Overweight and often controversial, David Wells hardly fit anyone's ideal of perfection, as he himself would later concede with the title of his autobiography. Nonetheless, on May 17, 1998 — 15 years ago on Friday — while pitching for the Yankees, Wells reached the pinnacle of his 21-year major league career by retiring all 27 Twins he faced, completing the 15th perfect game in major league history.
To view the entire game, see below:
The sterling performance came three days before Wells' 35th birthday and early in his 12th major league season. The portly portsider had bounced from the Blue Jays to the Tigers, Reds and Orioles before coming to the Bronx as a free agent prior to the 1997 season; a favorite of owner George Steinbrenner, he was the consolation prize after New York failed to sign Roger Clemens. "He goes out there thinking, Ruth played here. DiMaggio played here. He understands Yankee tradition. That’s hard to say about a guy who looks like a beer-league softball player," Steinbrenner told Sports Illustrated late in Wells' first season in New York.
After winning their first World Series 18 years in 1996, the 1997 Yankees had fallen short, but the 1998 squad approached the season with a clear sense of purpose. After starting 1-4, they had stormed to a 27-9 mark coming into their Sunday matchup with the Twins in the Bronx.
Despite their championship focus, Wells approached the game against the lowly Twins — 18-23 at the time, headed towards their sixth straight losing season and still years away from returning to respectability — with something less than professionalism. Though 4-1 at the time thanks to strong run support, he carried a 5.23 ERA into the game; two starts earlier, manager Joe Torre had pulled him in the third inning and complained that he was out of shape, remarks that led to a sitdown between the two and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
Though he threw eight strong innings and struck out nine against the Royals in his next start, the lesson may not have entirely taken. In his 2003 autobiography Perfect, I'm Not, Wells conceded that he pitched his gem "half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover," having gone to bed at 5 a.m. and gotten just an hour of sleep. By contrast, the Sunday Yankee Stadium crowd of 49,820 was full of children thanks to a Beanie Baby promotion.
Despite his condition, Wells showed great stuff in his warm up, according to Stottlemyre. His cause was helped by a Twins lineup that was bound to finish 11th in the league in scoring and second-to-last in slugging percentage. As a lefthander, Wells was spared the presence of the team's hottest hitter, lefty-swinging second baseman Todd Walker, who was hitting .359/.391/.521 thanks to manager Tom Kelly's platooning. Instead, weak-hitting Brent Gates played second, and in Kelly's imaginative lineup, batted second as well. Also missing in action was a big first baseman named David Ortiz, who had gone on the disabled list a week earlier due to a broken hamate; he was hitting .306/.375/.531, leading the team in slugging percentage — a problem the Twins would spend the next five seasons trying to correct by making him a singles hitter. "You want me to hit like a little bitch, then I will," he famously said of the prevailing attitude towards his big swing.
Thus, here was the lineup Wells faced, with their stats leading into that day:
|Matt Lawton, CF||162||.244||.370||.444|
|Brent Gates, 2B||72||.129||.236||.194|
|Paul Molitor, DH||175||.255||.320||.325|
|Marty Cordova, LF||100||.256||.350||.337|
|Ron Coomer, 1B||160||.269||.287||.455|
|Alex Ochoa, RF||84||.253||.298||.405|
|Jon Shave, 3B||11||.182||.182||.182|
|Javier Valentin, C||50||.234||.260||.404|
|Pat Meares, SS||149||.296||.338||.444|
Wells cut through the lineup quickly, needing just nine pitches in the first inning and 13 in the second. He struck out the side in the third with a game-high 19-pitch inning, taking advantage of home plate umpire Tim McClelland's high strike zone. By the fifth inning, the crowd had caught onto what was in progress, standing and cheering when Wells went to two strikes on Coomer and struck him out with a curve. He followed that by starting the sixth with a pair of strikeouts and then an easy fly ball.
Despite Wells' dominance, the game was still a tight one at that point. The Yankees led 2-0 thanks to Bernie Wiliams, who hit a leadoff double in the second against Twins starter LaTroy Hawkins (incidentally, the only player in the game besides Derek Jeter who's still active), took third on a passed ball and scored on a wild pitch. Williams hit a solo homer in his next trip to the plate in the fourth.
With Wells pounding the strike zone, the Twins remained restless, failing to extend him beyond 15 pitches in any inning after the third. They came close to breaking up the perfect game in the seventh, but Tino Martinez beat Gates to first base after fielding a hot grounder, and Wells came back from a 3-1 count to strike out Molitor, by then 41 years old and with well over 3,000 hits under his belt, but in his final major league season.
Once they realized what was in progress, Wells' teammates shunned him on the bench, wary of jinxing his performance. Catcher Jorge Posada eluded him, and Darryl Strawberry got up and walked away when Wells sat down next to him. It was left to David Cone — who would throw a perfect game of his own the following summer — to provide Wells with some relief. ''I think it's time 'to break out the knuckleball," he deadpanned as the Yankees added two more runs in the seventh via a Williams double, a Strawberry triple and a Chad Curtis single.
With one out in the eighth, Coomer hit a groundball up the middle — the closest thing to a hit the Twins got all day — but second baseman Chuck Knoblauch fielded it and made the play. Shaking with the weight of his potential accomplishment in the ninth as the raucous crowd cheered him on, Wells induced Shave to fly out, whiffed Valentin on a curve — his 11th strikeout of the game — and got Meares to pop harmlessly to rightfield, where Paul O'Neill secured the final out.
Arms aloft, Wells hopped in the air triumphantly, and was soon carried off the field by his teammates. He went on to finish the season 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA and the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 5.6, a performance that earned him All-Star honors and third place in the Cy Young voting behind Clemens and Pedro Martinez (Cone, who went 20-7 with a 3.96 ERA, was fourth).
The Yankees stormed to 114 wins that year, the highest total in American League history at the time, and won the AL East by 22 games. They rolled through the playoffs, with Wells winning each of his four starts, including Game 1 of the World Series against the Padres, kicking off a sweep. Alas, that would be the last game Wells pitched for the Yankees for a few years. Nervous about his hard partying and his conditioning, the Yankees traded him to the Blue Jays just as pitchers and catchers reported to camp in a deal that finally gave the Yankees Clemens, whom Steinbrenner still coveted. Despite his questionable conditioning and his penchant for controversy, Wells' ability to pound the strike zone relentlessly and his reputation for rising to the occasion would help him stick around the major league scene through 2007, including a return engagement with the Yankees in 2002-03. He finished with a career total of 239 regular season wins, plus another 10 in the postseason — none bigger than his perfect game.