NEW YORK -- He was front and center in Yankee Stadium, just the way he loves it, uniform jersey unbuttoned, his belt line disappearing under his belly, the number of his hero, Babe Ruth, decorating his back, while George Steinbrenner, the owner who spent so much time fighting him or hugging him, watched from some unseen vantage point behind home plate, no doubt disapproving of the beard that adorned David Wells's chin.
Boomer was back in the Bronx last night, and it seemed as if nothing could spoil the moment for Wells, even if New Yorkers who once adored him yelled out only the first syllable of his nickname in greeting last night because he was pitching for the despised Red Sox.
But then the game began, and by the time it was over, a 9-2 Sox loss to the Yankees, it was clear from Wells's body language, slumped in his chair in front of his cubicle in the visitors' clubhouse, that this was not a game destined to have a long shelf life in his memory bank.
"It was a big game," he said, when someone tried to pass it off as just another regular-season game. "First game of the season. I knew what I was up against. Just a bad night."
Wells's night was over one out into the fifth inning, with the Yankees ahead, 4-1, and only more bad things ahead for his teammates. By that time, he'd already given up 10 hits, matching the most he gave up in a game all last season, hit Jason Giambi twice with pitches, the first time when Giambi made no attempt to remove his elbow from the strike zone, and balked home a run. "I thought I saw a different finger," Wells said, when attempting to explain why he stepped off the mound after he'd already begun his windup.
The balk came after Wells visibly reacted to the inability of new shortstop Edgar Renteria to get an out on Jorge Posada's roller into the hole, the ball refusing to stick in Renteria's glove as he attempted to backhand it. That play, which came after Hideki Matsui's two-out RBI single made it 3-1, clearly did nothing to improve Wells's humor, which turned darker when he hit Giambi and worse still when he mistook Jason Varitek's sign for something else and balked home a fourth run.
On a night that he was the first Sox pitcher to start an opener since Pedro Martinez landed in Boston in 1998, Boomer was a bust, on a night that none of his teammates would care to remember.
"It is," he said, "what it is."
The plainclothes cop standing outside the players' parking lot yesterday afternoon, the one who apologetically said he couldn't give his name, said he didn't doubt for a moment that Yankee fans retained a soft spot in their hearts for Wells.
"David Wells, when he was here, was a normal guy," the cop said. "He liked cops. He used to come into the cops' locker room to visit us, sign some autographs.
"The year he threw his perfect game, 1998? A couple of months later, it was on a Monday when the Yankees didn't travel, he was here with a couple of his boys from California. So he was hanging around, his boys were playing with Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams in a room downstairs, they were playing guitars and drums. And some of us cops, we always wanted to hit against David Wells, so he took us in the Columbus Room, which is where they hit inside, and he took us into the batting cages.
"He must have thrown us 100 pitches. We were saying, `Wouldn't it be funny if we hit David Wells with a [expletive] line drive?'
"We brought in a couple of six packs, and he had a couple of beers, too. A couple of nights later, he pitched against the Oakland A's, and he had another perfect game going, got 20 in a row before [Jason] Giambi, who was playing with the A's then, hit a nubber to break it up.
"David Wells, he was a good guy to be around. They'll love him in Boston."
His buddy, an off-duty cop, interrupted. "You know, Wells was busting A-Rod earlier in the spring that he didn't have a ring, and he needed to earn his way onto the Yankees. Well, tell David he got his ring, but he owes us another one, too."
He was referring to the last game Wells pitched in a Yankees uniform, the pivotal Game 5 of the 2003 World Series against the Florida Marlins, with the series tied at two games apiece. The Yankees gave Wells a 1-0 lead in the the top of the first, but Wells, in obvious distress, threw just eight pitches. That's all he needed to get out of the first inning, but he was done for the night. Back spasms had struck with a vengeance, leaving Wells doubled up in pain in the clubhouse.
The Yankees were beaten that night, and were eliminated back at home in Game 6. Wells heard a good bit of grumbling in the aftermath of that defeat, having invited some resentment the day before he was hurt with some remarks dismissive about the necessity of staying in shape.
"It just goes to show you," he had said, joking about enjoying longevity similar to workout freaks Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Nolan Ryan, "you don't have to bust your butt to be successful. I'll leave the working and conditioning to them. They can write a book and do videos. I'll write this one: `How Not to Work out.' "
That's not the kind of comment that elicits sympathy, even if the only reason Wells had lasted into autumn was by taking an epidural in August and regular cortisone shots in September. The Yankees declined to exercise his 2004 option, and when they insisted on a weight clause in a revised offer, he bolted for San Diego.
After a second operation to repair a herniated disk, Wells showed up 30 pounds lighter in Padres camp and enjoyed a relatively painfree season last year, which led to last night, when at 41 years and 316 days, he became the oldest pitcher ever to start on Opening Day for the Sox. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said the Sox were satisfied with the medical reports at the time they signed him to a contract loaded with performance incentives for Wells to stay healthy.
Sox reliever Mike Timlin was Wells's teammate in Toronto, 13 years ago. "I've known Boomer pretty much his whole professional career," Timlin said. "We used to work out in the offseason together. Man, he used to work hard. He works hard now.
"He's just a large guy."
Much of Wells's conditioning work this spring took place out of sight. He worked out back at the golf resort in which he was staying, with his personal trainer, Scott Yeckenevich.
Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat, the long-time pitcher, said Wells reminds him of another jumbo-sized lefthander, Mickey Lolich, who made World Series history when he beat the Cardinals three times in 1968, including Bob Gibson in the rubber game.
"They used to get on Lolich about his weight, too," Kaat said, "but all those guys who worried so much about sculpting their bodies would have been better off building up their arm strength, like Lolich and Wells did."