6.03.2005

Bruce (And The) Almighty (Dollar)



Like Johnny Cash, Oriole pitcher Bruce Chen has been everywhere, man. Just looking at the major league teams that he's pitched for - not the teams that acquired and dropped him, and not the many minor league stops he's made along the way - the 28-year old probably has enough Frequent Flier Miles collected to fly from Hawaii to Los Angeles the long way. Fifteen times. From Atlanta to Philadelphia to New York to Montreal (remember Montreal?) to Cincinnati to Houston to Boston - connect those dots, and they create a haphazard trail that even The Family Circus' Jeffy wouldn't want to travel.

According to former teammates and coaches, Chen's powerful potential couldn't make up for his prickly personality and poor on-field performance, which lead to Chen seeing more egresses than a circus-going rube. But now, with in his 8th go-around with a major league club, and 19th go-around with a baseball club, Bruce Chen is finding himself wanted like never before. He's at the vanguard of a resurgent Oriole team that pundits and po' boys alike thought had no business even being in the same division as the World Champion Red Sox and the world-buying New York Yankees. Chen's 5 wins (second behind staff ace Sidney Ponson) and 3.46 ERA (second in the rotation, behind injured 2nd-year sensation Erik Bedard) are a large reaon why Baltimore has a stranglehold on 1st place in the AL East, four games in front of the team everyone in the Northeastern US thought would repeat as World Series victors. And with those victories, Bruce Chen might start to see the spoils - not just in terms of baseball money, but in endorsement money.

"It's a great story," says newly named Winnebago President Ed Barker. "Hard-on-his-luck pitcher stays with the game he loves, and finally finds success. It's a story that sells baseball to the world, and it's a story that we think can sell our luxury vehicles as well." Winnebago is just one of many companies seeking to turn Chen's story of perseverance into a story of profits. Samsonite Luggage wants to attach Chen's face to their upcoming line of portable luggage / carry-ons for the on-the-go business person, called the Change-Up. There are rumors of Motel 6 replacing long-time spokesperson Tom Bodett with the Oriole hurler. Travelocity's puckish lawn gnome might find itself on an extended vacation as well. Even Avis is ringing Chen's cellie, hoping that Chen's everyman appeal rivals the appeal a chair-bounding pre-glove OJ had for Hertz.

"Business has always turned to sports stars to sell products geared towards that coveted male 18-to-49 demographic," according to CNN's Lou Dobbs, "specifically sports stars that transcend the game they play." Dobbs points to athletes with uncommonly good looks, or players that achieve unparalleled success in their chosen sport, as the ideal spokespeople for these companies. "Derek Jeter for American Express. Cal Ripken for XM Radio. Kobe Bryant for Nutella. Randy Johnson and Jason Giambi for deodorant. Tiger Woods is selling everything right now. And Anna Kournikova could sell anything. You attach these personalities and faces to a product complementary to that player's personality or complexion, and that product will sell beyond your wildest dreams. And, right now, it looks like Bruce Chen is the face and personality that everyone wants."

While the plans that companies like Motel 6 and Avis have in mind are on a grand scale, they pale in comparison to what Winnebago's Barker has in mind. "With the success that car companies are having with the 'pimped-out' SUV, and with the penetration Hummer is achieving in upper-middle-class markets with the H2," says a Barker-penned memo to Winnebago shareholders, "I think the time is right for the Number One supplier of mobile homes and luxury buses to enter the SUV market with the commitment to comfort and luxury that people expect from the Winnebago Experience." To that end, Winnebago is developing what's being called a "super-deluxe SUV" - something like a cross between an Escalade limousine and the Canyonero from The Simpsons. This car doesn't have a name yet, but some people within the company are considering this move a folly on the scale of Ford's Edsel.

"Yes, I've heard rumors about some people terming this project 'The Bruce Goose'," Barker says, recalling a rumored nickname for this project that references Howard Hughes' aviation folly The Spruce Goose. "You might remember some in-the-know folks spouting similar malarkey about the viability of the personal computer, or the compact disc. Pioneers are often derided as fools and nincompoops prior to their greatest glories, and I feel that this project will bring Winnebago to unimaginable heights. And I hope that we can utilize the charm and charisma of Bruce Chen to bring this vehicle to fans of America's greatest pastime."

Of course, the issue of Chen's difficult reputation is a stumbling block that even the greatest on-field achievements might be unable to smooth over. My attempts to interview Chen for this article were stymied by flying chairs and various epithets directed at my family and my pets, but these shows of undue aggression, according to Don Mitchell, President of GAAMES (Global Athletes Asset Management & Endorsement Services), are just signs of Chen's competitive spirit. As the Assistant Director of Scouting for the Atlanta Braves, Mitchell was instrumental in signing Chen, along with former Brave farmhands Kevin Millwood, Odalis Perez, and John Rocker.

"Chen's a tough hombre, no doubt," Mitchell says. "I heard that when someone handed him a pen to sign his Braves contract, he almost broke the guy's arm. I hear that and I'm like, 'Hey, killer, save that heat for the hitters!' But give me a guy like that, a guy with that sort of spirit, instead of some soft-tosser with average stuff that needs to be on-point with his pitches on every pitch any day of the week, and I'll be a winner every time." So far in the 2005 campaign, Chen's made the Orioles big winners. It's only a matter of time before Chen's bank account becomes a big winner, too.

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