Name: David Wells
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: May 20, 1963 (Torrance, CA)
Yankee Years: 1997-98, 2002-03
Primary number: 33
Yankee statistics: 68-28, 3.90 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 123 GS, 851 2/3 IP, 557 K, 19 CG, 9 SHO, 87 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 17.1 rWAR, 17.1 fWAR
There have been few players in Yankees history quite like David Wells. The dynasty Yankees of the late '90s and 2000s were often accused of not having much personality, but when Wells in the clubhouse, he more than made up for it. Without talent though, he'd just be an eccentric who struggled to play a few years in Major League Baseball, let alone 21. Although "Boomer" was only on the Yankees for four years, his talent and charisma captivated crowds, won countless fans, and most importantly, helped the Yankees win the World Series in the greatest season they ever had.
Born to a single-parent home on May 20, 1963, Wells was raised by his mother, who was a good friend of the infamous "Hells Angels" biker gang. She was named Eugenia Ann Wells, but she was known to them as "Attitude Annie." Wells never met his actual father until he was 22, so it was up to his mother and her friends to guide him through his younger years. Amusingly, the Hells Angels would come to some of his Little League games and give him money whenever he when he posted high strikeout totals or earned the victory.
Although disciplining Wells was difficult (high school administrators called him a "sky-larking rebel"), Wells's natural abilities easily carried him to elite status on his baseball team at Point Loma High School in San Diego. During his senior year, he threw a no-hitter, guided his team to its only championship in school history, and was named the conference Player of the Year. Scouts fell in love with his delivery, and even though his school had only produced five major leaguers in its history, Wells was selected by the Blue Jays 30th overall in the 1982 Draft, the second pick of the second round. Only three lefties were taken ahead of him, and none of them even came close to panning out.
It's easy to remember Wells as a big man who didn't always appear in the best of shape, but just like his hero Babe Ruth, that was definitely not how he looked when he entered baseball. Wells was 6'3", 175 pounds when he was drafted, and his agility and flexibility managed to stay with him even as he got bigger. The minors were not kind to him at first. Immediately after being drafted, he was sent far away from sunny southern California to Toronto's rookie ball club in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Wells struggled with a 5.18 ERA and a 1.601 WHIP in 12 starts, and while he rebounded over the next couple years in higher levels, he began to develop elbow problems. He missed all of the 1985 season with Tommy John surgery.
When he returned from injury in '86, Wells was used half in relief, half in the rotation. His coaches still had problems reeling him in, as he ate and drank too much and didn't maintain proper exercise, even when the staff watched him. Regardless, he pitched well enough with Triple-A Syracuse in '87 to earn his first call-up to the majors in late June at age 24. Wells was clobbered by his future club, the Yankees, in his first start, who scored four runs on nine hits in just four innings. A similar shellacking at the hand of the Royals three days later sent him back to the minors until September. Wells did not make another big league start for two and a half years.
For the most part, Wells did remain in the majors. He finished the '87 campaign with a 1.50 ERA out of the bullpen in September as the Blue Jays narrowly fell to the Tigers for the AL East title. That season was followed by a shaky year of replacement-level relief in '88, but in '89, Wells pitched far better with a 2.40 ERA, 2.68 FIP and an 8.1 K/9. His big curveball was already becoming a menace to opposing hitters.
Now managed by Cito Gaston in Toronto, Wells was used in more of a swing-man role for the next three seasons. For the first two years, the results were strong, as he pitched to a 121 ERA+ while notching 7.4 WAR and giving the Blue Jays an incredibly deep rotation. It was so strong that Gaston left Wells off late in the '91 season as Toronto secured the AL East crown. Toronto lost the ALCS to the Twins, but Wells was superb, allowing just two runs in 7 2/3 innings over four games.
The next few years were an up-and-down rollercoaster ride, as Wells was part of the Blue Jays' 1992 World Series-winning team and threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief against the Braves in four games. However, that was the only positive of the '92 campaign for Wells. He pitched poorly with an ugly 5.40 ERA in 41 games (14 starts), and after one start, he was so furious at Gaston for removing him that when his skipper reached for the ball, Wells fired it into the stands and stormed off the mound. It's kind of amazing that Gaston even allowed him on the World Series roster. By the end of spring training in '93, the Blue Jays were so fed up with him that they allowed a 29-year-old lefty with serious potential to simply walk away.
