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Heavy Duty They said he wouldn't last, but Toronto's large-livin' lefthander, David Wells, has become baseball's most reliable pitcher--and a clubhouse wise man to boot

July 10, 2000
July 10, 2000

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July 10, 2000

Heavy Duty They said he wouldn't last, but Toronto's large-livin' lefthander, David Wells, has become baseball's most reliable pitcher--and a clubhouse wise man to boot

David Wells is fat. Not phat. Fat. He is not a work in progress,
not a lug trying to shed some pounds, not a Weight Watchers
washout. Over the past 13 years, since Wells broke in as a
reliever with the Toronto Blue Jays, players and trainers and
managers and general managers and owners have spent time--too much
time--trying to convince themselves and the rest of the world that
Wells was a fat guy in search of a skinny body. Nothing could be
further from the truth. Wells is a fat guy who is content being
fat, and if he is in search of anything, it is a beer: Coors
Light, in a bottle, please. Everything about Wells is fat. The
three likenesses of family members tattooed on his upper body are
fat. The dark-brown goatee that could comfortably house a family
of six robins is fat. His fingers and toes, his ears and nose,
his forehead and chin(s) are fat. Even his voice sounds fat, the
words spewing forth in a husky tone, with a fleshiness to them.

This is an article from the July 10, 2000 issue Original Layout

Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, a mountain of a man himself,
is one of those who wasted his time. During Wells's first stint
with Toronto, from 1987 through '92, Ash, the assistant G.M. for
four of those years, was part of the effort to whittle away at
the 6'4" Wells, wishfully listed at 225 pounds. What's more, the
Blue Jays condemned the pitcher's other conspicuous
characteristics: his love of Metallica CDs played at ear-melting
volume, a devotion to multiple brews, a sharp tongue and a
Firestarter temper. "We did everything we could to control
Boomer," says Ash, who, fed up with Wells's antics and
inconsistent performance, helped the team reach its decision to
release him in March 1993. "We learned the hard way: The worst
way to control him is to try and control him."

Wells was 7-9 with a 5.40 ERA in his final season as a badgered
Blue Jay. The next year, playing in Detroit for laid-back,
do-what-ya-wanna-do manager Sparky Anderson, Wells became, with
an 11-9 record and 4.19 ERA, one of the Tigers' top starters. Two
seasons later he was an All-Star. Three seasons after that, in
1998, he was the ace of the New York Yankees, throwing a perfect
game, going 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA, winning two Championship Series
games and one more in the World Series, going Manhattan
barhopping with the honeys and kickin' it on Letterman's love
seat. "We made mistakes with Boomer," says Ash. "They won't be
made twice."

That has become Ash's mantra, what with the out-of-nowhere Blue
Jays riding Wells's 14-2 record, 3.41 ERA and league-high four
complete games to the top of the American League East. In fact,
Ash has spent nearly 17 months repeating it, ever since that
awkward day of Feb. 18, 1999, when Toronto traded righthander
Roger Clemens to the Yankees and received young second baseman
Homer Bush, lefthanded reliever Graeme Lloyd and a
Fritos-ingesting Babe Ruth fanatic (now wishfully listed at 235)
who loved to wear pinstripes and who greeted the news of the
trade not with tears or smiles but with a look of disgust.
Shortly after the deal was made, when he was able to contact
Wells, Ash assured the lefthander that times and attitudes had
changed in Toronto, that these were open-minded days for the Blue
Jays. In other words, be the ace of our staff--and consume all the
Coors and Ho Hos you'd like.

"All I ask is that you respect me as a pitcher," Wells says now.
"All the other stuff doesn't mean s---."

It was not supposed to turn out this way, and anyone who argues
otherwise is either a liar or a member of the Homer Bush Society
for the Betterment of the World. The Blue Jays did not want to
trade Clemens. Heck, he was the best pitcher in baseball, the
two-time defending American League Cy Young Award winner.
Unfortunately for Ash, Clemens felt Toronto wasn't trying hard
enough to win. Even more unfortunately for Ash, Clemens was
contractually permitted to demand a trade--and did just that. "I
know what people thought," says Ash. "They thought we had been
robbed. If you go back and read the initial stories, the Yankees
thought they'd pulled one over on us, too. They believed they got
us good."

