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Hot Damn Yankee David Wells likes his music loud, his drinks cold, his chin hairy--and, as he showed against the Indians, the ball in his hand when the season's on the line

Oct. 19, 1998
Oct. 19, 1998

Table of Contents
Oct. 19, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Hot Damn Yankee David Wells likes his music loud, his drinks cold, his chin hairy--and, as he showed against the Indians, the ball in his hand when the season's on the line

Late last Friday night in their locker room at Jacobs Field, the
New York Yankees found themselves in a scary position--face to
face with a mysteriously glutinous postgame spread after a
thorough defeat. In addition they had fallen behind the
Cleveland Indians two games to one in the American League
Championship Series. Talk about your gut checks. "Geez, is this
s--- going to get any better?" New York manager Joe Torre
grumbled upon surveying the food.

This is an article from the Oct. 19, 1998 issue

To which jittery first baseman Tino Martinez, to that point
hitless against the Tribe, quickly replied in earnest--if
unnecessary--self-defense, "I'll get better, Skip. I will get
better."

Martinez's nervous confusion was understandable. New York had
led the American League East from April 30 to season's end, had
swept the Texas Rangers in the Division Series and then had won
the Championship Series opener. But suddenly the dreadnought had
hit an iceberg. The heretofore zenlike Yanks were such a wreck
last Friday that Torre called a meeting to persuade his players
to forget about a botched bunt play that had occurred two days
earlier, and that meeting was before Cleveland righty Bartolo
Colon had become just the second pitcher in 189 games to beat
New York without relief help, 4-1. That also was before the
Jacobs Field caterers arrived.

"I don't want to say uptight," Torre said of his players, "but
there was a lot of pressure going on."

What better way to dissipate pressure over the next two days
than to give the ball to a Cuban refugee who knows the real
meaning of the word and to a biker's son who laughs in the face
of it--not to mention in the face of his manager. The Yankees'
two antacid tablets: Orlando Hernandez, whose pitches are as
mystifying as his birth certificate, and David Wells, whose love
for big games is matched only by his love for chocolate.
"There's nothing in the world more gratifying after a good meal
than a couple of bites of a Snickers bar," Wells says.

Hernandez, who pitched into the eighth inning of Game 4, became
only the third rookie in American League Championship Series
history to start a shutout. Then Wells added to his reputation
as the most eccentric ace in baseball. When Torre visited the
mound to remove him from Game 5 with a 5-3 lead and five outs to
go, Wells briefly refused to hand over the baseball. As reliever
Jeff Nelson jogged in from the bullpen, Wells said to Torre,
"Tell Nellie to go back. It's not too late."

Torre, whose game face is usually as expressive as the mugs on
Mount Rushmore, cracked up. "Just go get that round of applause,"
he said, mindful of the hostile Cleveland audience.

A few steps from the dugout, as the crowd booed him in
frustration, a grinning Wells removed his cap and swirled it in
a Stengelesque bit of showmanship. "He was goofy all night,"
Torre said later in high praise of Wells, who, after closer
Mariano Rivera finally nailed down the 5-3 victory, got credit
for his second win of the series, third of this year's playoffs
and seventh in eight career postseason decisions.

Hernandez and Wells combined to allow the Indians three runs over
14 1/3 innings and no hits in eight at bats with runners in
scoring position. Their mastery allowed the Yankees to take a
three-games-to-two lead even though New York had an anemic .198
batting average for the series and had back-to-back hits only
once in 169 plate appearances since the seventh inning of Game 1.
Cleveland had the right pitchers lined up for Game 6 and, if
needed, Game 7 to put another scare in the Yankees: righthanders
Charles Nagy and Colon. In this year's postseason Nagy and Colon
each had a 1.23 ERA, and the Tribe was 4-0 in games they had
started.

If rooting for the Yankees of a generation ago was like rooting
for General Motors, pulling for these Yanks is like cheering for
Microsoft. They're so deep that their bullpen catcher, Dale
Sveum, a backup infielder who was dropped from the roster in
August, is in the first season of a two-year, $1.6 million
contract. They're so deep that their team psychologist, Fran
Pirozzolo, shags balls during batting practice. In their coolly
corporate clubhouse, Wells is the rock-and-roll Yankee--he likes
his music loud, his beverages cold and, in pushing one of owner
George Steinbrenner's rules, his chin bearded.

"He can push anything he wants to right now," Steinbrenner said
after Wells's Game 5 win. "He's more than just a pitcher for us.
He's been a leader on this team."

Wells's leadership qualities until recently had been limited to
buffet lines. Even now he's the rebel who arrived last for the
team photo in September. He cost teammate David Cone a $20 bet
with one of the New York trainers just by showing up for an
optional workout last Thursday. Of course, Wells never actually
worked out. He didn't even change out of his jeans. "Just came in
for some vitamins," he said.

But, at 35, Wells finally has matured as a pitcher. He was so
headstrong in his younger days--unthinkingly pumping fastball
after fastball when he encountered jams and refusing to learn
how to pitch when lacking his good stuff--that the Toronto Blue
Jays released him at 29. As recently as 1996, he had a losing
record (11-14) and the second highest ERA of his career (5.14)
for a Baltimore team that won 88 games and broke the record for
most home runs in a season. Still, the Indians and the Yankees
wanted to sign him after that season. "We always liked his arm,
the fact that he was lefthanded and his competitiveness," says
Cleveland assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd.