Toronto cut him, and three days later, Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson seized on the opportunity by snatching him up for the Tigers. Perplexed by how to get the best out of the hard-living starter, Anderson made a compromise with Wells. He could have his parties three days out of five, but on the day before his start and gameday, he had to focus. With all things considered, the strategy worked pretty damn well--Wells recorded a 122 ERA+ and a nice 1.211 WHIP during his two and a half years with the Tigers. He was named to the first of three All-Star teams for his performance in '95. In the middle of an awful season that year, Detroit saw little reason in keeping the talented lefty around, so they dealt him at the trade deadline to Sparky's old club, the Reds, in exchange for a package led by current Fox Sports 1 analyst C.J. Nitkowski.
Acquiring Wells paid dividends for the Reds immediately, as in his first stint of National League ball, he provided a boost to Cincinnati's rotation, pitching to a 3.59 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 11 starts down the stretch. The Reds won the NL Central, and in his first career playoff start, Wells was excellent. Cincinnati swept away the Dodgers, clinching it when Wells outpitched rookie sensation Hideo Nomo in Game 3 with 6 1/3 scoreless frames. Although the Reds were swept themselves by the eventual champions Braves in the 1995 NLCS, Wells made a serious impression on his manager Davey Johnson. Like most skippers, Johnson found Wells to be frustrating, but could not deny the talent he had on his arm. So when Johnson was hired by the Orioles in '96 after being let go by Reds owner Marge Schott for living with his fiancee (seriously), he encouraged Baltimore to bring Wells aboard.
So with one year to go until free agency, Wells joined his fourth team in five years. Although the Orioles did win the AL Wild Card in '96, acquiring Wells was not exactly a huge success. Despite eating up a then-career best 224 1/3 innings, he posted a roughly league-average ERA, suffered from gout, skipped taking his medicine to party in Chicago, and caused a huge headache for Johnson and O's management. He did win two of his three playoff starts (including the only ALCS victory Baltimore recorded against the Yankees), but needless to say, the O's did not shed a tear when they parted ways with Wells in free agency.
Then, Wells's life changed when he learned something during the 1996-97 off-season: George Steinbrenner wanted him.
City life and a championship
"The Boss" really enjoyed Wells's pitching whenever he came to Yankee Stadium, and given his 2.94 ERA there to that point, it's hard to blame him. More importantly, the Yankees needed a new starter with veteran lefty Jimmy Key signing with the Orioles. So with great encouragement from Steinbrenner, GM Bob Watson signed Wells to a three-year, $13.5 million contract. Wells openly gushed about the Yankees' storied history, and he made his love of Babe Ruth no secret. He even wore a vintage Ruth 1934 Yankees hat in one start, much to the chagrin of manager Joe Torre.
Like many Wells seasons, that first year in '97 was a topsy-turvy campaign. He broke his hand in a fight outside a San Diego bar before even reporting for spring training, during which he suffered from gout again. Torre was frustrated by Wells' suspect training habits and by his love for the New York night life. In one game where the team needed Wells to pitch deep into the game to relieve a weary bullpen, he was ejected early for calling an umpire "horseshit" multiple times, causing both Torre and team leader David Cone to nearly come to blows with him. Eventually, Cone made his peace with Wells and they became legendary friends deserving of a sitcom, but it was tense at the time.
There were certainly highlights though, including a 16-strikeout, three-hit shutout against the A's in late July, the second-highest single-game strikeout total by any Yankee in franchise history. For all the off-field trouble, Wells was fine on the mound, pitching 218 innings of 107 ERA+ ball, good for 4.3 WAR. The defending champion Yankees topped their '96 total with 96 wins, but they had to settle for the Wild Card behind Boomer's old team, the Orioles. Wells was focused in his Game 3 ALDS start against the Indians, twirling a complete game five-hitter and giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the series. They could not win either of the next two games in Cleveland though, so the Yankees did not repeat in '97.
