FORT MYERS, Fla. Nothing else, with the exception of one suspiciously hazy afternoon of 27 up, 27 down and (in the David Letterman version) 27 Heinekens afterward, ever has approached the beau ideal for the man who owned up to his shortcomings in the title of his autobiography: Perfect Im Not. So why should the ending be any different for David Wells, an all-but accidental tourist in Boston?
Perfect for Wells would have been Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees, taking his phone call in late fall and saying, Sure, Boomer, weve given you two chances and well make it three for the money. Instead, Cashman told him sorry, the Bombers were going with a youth movement, then turned around and signed another 41-year-old lefthander, Randy Johnson. George Steinbrenner, the Boss who once had seen a kindred spirit in Wells, long since had let that soft spot grow hard, especially after Wells left the Yankees hanging in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series by lasting just an inning.
Brian and I always got along very well, said Wells, who in his California dreamin days as a kid making pizza pies by the dozen at Square Pan Pizza in San Diego could not imagine a future any sweeter than one spent in the pinstripes worn by his hero, Babe Ruth.
But he did what he did, and signed Randy. No hard feelings. Thats the decision they made. They obviously didnt want me there, and Im not going to lose sleep over it. Hey, they once got rid of me for Boomer for Roger [Clemens], too. Randy and Roger -- two of the best pitchers ever, for me. I have the utmost respect for Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyre as manager and pitching coach, but they obviously wanted to take Randy over me." An alternative nearly as appealing would have been to remain in San Diego, where the memory of the two women who raised him -- his mom, Attitude Annie, and his grandmother (with the help of Crazy Charlie, Fat Ray, Crunch, and the other Hell's Angels who could make poverty lose its sting) -- was closest at hand.
Wells had gone home a year ago, walking away from a handshake deal with the Yankees when the Padres offered more guaranteed money and a promise that there wouldn't be any weight clauses like the one Wells found so noxious in the Yankees' proposal. San Diego had proven a gentle landing spot, and it was widely assumed that he would return, even when he became eligible for free agency. "Who wouldn't want to stay?" he said. "The park's a dream. Great manager, great team, and the owner, John Moores, is a great guy."
But on their way to striking a new deal, over a plate of tacos the first week of December, Padres general manager Kevin Towers and Wells came to cross purposes. Wells fired agent Gregg Clifton and put his wife, Nina, in charge of negotiations. That seemed to be working out. Towers said he gave the pitcher the guaranteed money he was asking for, and the performance bonuses he wanted. But then the pitcher and his wife insisted that the performance bonuses be front-loaded.
"She came back and said she wanted an extra $250,000," Towers said. "But I had a fallback [in free agent pitcher Woody Williams]. I called Woody and said, `Are you ready?' I called Nina and said, `Nina, we're going in another direction.'
"David called me later and said, `We'll take the offer.' I said, `It's too late, David. It's too late.' "
Checking the record
But if signing with the Sox wasn't the final act Wells had tried to script for himself ("I've always been with the archrivals"), pitching in a park he once opined was best suited for demolition, that doesn't rule out the possibility of a happy ending. Sox fans inclined to seeing Wells as overweight, overbearing, and over-the-top when he was wearing one of the other seven uniforms he has modeled in his career -- Yankees and Blue Jays twice each, Tigers, Reds, Orioles, White Sox, and Padres -- may find him remarkably rehabilitated in the home whites. Especially if his 250-pound frame (give or take 25 pounds) can provide sufficient support for a cranky back that would have sent a lesser man into retirement years ago, and allows him to pitch the way he has for most of his rollicking 18-year career, including the twilight years.
And did we mention that he has a lifetime record of 10-3 in the postseason, and is 44-18 with a 3.64 ERA in his career at Yankee Stadium?
"If his back holds up, he can win 20," said Jim Fregosi, who managed Wells in Toronto, is now a special assistant for the Braves, and said Atlanta had pinpointed Wells as a possibility until the Sox stepped in. "His curveball is very, very good, he throws a little cutter, a sinking fastball, a straight fastball, a changeup that he seldom throws but is very good. He's got simple mechanics, great mechanics, that allow him to throw with such ease.
"He does what he has to do to pitch. He knows how to take care of himself, he knows how to use his pitches, he's got a great feel for the game, and you couldn't ask for a more competitive guy. If you need him to go deep into a game because the bullpen is hurting, he'll do it. I saw him pitch three or four times for San Diego last year, and you couldn't ask for a more competitive guy. When I had him in Toronto, he won 37 games for us in two years. He led the league one year in starts and in complete games. Nothing he does amazes me. He's a much better athlete than you think."
OK, so maybe Fregosi's rave should come with a disclaimer. For one thing, Wells was a much healthier specimen when he pitched for Fregosi's Jays in 1999-2000. For another, Wells in his book gives Fregosi a place of honor, writing of the manager, "He drank. He smoked. He gambled. He got into fistfights. He won ballgames. How cool is that?" A manager like that would be apt to overlook some of the indiscretions that have marked Wells's career:
Pitching his perfect game in 1998 after staying up until 5 a.m. partying with the cast of "Saturday Night Live," then writing about it later, which would cost him a $100,000 fine by the Yankees and a public apology.
