Wells Didn’t Do It Well

tspbbAnd the damage was done. It takes a special team chemistry to tolerate the line through the clubhouse that Wells drew with his comments and that Thomas highlighted with his response. While it’s worth noting the convergence between the ill-considered slam on Thomas and some improved White Sox play–after a dreadful 8-18 start, they went 6-3 after Wells went public, as if something finally lit their fire, before going into another tailspin–it just isn’t standard operating procedure for a player to dis a teammate like that.

So Ash, from the remove of Toronto, admits to a sense of relief that Wells, good heart or not, is no longer his problem. “You’ve got to have everybody on the same page, pointing in the same direction,” he says. “And even though you can say, `Oh, that’s just David’ and kind of laugh it off or slough it off, it has maybe an unconscious impact. That’s especially true for younger guys. They say, `He’s been around for a long time. He’s been in the majors for 15 years. He must know.'”

Now, one spring training and a couple of months into his new life in Chicago, it’s possible the White Sox are feeling the urge, even with Wells’ team-leading three victories and 3.97 ERA, to insert another move in his future. Certainly, his past suggests as much.

* At the trading deadline in 1995, the Tigers dealt him to Cincinnati despite a 10-3 record and a 3.04 earned run average.

* In December of that year, the Reds traded him to Baltimore despite a 6-5 record and a 3.59 ERA during his two months with Cincinnati.

* A season later, the Orioles let him go to the Yankees as a free agent. From Baltimore’s perspective, that decision might be regrettable only in hindsight: At 11-14 with a 5.14 ERA for the O’s in ’96, Wells had his only losing season since 1994.

* In March of ’99, the Yankees traded him to Toronto, despite a 34-14 record and a perfect game (vs. Minnesota on May 17, 1998) during his two-year tenure in New York.

* And in January of this year, the Blue Jays sent him packing to Chicago. All he did for Toronto was win 37 games over two seasons, including a 20-8 record and a 4.11 ERA last year, when he also started for the American League in the All-Star Game, led the league in complete games (nine) and finished third in Cy Young voting.

The impulse for the White Sox to deal Wells surely will grow stronger as the trading deadline approaches, especially if Chicago doesn’t shimmy out of the hole into which it played itself the first five weeks of the season.

“I’ll look at every option, if that nightmare should occur,” general manager Ken Williams says. “But it should not be assumed that David will be moved.”

Williams and Wells have known each other since they were teammates in Toronto in the early ’90s. That’s a bond Wells never has enjoyed with a general manager until now, but logic leads to the possibility they’ll be separated again. Could Wells wind up with the Mets? They were interested last winter when the Blue Jays peddled him, and they certainly ought to be interested again if he is back on the block. Al Leiter’s elbow has cost him more than a month of the season, and the Mets, who entered the season expecting to make a run at a return trip to the World Series, are floundering and desperate for help.

Wells made his interest in the Mets known before Toronto completed the trade with the White Sox. Wouldn’t the Mets still be an attractive alternative?

“I don’t want to get traded anymore,” Wells says, sitting in the stands behind the White Sox dugout on a sunny afternoon in Chicago. “I’m happy. I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else. In fact, I’d have picked here if I had my choice between Chicago and the Mets. I don’t like Bobby Valentine. I don’t think it would’ve ever worked with him. I just don’t like the way I’ve seen him treat people. I know a lot of people can’t stand him who played for him. So with my personality and the way I talk and the things he does, it just wouldn’t work.”

What are the chances Wells would get off on the fight foot with the Mets after that? Nonetheless, the teams in playoff contention–including the Mets–surely will leap and nip in pursuit of Wells’ left arm like mongrels at a butcher’s handout if the White Sox dangle him.

Chicago has a $9 million club option on Wells’ contract next season, but he’s more marketable now at 38 years old than he is likely to be in the summer of 2002.

Apart from the waters he roils with his outspokenness, Wells would be invaluable to a contending team looking for a rent-a-pitcher for August and September. Not only can he win–and win often and win without a lot of strain on the bullpen–but he also can be a positive, if not always a diplomatic, influence for any young pitcher willing to pay attention. Last season with the Blue Jays, he pulled closer Billy Koch over during batting practice a day after Koch gave up back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning of an interleague game against the Marlins. The conversation was about mixing pitches, changing speeds, working both sides of the plate and pitching up and down in the zone.