For as promising as he ended '97, Wells began '98 in awful shape. He had a 5.77 ERA through his first seven starts, capped by a May 6th stinker in Texas when he lasted only 2 2/3 innings and Torre publicly questioned whether or not he was in shape. Cone encouraged Wells to air out his anger at Torre directly to him rather than going through the press, and the two men made their peace. The tension was certainly eased in his next start, when Wells beat the Royals with eight innings of two-run ball. The one after that on May 17th against the Twins was simply perfect:
Wells had everything working that day, and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre could only marvel at his crisp action in the pregame bullpen. It was the Yankees' first perfecto in 32 years, when another Point Loma High School grad named Don Larsen turned the trick in the '56 World Series--Not a bad high school history.
The perfect game set the tone for the rest of the season, as Wells dazzled with an All-Star season that saw him finish third in Cy Young Award voting behind only two legends: Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. The '98 Yankees were also a nearly-perfect group, winning a franchise record (and then-AL record) 114 games and the AL East crown. They won the World Series that year with an 11-2 postseason, and Wells was key to the title. He won both of his starts in the ALCS against the Indians, earning the series MVP with a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings. The Yankees swept the Padres to complete their quest for a 24th title and earning Wells and even more secure place in Yankees' fans hearts.
However, Wells's World Series start would be his last one in pinstripes for four years. On the very first day of spring training in 1999, he was traded back to his original team, the Blue Jays, in a deal that brought the dominant Clemens to New York. Wells was heartbroken, but he used his frustrations to propel him to two of the best seasons of his career. The workhorse led all AL pitchers in '99 with 231 2/3 innings and seven shutouts, then so impressed Torre that he was named the AL starter in the 2000 All-Star Game in Atlanta. Wells again finished third in Cy Young Award voting that year thanks to a season that saw him win a voter-pleasing 20 games but also earn 4.8 WAR.
Wells went to the White Sox in a trade prior to the '01 season, but it quickly devolved into a mess when he was forced to undergo back surgery after 16 disappointing starts. In the off-season, he was a free agent again and came to an oral agreement to join the defending champion Diamondbacks. However, Steinbrenner wanted him back, so at lunch in Florida, Steinbrenner spontaneously offered him a two-year, $6.5 million contract with a no-trade clause. Arizona was only going to give him a one-year deal, so Wells happily reneged on his agreement and instead came back to the Yankees.
Torre was irked to have to deal with Wells once more, but again, Wells rose to the occasion despite controversy. Over the next two years, the Yankees won 204 games with one of the most formidable rotations in baseball: Wells, Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina. Even as he passed his 40th birthday, Wells continued to both pitch and live large. He pitched to a 112 ERA+ with a microscopic 1.4 BB/9 and impressed fans of traditional stats with a 34-14 record while also accruing 8.0 WAR. However, he also brought controversy by lying to Torre about when exactly he had his teeth punched out in a New York nightclub (it was closer to 6am than 1am), and he wrote a controversial autobiography that criticized Torre, teammates, and more.
Nonetheless, the Yankees won a pair of division titles and the 2003 AL pennant. Wells's Yankees career came to an ignominious end in the 2003 World Series when his back tightened up in the crucial Game 5, forcing him to depart after just one inning. The Yankees were doomed in that game and they didn't win another in the series, as the Marlins prevailed in six.
Wells and the Yankees parted ways after the season, and Wells ended up pitching another four seasons in the big leagues. He played a part on two more playoff teams (the Wild Card Red Sox in '05 and the NL West-winning Padres in '06) while impressively accumulating over 20 seasons in the major leagues. Even for lefties, it takes a hell of a lot of talent to last that long in the majors, and Wells continued to pitch at least league average through his 44th birthday. That's amazing.
Here's to you, Boomer. You had an amazing career, and Yankees fans will never forget you. Any athlete who's popular enough to appear on Saturday Night Live on multiple occasions certainly has to be doing something to win the New York City's fans over, and Wells more than met that goal. Cheers.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
Andrew's rank: 77
Tanya's rank: 78
Community rank: 67
WAR rank: 78
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Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.
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