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From the Hardcover edition.
I always wondered how difficult it would be to explain to the new baseball fan why a perfect game is so exciting. After all, absolutely nothing happens. It would just get more complicated if the fan suddenly became too clever and asked questions like, "Why do they call it a perfect game if all 27 batters don't strike out on 3 pitches?" And, "How come the pitcher isn't perfect looking?" Fittingly, the perfect season, 1998, had its perfect game and, as fate would have it, the stands were laded with baseball neophytes who were there only for a Beanie-baby giveaway, and the pitcher they saw throw the gem, David "Boomer" Wells, had the bearing of someone in a Saturday afternoon beer league.
It's true that some of the 49,820 people who bought tickets to the Yankee-Twins game at Yankee Stadium on May 17, foolishly dropped their stubs in the gutter, corralled their kids and zoomed off in their minivans after they got their hot collectibles. But I'm sure that those other nonfans who stuck around soon understood that what they were witnessing was out of the ordinary and downright thrilling. Because everybody in the large crowd was yelling themselves hoarse from early in the game, when Wells began to show a complete mastery over the Twins' batters, and everybody was tense as the game neared its conclusion. No-hitters-in-progress are funny in that for no good reason nobody wants to jinx the pitcher by letting him know what he's doing (as if he didn't know). But the cheering was so thunderous — perhaps inspired by the interlopers who didn't know the "no-hitter rules" — that it was obvious that this crowd had no intention of keeping Wells uninformed. They even gave him a standing ovation as he headed to the mound to begin the 9th inning. It's okay, Wells had already relaxed after his pal David Cone teased, "Don't walk anybody." In total control of his pitches and emotions, the lefthander wouldn't walk anybody on this day, going to 3 balls on only 4 batters. Only two pitches were hit hard all day, and none in an easy 9th inning.
In the 9th, Wells retired rookie Jon Shave on a routine fly to right fielder Paul O'Neill, recorded his 11th strikeout against Javier Valentin, and got Pat Meares on another fly to O'Neill, and it was over. As the crowd rocked the stadium, Wells punched his left fist twice toward the ground, and as he was being carried off the field by his jubilant teammates, pumped his hat triumphantly toward the sky (in tribute to his late mother, Eugenia Ann). Wells had pitched only the 13th perfect game in major league history in beating Minnesota 4-0. Moreover, he became the only pitcher in Yankee history to toss a perfect game other than Don Larsen, who, after a night on the town, dominated the Dodgers at the Stadium in the 1956 World Series. those who don't believe that the stars were in the "perfect" alignment should consider that Wells and Larsen both attended Point Loma High School in San Diego and that Joe Torre, as a young spectator and then as the manager, attended both games.
With the rare perfect game, the beefy, tattooed, disheveled, free-spirited advocate of hot music and cool beer — the kind of guy you'd follow around with a coaster at a party — gained eternal respectability in baseball annals. Wells, who has the physical resemblance to his idol Babe Ruth (and once wore Ruth's cap, which he purchased for $35,000, for an inning), also became an instant human metaphor for a perfect season that was full of, but not marred by, imperfections.
Of course, a perfect game equals only one victory, but in Wells' case it resulted in many victories because it turned around his season. He had come into the game with a 5.23 ERA, but from that time forward, he was virtually unbeatable, finishing the season at 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA and then thriving in the postseason. In fact, later in the season he almost threw a second perfect game against the Oakland A's before losing it in the seventh inning! He swore he had better stuff that day than when he did pitch his perfecto. That one game on May 17 told him that he could be a great pitcher. And for the rest of the season he pitched with a confidence that was lacking throughout his entire career. He had complete faith in his four-seam fastball, excellent circle change, and curve; wasn't afraid to pitch inside; and had stupendous control, walking only 29 batters (while striking out 163) in 214 1/3 innings.