“After that,” Koch says, “I went almost two months without giving up a mn, and I attribute a lot of my success last year just to that talk. It made me see him in a different light. He was a pretty good team player. He had his little `Boomer’ side to him, but it was fine.”

Williams and manager Jerry Manuel certainly don’t object to Wells’ toughening-up bull sessions with 25-year-old Jim Parque and the team’s other young pitchers, although they’d no doubt prefer he keep some of his opinions–his “little Boomer side”–to himself.

Parque struggled early this year and finally went on the disabled list at the start of May after a series of rough outings. He likely won’t pitch again this year. Wells had been talking to him, coaching him, trying to teach him how to be a nine-inning pitcher.

“He’s got a great arm, but I don’t think his mental approach is there,” Wells says, without knowing the extent of Parque’s injury. “He’s always worrying about something because he’s been stereotyped as a five-inning type of guy. He’s trying so hard not to live by those standards, but it isn’t working. He’s living by them. He gets to that phase, and now he’s not worrying about the game anymore. He’s thinking, `God, am I going to get through this?’ He’s got to get over that.

“I’ve talked to him. I’ve talked to him plenty. But does it sink in? Hey, I can only talk. Advice is free. To actually go out and get the job done, that’s up to the individual.”

While the complete game has all but disappeared from the major league landscape, Wells continues to pitch into the late innings with regularity. Three weeks into May, he had more than half again as many innings pitched as any other White Sox starter. A tape of his outing in Detroit on April 19–a complete-game, 3-1 victory in which 81 of the 100 pitches he threw were strikes–ought to be mass-produced and distributed to any young pitcher still nibbling through his first few big-league seasons.

As usual, Wells is among the league leaders in innings pitched. And he does it with, arguably, the worst back in baseball. He must submit to almost-daily chiropractic care, but that’s another way in which he can be a model baseball citizen for a team looking for leadership. Then again, Wells’ back also provides him with a doctor’s note excusing him from lifting sessions and running drills. So as role models go, Wells is a tangle of contradictions: Do as he pitches, not as he works out.

That’s sometimes a difficult distinction for others to make, especially, as Ash points out, younger players. “He’s a role model for me,” says the A’s Barry Zito, whose dyed-blue hair would probably win Wells’ seal of approval for individualism. “I love the way he comes after hitters. You always know he’s going to throw a strike. And I also love his whole thing about not getting caught up in all the off-the-mound crap they want you to do. I mean, it’s good to run and lift and everything, but sometimes guys put way too much importance on that stuff.

“Most guys, the night before they pitch, would stay in their hotel room. He knows he can go out, and he doesn’t care. He’s still got the confidence, and nothing is going to change that.”

The going-out thing … that may be changing. Wells got married during the offseason. To anybody familiar with his image as a connoisseur of the nightlife, that’s a bombshell, but he did it. Which means that maybe, at the age of 38, Wells finally is settling down.

“A lot more than when I was single,” he agrees. “I was pretty wild. But I’ve had my time by now. I don’t need to act like a 22-year-old, 23-year-old anymore. I’ve got responsibilities now, priorities.”

He’s still Boomer Wells, though, still the freest spirit in baseball. It was his idea, for example, to have the portrait accompanying this story taken with him on the Indian Chief motorcycle, lent to him by a Chicago dealership. (His own Chief, as well as his Harley and several other Indians, are back home in San Diego.) In the world according to Wells, there’s the perfect marriage, fight there in that photograph.

So, blissfully wed or not, this is still Boomer, who is quick to note that there’s nothing wrong, even in this phase of life, with dropping in occasionally on one of those adult-beverage establishments where the female employees are known to shed an article of clothing or two (our phrasing, not his). “You know, just to pinch yourself and say, `Yeah, it’s still out there'” (his phrasing, not ours).

Yep, Boomer might be getting in before the dawn’s early light these days, but the bombs are still bursting in air all around him.

Surprised? Shouldn’t be.

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