facing some of the best hitters in the sport: Matthew Mika of UCF, Jared Triolo and Joe Davis of Houston and Joey Wiemer of Cincinnati.
“He seems to be learning something every time he’s out there,” head coach Jim Penders said. “I just like his presence, he breathes, he looks like he’s in control out there.”
UConn loses two weekend starters next year, which will force Wang into a much more prominent position. That’s all far off, though. Right now, his goal is simple: Go out on the mound and compete with no fear.
“I’m already grateful to face division one hitters, there’s no expectation on me,” Wang said. “I can show if I’m capable or not.”
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.