• Sal Maiorana

David Wells, another imperfect man who pitched a perfect game

NEW YORK (May 17, 1998) – If ever anyone could have been forgiven for the act of plagiarism, this would have been the right day for it. A little more than 42 years earlier, sports writer Joe Trimble of the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune penned the perfect description of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, writing, “The imperfect man just pitched a perfect game.” It was such an appropriate characterization of the person and the feat. For Larsen to be the first, and still only, man to pitch a perfect game in a World Series remains one of baseball’s most head-scratching achievements because he would have been one of the last men anyone would have expected to be capable of this. And now, along came David Wells, the Yankees portly portsider who not only attended the same San Diego high school as Larsen, but shared the same passion for partying and driving managers batty as Larsen did back in the Yankees’ heyday in the 1950s. Against the Minnesota Twins on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon in the Bronx with a Beanie Baby promotion swelling the stadium gathering to 49,820, it was 27 up and 27 down for Wells. Another imperfect man had thrown a perfect game, and credit to the manic New York press who resisted the urge to regurgitate Trimble’s iconic verbiage. “This is a dream come true for me,” Wells said after becoming only the 13th pitcher in modern baseball history to throw a perfect game. Beforehand, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had a feeling Wells might have a special day as he watched him go through his pre-game session. “Mel came out of the bullpen and I asked him how it went,” Joe Torre said. “All he said was, ‘Wow.’ That doesn’t normally mean a perfect game or even a win. But it did today. The Boomer was outstanding. That’s something he can take with him wherever he goes.” Wells breezed through the first six innings and as he walked off the mound the crowd was fully aware of what was happening. The fans stood as one to cheer him as he lumbered to the dugout, his teammates superstitiously ignoring him when he arrived. “They were killing me, man,” he recalled with a laugh.

With two outs in the seventh there was a nervous moment when Paul Molitor worked the count to 3-1, but Wells threw a called strike and then whiffed Molitor swinging. Now Wells was starting to get anxious, and that’s when David Cone sidled up to him and muttered out of the side of his mouth, “I think it’s about time you break out the knuckleball.” Wells cracked up and later said, “I can’t tell you how much that helped me.” With the Yankees comfortably ahead, 4-0, all eyes were focused on the perfect game. In the eighth, Derek Jeter bobbled a grounder at short but recovered in time to make the play, and then Ron Coomer roped a shot to second that Chuck Knoblauch knocked down, picked up and threw to first, the toughest out of the game. Alex Ochoa popped out to end the inning. In the ninth, there was a World Series-like atmosphere and the fans never sat down. It took seven pitches to retire Jon Shave on a fly to Paul O’Neill in right. Javier Valentin struck out on four pitches, and that brought Pat Meares to the plate. With his shirt sloppily unbuttoned at the top you could almost see Wells’ heart beating in his burly chest. After Meares fouled off a first-pitch fastball he punched Wells’ 120th delivery into right, a routine fly that O’Neill corralled with ease. The stadium erupted, the Yankees mobbed Wells, and Bernie Williams and Daryl Strawberry performed the difficult chore of hoisting the 240-pounder onto their shoulders for a ride into the Yankee dugout as he pumped his fist in the air. After the game George Steinbrenner’s assistant, Arthur Richman, called Larsen on the phone from the Yankee clubhouse and Larsen and Wells spoke for the first time. “Talking to Don Larsen, that was a great phone call,” Wells said. “And that we went to the same high school, it’s unbelievable. The Lord works in mysterious ways.” George Vecsey of the New York Times also talked to Larsen after the game and Larsen told him, “We’ve never met. I’m sure we will – probably at some bar.” The next day, following a predictable late night of carousing, Wells kept his commitment to play in a charity golf tournament in Wilton, Connecticut hosted by Stottlemyre. At the ninth hole, with reporters following him around which at first annoyed him, Wells chipped in for a birdie, turned to them and his playing partners who were on the green waiting to putt and said, “Pick it up; we’re done here.” It’s amazing no one in his group didn’t run to the local convenience store to get a New York Lotto ticket and have Wells choose the numbers. The man was on a serious roll. After fishing his ball out of the cup, he relented and allowed the media to ask a few questions. “You’ve got to go out and celebrate something like that,” he said of the previous night. When he was asked about the Yankee fan base he said, “When you do something like yesterday, they acknowledge it. That’s what makes it such a great city. I don’t think I’ll ever come down. It’s a nice feeling, it really is. I’m flattered by it all, but there will be a day when I go out and get my butt kicked and they’re going to say, ‘That’s the guy. How could he have done that?’ I’ll probably hear that. That’s the way it goes. I’m just going to enjoy it while I can. You can’t take it away, it’s in the book. That’s something I get to cherish the rest of my life.” After the golf tournament, Wells was transported back to the city for an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. Letterman described Wells’ performance by saying that he went through the Twins lineup like “Clinton goes through interns.” Of Wells’ well-known penchant for drinking, Letterman said the pitcher “celebrated by retiring 27 Heinekens in a row.” Wells then shared with the audience that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had called to say he’d be giving Wells a key to the city. “I told him that was not the right idea,” Wells said. “I’d let all my degenerate friends into the city. I think they’d fit right in.” The imperfect man indeed.

NEXT POST on July 18: Armando Benitez becomes Yankees archenemy No. 1.