FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He was not the first choice. That's OK with David Wells. He's glad to take the ball in Yankee Stadium a week from Sunday in what is shaping up as the most-hyped Opening Night in baseball history.
It's got all the ingredients: Red Sox-Yankees . . . Game 8 of the American League Championship Series . . . Randy Johnson's pinstripe debut . . . the Red Sox' first title defense since 1919 . . . ESPN . . . the first episode of "Everybody Hates A-Rod" . . . the release of Johnny Damon's book . . . the Sox going for a fifth straight win against the Yankees . . . dueling T-shirts in the stands.
The only thing missing is Curt Schilling's presence on the mound. There would have been some nice symmetry seeing Schilling take the hill where he bled in October. Big Curt is the proper bookend for the Big Unit. They were, after all, Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year for 2001, when the Diamondbacks dethroned the Yankees. There's even speculation that Randy felt the same way about Curt that Pedro Martinez did.
But there will be no Curt Schilling and so it will be Boomer Wells, all 41 years and 260 pounds of him. Boston is the eighth (and final?) stop on the Boomer Across America tour, and we know he's a guy who likes to pitch in big games.
New York is the place where Boomer became truly famous. It's where he pitched his perfect game and wrote his "Perfect, I'm Not" book and where he owned the front and back pages of the tabloids during his two terms of office with the Steinbrenner AC. So yes, in the absence of Schilling, Boomer Wells is certainly a nice substitution to honor the sheer enormity of this First Night.
"It's a great honor to get the nod for Opening Day," said Wells, who pitched six innings (six runs on 11 hits and one walk, three strikeouts, 79 pitches, 54 strikes) against the Orioles in another tuneup yesterday. "I don't have any problem going out and pitching despite the elements of what's going on. It's going to be crazy. I wasn't part of that rivalry last year, so it's probably easier for me to go in there."
It's oddly circular that Wells would be subbing for Schilling. There are those of us who believe Schilling came to Boston because of Wells in the winter of 2003-04. The Yankees made the first bid to acquire Schilling from Arizona, but New York general manager Brian Cashman was told he'd have to part with Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson in order to get Schilling. Apparently this was Arizona getting even with Steinbrenner. The Diamondbacks had a verbal agreement with Wells before the 2003 season, but he wound up signing with the Yankees instead. Arizona never forgot and made the price too steep for New York when Schilling was shopped. The Sox, meanwhile, got Schilling for a veritable cheese sandwich (Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, Jorge de la Rosa, and Michael Goss).
When the theory was floated by Wells, he smiled and said, "Well, there you go. So I should get a ring. Size 12 ring for me. That'd be great. With Arizona, I was on the verge of going, but at the end they said it was contingent on a physical. That's a lot more flying around and then George [Steinbrenner] out of nowhere came up with a great deal."
In four seasons with the Yankees (1997, '98, 2002, and '03), Wells went 68-28 (.708). Among Yankee pitchers with more than 800 innings, only the immortal Spud Chandler (.717) has a higher winning percentage. Wells knows everything about the fans, the ballpark, the owner, the manager, and the pitching coach. He also knows a thing or two about the rivalry. Wells stuffed the Sox at Fenway in Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS ("I had everything working that day, it was awesome, a redeemer"), then came in for a relief appearance in Game 7 and yielded a homer to David Ortiz just before the managerial meltdown by He Who Must Not Be Named.
"I think it's a shame that Grady Little got the blame that he did," said Wells. "I didn't think it was deserved. If Pedro wanted to come out, he would have told him. Grady got a bad rap on that one."
Regarding his time in New York, Wells said, "I didn't have a problem with anybody until the last part when I felt I didn't get protected by Joe [Torre], and Mel [Stottlemyre, the pitching coach] kind of got on me a little bit about me throwing my bullpens. It was a couple of heated discussions. Nothing major. But you've still got to work together because you're on the same team and you put all the personal stuff aside and you go on."
As for the Boss, Wells said, "George and I are great. He's gonna do what he wants to do. You wonder sometimes why Brian's there because George goes over his head. I feel bad for Brian in some ways. But you never hear the good things about George. He's a gentleman and a scholar in my book.
"I've had my run-ins with a lot of people in New York, but you learn from those things and you just don't hold any grudges. They don't have to like me. I still like them. [Derek] Jeter is a friend. I miss those guys. They're good guys. They're my friends off the field, but they're my enemies on the field now. As for the fans, those fans embraced me like I've never been embraced in my life. Putting this uniform on is not going to sit well with a lot of the fans, but it's a job."
Wells was amazed to see himself on the back pages of the New York tabloids after his introductory remarks in Fort Myers in February.
"I didn't say anything derogatory at all. That's the New York media. We're gluttons for punishment when it comes to the media," he said. "They're going to do everything they can to try to make us look bad. But the strong survive. And to me, doing what I've done for 18 years and proving them wrong, that's gratifying. It makes the writers look stupid. And I'm sure you're guilty as charged (bingo, Boomer). Maybe one of these days the owners, the players, and the media can all get along as one, but I don't see that day coming along soon."
He loves Boston's Idiot Club For Men.
"I tried going back [to New York], but I'm glad I got this uniform on," he said. "It's a thing of beauty over here. You can't get that in New York, but you can get it here and that's why guys are the way they are here. I'm on cloud nine over here. I could have dealt with this for a long time. It's a lot of fun . . . I had a bad day today and guys are cutting up already. Some guys can handle it. I don't know if Kevin Brown can. Coming in here, it's like I've been here 20 years."
Asked about his impression of the Red Sox before he came to Boston, Wells said, "I just saw what they were like on the field -- a lot of [expletive]."
The Orioles roughed him up yesterday, but Wells wasn't bothered.
"To get through it and not feel fatigued at all is a pretty good sign," he said. "I feel I'm mechanically sound. A good outing or a bad outing down here really doesn't matter much to me, as long as I get my pitch count up. I've just got to go out and do what I've been doing for 18 years, and that's be consistent and give my team a chance to win the game. Some guys can handle the big games. I don't have any problem with it."
Sunday, April 3 will be a big game. As big as they come this side of October.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.