Early in 1997, I was telling everyone during broadcasts that the Yankees made a big mistake letting free agent Jimmy Key go after they won the 1996 championship, and then trying to make up for that gaffe by signing Wells, whose record had never equaled his talent over 10 seasons with Toronto, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. I said that I thought the Yankees were just desperate to sign any lefthander after Key's departure. After Key won eight of his first nine starts with the Orioles I was one of the people saying, "I told you so." But apparently George Steinbrenner's "people" told him Key would break down in a couple of years, and that is what happened. (In fact, Key announced his retirement in January 1999). Like everybody else I ate a lot of crow last year as I saw the emergence of a standout pitcher in New York.
Not only did Wells become the Yankees' ace by the end of the season, ahead of 20-game winner David Cone and Andy Pettitte, but this rebellious outsider also assumed a position of leadership on a team that was on its way to the world title and 125 victories. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wryly commented, "Wells' leadership qualities until recently had been limited to buffet lines." Verducci reported that Wells showed his regard for his teammates, Joe Torre and his coaches, and even Yankee front-office personnel by presenting them with specially designed diamond-encrusted rings to commemorate the perfect game. That was a sure-fire way to silence their disapproval for his blaring of music in the clubhouse.
Perhaps Wells hasn't made the full transformation from renegade to responsible citizen, but at least he's made the effort to put the team in front of his own ego. It hasn't been easy for Wells to come around even this far. The most positive influences on Wells have been David Cone and Joe Torre. When Wells was with previous teams every time he'd exhibit some undisciplined behavior, everyone would say, "That's just 'Boomer,'" and shrug it off. As Cone told me, wells likes to test people in authority and if they don't challenge what he is doing, he'll keep doing it. That kind of attitude doesn't fly with the Yankees, particularly with Cone and Torre. I know that Torre has spoken to Wells on several occasions when his pitcher has lapsed into a non-professional mode. Like when Wells looked angrily at his fielders for not catching a long-hanging fly. Or when after being relieved — after a 9-0 lead shrank to 9-7 — he slammed the ball in Torre's hand — you don't show up your boss in front of 40,000 fans. Torre spoke firmly to Wells and he appreciated it. After the first incident he apologized to his teammates. After the second, he apologized to Torre. Two starts later he tossed his perfect game.
Cone says, "That's just Boomer, my ass." He reminded me of the 1997 incident in Miami when Wells came up to bat in the second inning and was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with the National League umpire. Cone confided that he went into the clubhouse and had a toe-to-toe screaming session with Wells about how he had been irresponsible to the team. How did Wells take the stern lecture? That's when he and Cone became friends.
Cone says their friendship is based on their being kindred spirits: "We're both flaky." Unfortunately, usually the word "flaky" is used negatively in sports — only in regard to Bill "Spaceman" Lee and Mark Fidrych has it been used endearingly. But Cone had pride when he used the word to describe himself and Wells. I think flaky can be good. I define flaky as abandon. You have the discipline to not be disciplined. You have the freedom of spirit to let your athletic ability come through. I think Cone impressed upon Wells that it was possible for him as a Yankee to continue to be a free spirit and free thinker and still be an integral team force. He made Wells realize that it was possible to be flaky and professional at the same time. I think Cone and Torre, together, have given new direction to Wells, who had been a rudderless, devil-may-care, R.P. McMurphy character.
The greatest opportunity Wells has to express his freedom of spirit is on the mound. This guy has such abandon in his delivery. You'll notice that when he follows through there's no tautness in his motion. It's free and easy. I remember how Chris Short, the fine Phillies left-hander in the sixties, would come to spring training and throw two or three pitches after being off all winter and be ready to begin the season. I think Wells is the same way. He is able to be a workhorse because he's never going to have a sore arm or torn rotator cuff with that easy style of his. It's almost as if the freedom with which he releases the ball is meant to represent the freedom with which he tries to live his life. It may not be the conventional approach for a major league pitcher, but it sure is refreshing.
|Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa||3|
|Larry Doby and Don Sutton||72|
|Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez||112|
|Cal Ripken, Jr.||142|
|The New York Yankees||170|
|Ken Griffey, Jr.||183|
|The Wild Card||211|
|The American League Division Series||218|
|The National League Division Series||226|
|The American League Championship Series||235|
|The National League Championship Series||246|
|The World Series||256|
Posted April 20, 2010
No text was provided for this review.