Ray Chang was on his way to the Major Leagues, with a story bound for Hollywood.
His parents, Robert and Wendy Chang, met in China and immigrated to Kansas City. They opened a restaurant there, Princess Garden, where young Ray spent his weekday afternoons, completing homework and helping with the dishes. He began his professional career as an undrafted free agent from Rockhurst University, signing with the San Diego Padres out of a tryout camp in Ida Grove, Iowa (pop. 2,142). Now he was going to play for the Minnesota Twins. Months before basketball player Jeremy Lin captivated the sports world, a perennial contender in Major League Baseball would have a Chinese-American shortstop.
Chang had received word in Allentown, Pa., as the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings prepared to play against Lehigh Valley on May 28, 2011. And the day kept getting better. First at-bat: home run. Second at-bat: home run. He'd hit one homer in 44 games all year prior to that night. Chang remembers thinking that he'd never felt so good on a baseball field.
Lehigh Valley's Delwyn Young led off the sixth inning with a pop fly into shallow left. Chang backtracked. Matthew Brown came in. They collided.
Chang caught the ball -- and broke his left fibula.
There would be no callup to the Majors.
Not that night.
Not that year.
"That was as close as I got," Chang, now 33, says over the telephone. "It was tough. I'm not going to lie to you. I went into a shell for a while."
Could any of us blame him? We're all Kevin Costner, sitting across from Burt Lancaster in Chisholm, Minn., outraged at the injustice baseball had wrought, thumb and forefinger an inch apart. You came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy. ...
But this is not a sad story. Chang speaks gratefully about his 12 years in pro ball, the last four with Reds affiliates in Pensacola and Louisville. In fact, there's one final act in Chang's playing career: He will be the shortstop and veteran leader for Team China during the World Baseball Classic in March, before retiring to begin work as manager of the MLB Development Center in Nanjing, China.
And as a coach, he's not afraid to reference his heartbreaking twist of fate.
"When I'm doing lessons with high school teams or working with young people, I've shared that experience with them," Chang says. "You can't take things for granted in baseball. And when you feel like you're on your path and something derails you, you have to keep pushing through. I feel that I was very fortunate to play those 12 years."
Chang has spent nearly a decade preparing for the new job, even if he didn't realize it at first. A chance meeting with former Minor League pitcher Jeff Brueggemann at a Kansas City-area baseball facility in early 2008 led to the suggestion that Chang travel to China as a youth coach, as Brueggemann had done. Chang has been a regular instructor at MLB's three Chinese development centers ever since, annually spending several weeks of each offseason there. (Mandarin Chinese was Chang's first language, and he estimates he's at 75 or 80 percent fluency now.)
And while Chang is helping to establish a baseball culture in China for future generations, he already has left an indelible mark on Chinese baseball history: His go-ahead single in the eighth inning of a 2013 WBC game against Brazil provided the decisive runs in a 5-2 win and allowed China to qualify for this year's tournament.
It was, in essence, his personal Major League moment -- and his mother was in Japan to see it live. Chinese manager John McLaren, the longtime MLB coach and manager, still smiles when he thinks about watching Wendy and Ray embrace.
"The hit was a blur," Chang says now. "I would like to say that was the coolest moment, but it all happened so fast. The best part was that my mom was there. My aunt and uncle and their kids had visited from Hong Kong, too.
"I just remember going back to the hotel room afterward. We were exhausted. My mom laid in her bed, and I laid in my bed, and we laid there for about an hour and 15 minutes, just decompressing and talking about everything. She had flown 14 hours to be there, so that was really special."
There's a reason so many Chinese players were overcome with emotion and in tears after the victory: In the context of baseball's growth in China, winning one game to secure a spot in the next World Baseball Classic carries immense significance. China's Classic participation means government funding for the sport and increased awareness among Chinese families; that, in turn, drives youth participation and marketing opportunities.
"After the Classics, when I go back to China and work with the kids, it's always 21 questions for me," says Chang, who also played on the '09 Classic team that defeated Chinese Taipei. "They ask me, 'What was the WBC like?' They start to really fall in love with the game. They want to do what I do -- represent the country and play for Team China.
"The '09 win was crucial. You didn't realize it until a few years later, but that was the biggest win for Chinese baseball. ... With these wins, it puts China on the map, and it gets the government thinking, 'We're pretty good. We have an opportunity to compete.'"
China is in Pool B for this year's Classic, in a round-robin format with Australia, Cuba and Japan. Chang says his goal is to advance out of group play for the first time. He's thought plenty about what that would mean for the future of Chinese baseball -- and those kids in Nanjing.
The Chinese almost certainly would need a monumental upset win over Cuba or Japan in order to achieve that. But we'd probably agree the baseball gods owe a favor -- perhaps a few dozen -- to Chang. The modern-day Moonlight Graham isn't done dreaming yet.
Jon Paul Morosi is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.