One day that winter several Indians executives took Wells and his
agent, Greg Clifton, to a Cleveland restaurant for lunch. Wells
rolled up his right sleeve at the table and showed off the tattoo
on his biceps, a portrait of his son, Brandon, and demonstrated
how he could make Brandon smile by twitching his muscles a
certain way.

He then began a long, profane story that involved his "dropping"
some guy. An elderly, white-haired man strode to the table. "Pull
up a chair, dude," Wells said and continued his story. The man
happened to be Indians owner Richard Jacobs.

"Mr. Jacobs liked it," O'Dowd says. "He liked the fact that there
was no pretense about David. We wanted to sign him. We just
didn't step up with the money that the Yankees did. Of course, we
should have."

Wells signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract, took an
apartment in Manhattan and uniform number 33--doubling the digit
of his hero, Babe Ruth--and, just like that other beefy
lefthander, began enjoying New York by day and by night. He won
a career-high 16 games last year and topped that with 18 this
year, including a perfect game on May 17 at Yankee Stadium,
during which he thought of his mother, Eugenia Ann, between
innings. Eugenia Ann, who ran with motorcycle crowds in San
Diego, had died in January last year. "She had the baseball gods
by the throat that day," Wells says. "I know she did see it. She
had the overhead view."

"Ever since the perfect game, he's raised his expectations of
the kind of pitcher he should be," Torre says. "It's made him
better."

Wells commemorated the perfecto by giving about 40 specially
designed, diamond-encrusted rings to teammates, Torre, coaches,
front-office personnel and even the Yankees' masseur. "Cost me
some serious glue," Wells says. "It was worth every penny." Then
again, he concedes that since the perfect game his money has
almost never been good at restaurants and bars around the Big
Apple. "New York has been very, very good for me," he says.
"I've been overwhelmed by the support. But, you know, I've been
pretty good for New York. I'd call it even."

When Wells beat Cleveland in Game 1, getting all but the last
two outs of a 7-2 victory, he improved his record in the House
That Ruth Built to 30-7. Afterward, Kevin Costner chatted with
him at his locker. Costner is making a movie about an aging
pitcher who reflects on his life while throwing a perfect game
at Yankee Stadium. "It's like he'd tapped my phone, had someone
following me 24/7," Wells says. "I said, 'You're so into my
head.' It was spooky, man. I told him I'd help him any way I
could."

Wells meant it too. As Costner left, Wells called out, "You want
my jock?" Costner politely declined.

The Indians tied the series the next day, breaking a 1-1 tie in
the 12th inning on the now infamous bunt play. After Martinez,
slow to field the bunt by Travis Fryman, shot-put an awkward
changeup to first base; after second baseman Chuck Knoblauch
failed to give Martinez a proper target at the bag and then
argued petulantly for interference after the throw hit Fryman
and as the ball rolled untouched for what seemed like forever on
the infield dirt; after Knoblauch made a poor throw home, just
failing to nail the staggering pinch runner Enrique
Wilson--after all that butchery--the Yankees blamed home plate
umpire Ted Hendry for not ruling Fryman out. "I wouldn't change
anything if I had to do it again," Knoblauch said after the
game. The next day, after discussing the episode with his wife,
Lisa, and Pirozzolo during the flight to Cleveland, he finally
admitted, "I screwed up."

Colon kept the Yankees in a funk in Game 3, during which Manny
Ramirez hit one of four Indians home runs. It was Ramirez's 13th
career postseason dinger, more than anyone except Mickey Mantle
and Reggie Jackson (18 each) and Ruth (15). When asked about
joining the company of Ruth, Ramirez replied, "I don't know.
You'll have to go ask him."

Said Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel, "The guy has no pressure
on him. He doesn't know much about situations. He just likes to
hit. He could be in a jungle naked surrounded by lions and still
hit."

Hernandez brought a similar calm to the mound in Game 4. Working
in a Championship Series is no bigger to him than pitching for
Industriales in a Havana bandbox or against Japan in a world
tournament or, if his story of his escape from Cuba is to be
believed, riding a rickety boat to freedom.

As New York's No. 4 starter, Hernandez hadn't pitched in the
sweep of the Rangers in the Division Series. "He thinks and acts
like a Number 1," Cone says. "He couldn't understand why he
didn't start Game 1 of this series. He thought it was his turn."

After Hernandez restored the Yankees' confidence, Wells restored
their series lead. He overcame a two-run first inning caused, he
said, by pregame hecklers in the bullpen who flustered him with
disparaging comments about his mother. Said Torre, "I'm probably
prouder of this effort than maybe the [five] shutouts or even
the perfect game, because of when it happened, what it meant to
us and how he didn't panic."

Wells's win occurred on the 50th anniversary of Cleveland's last
world championship and, again according to the El Duque legend,
the 29th birthday of Hernandez, whom some baseball people think
may be as old as 32. "I say I am 29, and my birth papers say I
am 29, so I am 29," Hernandez said through an interpreter.

After Game 5 someone wheeled into the New York clubhouse a cart
carrying a large birthday cake topped with candles in the shape
of a 2 and a 9. One by one, feeling much better about themselves
and their clubhouse fare than they had 48 hours earlier, the
Yankees dug in. They were so close to the World Series, they
could taste it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON Unchic and unhittable Wells shut down Cleveland in Games 1 (left) and 5 in typically nip-and-untucked fashion. [David Wells pitching in game]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Wizards of the field The series air was filled with tension--and shortstops, as Jeter (left) and Vizquel took turns doing acrobatics. [Derek Jeter in game] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above--Omar Vizquel and Chuck Knoblauch in game]
"New York has been very, very good for me," Wells says. "But,
you know, I've been very good for New York."