Few sports provide the opportunity for perfection. No golfer can score a hole-in-one on all 18 holes. No football team will reach the end zone on every play from scrimmage. No basketball team can knock down every field goal they attempt.
But every time nine players trot to their positions between the white lines in the top of the first, baseball offers a chance at perfection. On any given day, one could stroll up to the stadium, buy a ticket, and see a pitcher and a defense combine to retire all 27 batters they face. To do so requires precise execution, consistency, and more than a little luck.
23 times in baseball’s history have the stars aligned in a way that yielded a perfect game. On May 17th, 1998, David Wells recorded the 15th such game, and the first by a Yankee since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series. Wells, himself never accused of being a perfect man, was a perfect pitcher for at least one day, and he leads off our series of the best Yankees games of the last 25 years.
Date of Game: May 17, 1998
Final Score: Yankees 4, Twins 0
Game MVP: David Wells
David Wells authored an excellent 21-year big league career, one littered with 231 wins, a pair of World Series championships, and plenty of controversy. Entering this Sunday afternoon matinee with the Twins, however, Wells found himself more on the controversial end of his colorful spectrum. He owned a 5.23 ERA on the season, and two starts prior, he failed to make it out of the third inning, allowing seven runs and prompting manager Joe Torre to suggest that Wells was out of shape.
Making matters worse, Wells was, by his own admission in his autobiography “half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover.” If there was ever a recipe for perfection, this, a hungover Wells, in the midst of a poor season, facing off with the Twins in front of a packed house on Beanie Baby day, was not it.
And yet, the game began under an overcast sky, and Wells went to work painting his masterpiece. He induced two lazy flyballs and a soft groundout in the first inning, and a weak grounder, a foul popout, and a strikeout in the second. For as exhausted as he may have been, Wells started well, giving the potent 1998 Yankee lineup the chance to strike first. They obliged when Bernie Williams lofted a double over left fielder Marty Cordova’s head to lead off the bottom of the second, and came around to score after a passed ball and a wild pitch from opposing starter LaTroy Hawkins.
It’s said every perfect game has its one key defensive play, the miraculous web gem that preserves the perfecto and makes everything possible. Wells’ game doesn’t feature that. The closest calls Wells had all game may have come in the third, in fact, as leadoff man Jon Shave was nearly hit by a 1-1 fastball, but ultimately struck out looking. The next batter, Javier Valentin, dangerously ran the count full, but was rung up on a fastball just above the belt. A quality framing job by Jorge Posada just may have turned a walk into a crucial backwards K.
No, Wells didn’t require any good fortune by way of defensive excellence; virtually all of the contact he would allow on this afternoon would be of the non-threatening variety. If anything, Wells’ luck came via off-field machinations. David Ortiz, in his second year and in possession of a .906 OPS on the year, was on the bench, and light-hitting Brent Gates hit second in place of starter Todd Walker, who entered the game hitting .359. The Twins fielded what looked like a getaway-day lineup, and Wells happily carved it up.
The middle innings proceeded at pace, with Wells completely settled in and hitting his stride. He struck out eight of 11 batters at one point, with his massive, looping curveball giving the Twins fits. Wells also showed pinpoint command, in particular befuddling Minnesota with a peculiar mastery of the outside corner. Again and again, Wells went to the outside black against right-handed hitters, and again and again, home plate umpire Tim McClelland obliged with called strikes.
One of the best aspects of any perfect game is the rising tension, as the fans in attendance realize what’s happening and internalize the stakes. As Wells worked through his second flawless run through the order, the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd was fully aware of the weight of the moment. Raucous cheers erupted as Wells fanned Valentin for the second out in the sixth, and Posada put a little extra juice on his throw down to third as Valentin trudged back to the dugout. As Pat Meares’ harmless inning-ending fly to center settled in Williams’ glove, the crowd approached a frenzy.
Part of what makes Wells’ perfecto an even greater game is that his spectacular performance was not just historic, but vital in simply helping the Yankees win a baseball game. Many perfect games and no-hitters occur in blowouts, where the drama of the actual contest has dissipated long before the 27th out is recorded (think Matt Cain’s 10-0 perfect game, or Tyler Gilbert’s 7-0 no-no from last year). Williams added to the Yankee lead with a solo shot in the fourth, but for all his efforts, Wells emerged for the seventh with a narrow 2-0 lead. Wells would pitch for perfection, certainly, but he’d also have to execute just to secure his team a victory.
Both Gates and DH Paul Molitor would run the count full in the seventh, bringing about some nervy payoff pitches. But Gates grounded out, and Wells made certain Hall of Famer Molitor look foolish with another perfectly-placed outside pitch, evading Molitor’s desperate two-strike swing.
The Yankees would tack on a pair of runs in the home half of the seventh, lessening some of the drama regarding the ultimate result of the game as the tension surrounding Wells’ performance skyrocketed. The eighth was the closest Wells came to allowing a hit, when with one out Ron Coomer grounded one to the right side. Exit velocity data doesn’t exist for this game, but we can surmise that this was probably the hardest-hit ball Wells allowed all game, and maybe the only hard-hit ball he dared surrender. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch knocked the scorcher down, and threw to first in time to secure the game’s 23rd out.
Wells induced another measly pop out to end the eighth. By this time, his teammates had long since abandoned speaking with their pitcher. Wells sat on the Yankee bench with plenty of room on either side, the rest of his pinstriped brothers keeping their distance. Legend has it that the only teammate brave enough to risk jinxing Wells was David Cone, with the latter joking that the later innings were the perfect time for Wells to break out his knuckler.
The left-hander disregarded Cone’s advice, and instead navigated the ninth with the same precision he’d shown through the first eight frames. Shave did his best to fight off a few high fastballs and low curves from Wells, but after seven pitches could muster only a weak fly ball, easily corralled by Paul O’Neill in right. Wells then buried Valentin with a devastating 1-2 curve in the dirt, one which the opposing catcher flailed helplessly at, giving Wells his 11th and final strikeout on the day.
With his 120th pitch of the game, Wells fired a fastball up and away to Meares, who lofted one last lazy fly. O’Neill glided under the ball, gratefully claimed it in his glove, and pumped his fist with joy. Wells did the same on the mound, and soon found himself lofted above the shoulders of his teammates, carried off the field in triumph.
Wells’ perfecto stands as perhaps the highlight of one of the greatest team seasons in MLB history. The Yankees’ 4-0 win was their 27th in the previous 32 games, and pushed them forward on through a regular season that would see them tally a 114-48 record. Wells himself would dominate the rest of the way, ending his year 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA and a third-place finish in Cy Young voting. He’d also win all four of his postseason starts, including Game 1 of the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Padres, which would dovetail as Wells’ final game with the team before he was traded to Toronto for Roger Clemens.
There’s little that can beat a perfect game in baseball. It takes the narrative arc and dramatic tension that frames every baseball game, and turns it up to 11. It encapsulates one of the defining aspects of the sport — the idea that so many little things must add up to create something remarkable. In this case, 27 outs recorded in succession added up into David Wells’ finest moment, and one of the greatest games Yankees history has seen.