Ash does not snicker or chuckle, though clearly he could. Lloyd
spent one productive (5-3, 3.63 ERA) season with the Blue Jays
before joining the Montreal Expos as a free agent. (He has not
pitched this season and is on the disabled list with a muscle
tear in his left shoulder.) Bush, who was Chuck Knoblauch's
understudy in New York, bettered his mentor in numerous
categories last year, hitting .320 with 32 stolen bases while
committing only nine errors. Although at week's end he was
batting .192, Bush hasn't hit any elderly women in the seats with
his throws to first base. But the piece de resistance has been
Wells.

Pitching last year with a chronically sore back and for a
chronically mediocre team, Wells went 17-10 and led the American
League in complete games (seven) and innings pitched (231 2/3).
Since the beginning of the 1999 season, his 31 wins are the
second most in baseball, trailing only Boston Red Sox righthander
Pedro Martinez's 32. "More than anybody I know, I love this
game," says the 37-year-old Wells. "I take a lot of pride in what
I do and what we do as a team. People make a big deal out of
success. I feel like you're supposed to succeed. It's what you're
paid for."

"You need people who hate to lose, and he despises losing," says
Toronto manager Jim Fregosi. "Just look at his durability.
Whether he's in pain or not, he wants to pitch."

In New York, this amounts to a catastrophe of the first
magnitude. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that when
he heard Ash's trade offer, "it made my knees buckle." In
Clemens, New York was receiving not only a lock Hall of Famer but
also an unflappable pitcher and workout fanatic with unmatched
intensity. Wells, on the other hand, was a lard butt with a bad
back who, while popular with some teammates and best pals with
Yankees righthander David Cone, had grated on some
upper-management types (though not George Steinbrenner) with his
distaste for physical fitness. Many Yankees view spring training
as vital preparation. Wells, who routinely reports to camp
disguised as a weather balloon, views it as vital wiener-roasting
time. "It's sort of funny how trades are remembered," says Bush.
"Graeme, Boomer and I will always be known as the guys traded for
Roger Clemens, no matter what happens. I don't know how good that
is."

It's good when things go like this: The Yankees, who by Monday
had lost 11 of their last 17 and were 1 1/2 games behind the
Blue Jays, surely would love to have had the Wells of the past 1
1/2 seasons instead of Clemens. In his 45 starts with New York,
Clemens was 19-16 with a 4.57 ERA. Last year, as he struggled
with his confidence and control, many wondered if he was hiding
an injury. This year he spent 15 days on the disabled list with
a strained groin before coming back strong, allowing one run
over seven innings in Sunday's 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil
Rays. Despite that impressive outing, one thing remains certain:
The Rocket's air of invincibility is gone. Meanwhile Wells--the
man the Yankees believed would collapse--had logged 353 innings
as of Monday, fourth most in the majors since the start of last
year. "David's been blessed with good health and a rubber arm,"
says Fregosi. "His durability is vital to us."

The stoic, uninspired Yankees need a loosey goose like Wells,
someone who can laugh at himself, then go out and pitch a
complete-game five-hitter, as he did in Toronto's 5-2 win over
the Devil Rays on June 28. Although Wells is hardly a Yankee
immortal (his 34 wins over two seasons in pinstripes ranks 76th
in team history, one ahead of the legendary Melido Perez), he
looms larger than life in the minds of the Big Apple media and
the team's loyal fans. "Boomer was one of those guys who kept the
team relaxed," says Yankees righty reliever Jeff Nelson. "I
always thought he was a perfect fit for New York. This city
brings surprises every day, and he brought a surprise every day.
He made things fun."