Bar fights, including one back home in San Diego, where he'd returned for his mother's funeral, and a bizarre run-in at a 24-hour diner in New York with a 5-foot-6-inch loudmouth who punched him in the mouth, knocking out two teeth, then waved a butter knife at him until police arrived. Wells, who required stitches, was lampooned for the incident, particularly for a semi-coherent 911 tape that wound up in the public venue. The assailant, one Rocco Graziosa, spent 45 days in jail.
Run-ins with bosses, including an episode with former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, in which Wells threw the ball into left field rather than hand it to Gaston, and enough spats with the Yankees, especially an ongoing feud with Torre and Stottlemyre in 2003 that Cashman took to calling Wells "Eli," as in, "E's lying again."
Odd injuries, like the one he sustained in San Diego that sidelined him for three weeks last season, when he said he tripped over a barstool in his kitchen while carrying a glass, needed stitches in his right wrist and left palm, and underwent surgery to repair a tendon in his nonpitching wrist.
Fregosi insists that Wells isn't the renegade he is made out to be.
"You know what?" said Fregosi. "David a lot of times stays pretty much to himself. He's a loner in a lot of ways. He's really not that outgoing a guy. He's really good with kids, his wife's a nice gal.
"You can have a problem with him if you look at some of the stuff he's done and don't accept him for what he is. He's outspoken, a guy who says what's on his mind, and that can be a problem if you let it bother you. Talk long enough to the writers, and he'll say something.
"But if you let him pitch every fifth day and don't let him bother you the other four, you'll be OK."
You don't have to be a fan of Wells's lifestyle to appreciate what he can bring to a team. Even after signing Williams, Towers decided to take another run at Wells, and was told by ownership that he could if he moved other money off the roster.
"But that's where Theo [Epstein] trumped me," Towers said. "Theo gave David 48 hours to take Boston's offer. I couldn't move the players I needed to move in just two days.
"We would have loved to have had him back. He fit in well. His teammates loved him, the coaching staff loved him. He's the `Boomer.' You'd walk into the clubhouse and he'd be eating pizza and charting pitches.
"He exceeded our expectations. Coming off back surgery [after 2003], it was a gamble on our part to sign him. When he walked off the mound in the 2003 World Series, it looked like he'd never pitch again. That's why we structured the contract the way we did, with low guaranteed money [$1.25 million base], and then brought him into spring training to see if he was healthy.
"He gave us tremendous experience as a big-game pitcher, gave our organization a little swagger that you needed. There was something about him that reminded me of Rickey Henderson when you walked by the Boomer. He was bigger than life at times."
Wells made 31 starts for the Padres last season, pitching 195 2/3 innings. He was 12-8 with a 3.73 ERA, his lowest ERA since he went 18-4, 3.49, for the Yankees in 1998. He walked just 20 batters, and his average of fewer than a walk per nine innings (.92) matched Jon Lieber of the Yankees for lowest in the major leagues among ERA qualifiers.
"His record was not indicative of the job he did," Towers said. "We gave him horrible run support, especially early in the year. It would have been nice to have him stay with the ball club, since he had played on world championship teams, and that type of confidence rubs off on other guys. Big-game pitcher? Look what he did in Boston and New York on our road trip last season, gave us 13 scoreless innings, and he wanted to pitch in both places, places where other guys would rather avoid."
New Sox outfielder Jay Payton, who was with Wells in San Diego last season, said, "He's about as competitive as they come. He's going to give you everything he's got. He's never going to give you an excuse. He's one of those guys that, when he's on the hill, you know that you have a chance to win in all but one or two of his 30 starts.
"The reputation? On some level, he's not 26, 27, 28 anymore. I'm sure he's changed his ways a little bit. But he fit in great with the Padres, working with the young guys. They learned a lot from him. He had a great year last year."
Holding it together
For years, Wells has needed cortisone shots in his back and painkillers in order to pitch.
"Without cortisone," he wrote, "I'd have long ago become a bent-over retiree, scouring Tampa Bay in search of early-bird dinner specials."
He had surgery on his lower back in 2001, and a similar arthroscopic procedure in the same area following the 2003 season, one in which debris was removed around a couple of disks in the lumbar region. When he came out of that Series game in 2003, the pain was so bad that he couldn't bend over and touch his knees.
"They cut open the same adhesion and went right back in there," Wells said after the second surgery. "You can only do so much to the body until it says, `No more.' "
And yet here he is, bearing down on his 42d birthday (May 20), pitching for his eighth team, not yet ready to fly off into the sunset (he shares ownership of a jet with Kirk Gibson, a former teammate on the Tigers and a great friend).
"He'll do well in Boston," Towers said. "I told Theo, `You got a guy who at times will look like he'll never make it to the rubber. Everything hurts on the guy. Every day it's something else. But by God, every fifth day he straps it on and gives you a good six innings. He won't take you to the seventh or eighth too many times, but he'll be good for a strong six.' "
Happy ending? He's still pitching, isn't he? "As many shots as I've had in my back and the surgeries, and I'm still out there, yeah, I guess I'm a little surprised," Wells said. "But I'm still a competitor. I keep saying I'm going to retire, but if I keep getting a chance to win, I've got to take it."