Wells has not made things fun for opposing hitters this year.
After going six innings and getting the decision in the Blue
Jays' 6-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles last Monday, he had
faced 509 batters and walked only 15 for a major-league-leading
1.11 walks per nine innings. Just as impressive, he had started
334 of those batters--a startling 66%--with a strike. "He's had two
games this year when he got hit hard," said Toronto righthander
John Frascatore last Friday. "One time [on April 14] he gave up
six runs to Seattle in the first inning, and I know his back was
killing him. The other time [on May 20] he gave up six to the
White Sox, and I'm sure he was hurt, too."

Unlike Martinez, who can retire batters with the sheer
viciousness of his repertoire, Wells relies on smarts, instinct
and, most of all, location. While his fastball, which used to top
out at 95 mph, usually stays around 90, Wells mixes his pitches
(two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider and an off-the-table
curve) with all the predictability of a slot machine. In that
June 28 game, righthanded-hitting Devil Rays catcher John
Flaherty, Wells's teammate in Detroit, was confounded in four at
bats. In the second inning Flaherty saw multiple curveballs and
grounded out to third. "Naturally," says Flaherty, "I expected
the same my next at bat." Instead, Wells threw Flaherty three
sinking fastballs away, forcing another groundout. "By now," says
Flaherty, "I'm all messed up." In the seventh inning Flaherty
flied out on the first pitch: a curveball. In the ninth Wells
struck him out with a 90-mph outside fastball. "When I caught
David, he didn't have that kind of stuff," says Flaherty. "The
curve--I don't know where it came from, but he commands it
beautifully."

Last February, upon reporting to spring training, Wells ripped
the Blue Jays for having traded outfielder Shawn Green (to the
Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Raul Mondesi) and former Cy
Young winner Pat Hentgen (to the St. Louis Cardinals for lefty
reliever Lance Painter and catcher Alberto Castillo), saying, "We
got crap in both trades" and "I don't see us being too strong."
Since then, he has embraced his new teammates and become--of all
things--a role model. Pitching coach Rick Langford insists that
righty starters Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay,
all 25 or younger, pay special attention when Wells is on the
mound. Recently, when the wives of several teammates were trying
to score tickets to a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show in
Chicago, Wells grabbed the nearest phone, and in a matter of
minutes the deed was done. "I don't know who he knows, but he's
always got connections," says Bush. "Boomer feels good making
other people happy."

Wells says he doesn't care about starting the All-Star Game; "It
doesn't matter," he says, "as long as you're there." Nor does he
take potshots at the Yankees when baited by reporters to comment
on his trade for Clemens. "There are more interesting topics," he
says.

Although Wells is pitching better than ever, next season could be
his last. He's in the first season of a two-year, $16 million
extension, which also contains incentive bonuses and includes a
team option at $7.75 million for 2002. If the club doesn't pick
it up, says Wells, he'll retire as, of all things, a Blue Jay.
Somewhere, Dave Lemanczyk is smiling.

"I don't think Boomer wants to be Orel Hershiser," says Ash,
referring to the 41-year-old righthander whom the Dodgers
recently released after a run of three miserable starts. "He
wants to go out in style. His dream exit would be to pitch a
no-hitter and just keep on walking and never turn back. That's
the Boomer Wells I know."

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON COVER The David Wells Diet Chips, Beer and American League BattersCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR PUFF DADDY A laid-back Wells celebrated his 37th birthday in May with one of his many training aids.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A FAVE OF DAVE'S After blasting Toronto's off-season moves, Wells came around on the acquisition of the speedy Mondesi.

Energy Savers

One reason David Wells's stamina hasn't been an issue in 2000 is
that at week's end, the Blue Jays lefty was the majors' third
most efficient hurler in terms of the number of pitches needed to
retire the side (minimum 100 innings).

PITCHER, TEAM PITCHES PER INNING

1. Gil Heredia, A's 13.2
2. Greg Maddux, Braves 13.6
3. David Wells, Blue Jays 13.9
4. Brian Anderson, Diamondbacks 14.1
5. Terry Mulholland, Braves 14.3
6. Jon Lieber, Cubs 14.4
7. Todd Ritchie, Pirates 14.5
8. Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks 14.6
9. Pedro Martinez, Red Sox 14.6
10. Kevin Brown, Dodgers 14.9

Source: Elias Sports Bureau