O's Wells smoothing an image Growing up: Long known as a free spirit, pitcher David Wells is showing maturity as he is reunited with Orioles GM Pat Gillick.

February 18, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It has been nearly three years since David Wells stalked angrily out of the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training facility, since manager Cito Gaston gave up on him and general manager Pat Gillick gave him his unconditional release just days before the start of the 1993 season.

It has been three years -- certainly an adequate cooling-off period -- and yet it still was strange to see Wells walk through the Orioles' spring clubhouse Friday and stop to exchange small talk with his new general manager, who happens to be Pat Gillick.

The baseball world has taken another odd turn, bringing Wells and Gillick back together for another shot at baseball's biggest prize. The man who was considered so expendable in 1993 is expected to play an important role in the Orioles' attempt to reach the postseason for the first time in 13 years.

Gillick doesn't see the irony, only the difference between the old David Wells and the new one.

The old David Wells once refused to give up the ball when Gaston came out to remove him from a game. Instead, he threw it down the left-field line in a much-publicized fit of temper that colored the rest of his Blue Jays career. The new David Wells took the ball in the postseason last year and won the decisive game of the National League divisional series.

The old David Wells might have gotten a Harley Davidson logo tattooed on his right biceps.

The new David Wells sports a conspicuous tattoo, but it is a finely drawn portrait of his son, Brandon.

"I think most people change along the way," Gillick said. "I think David has matured a lot since Toronto. I think David has found himself. He's still a free spirit . . . but he's been married [and divorced] since then. He has a son that he's devoted to. He's more focused. I'm very confident that David will have a good year here."

Wells, 32, is coming off the best season of his career. He went 10-3 in a half-season with the Detroit Tigers, then was traded to Cincinnati, where he won six games down the stretch for the playoff-bound Reds.

He defeated Hideo Nomo in Game 3 of the divisional series and carried a shutout into the sixth inning of an NLCS start against the Atlanta Braves. He lost that playoff game, but still put the finishing touches on a new, more positive image.

Lame-duck Reds manager Davey Johnson was so impressed that he persuaded Gillick to add Wells to the rebuilt Orioles pitching staff.

It didn't take much convincing. Gillick sent top outfield prospect Curtis Goodwin and minor-leaguer Trovin Valdez to the Reds to put a second veteran left-hander into the rotation.

"He was very competitive," Johnson said. "He loves to take the ball, and tough situations do not intimidate him. He's a little different, but I like that, too."

Wells isn't sure he has changed all that much over the past three years, but he knows that the change of scenery in 1993 helped to turn his career around.

He expresses no hard feelings toward Gaston and the Blue Jays, but it is obvious that time and success do not heal all wounds.

He always was the reluctant swingman on a solid Toronto pitching staff, but he thought he had earned a place in the rotation after winning 15 games in 28 starts and 12 relief appearances in 1991. Instead, he got just 14 starts the next year and was released during spring training in 1993.

"I got dogged in Toronto because I went back and forth," Wells said. "I was a good utility guy. I could do both [start and pitch in relief] well, but I thought I deserved a legitimate chance for one or the other.

"They gave me an opportunity to be a starter and I had 15 wins, and the next year I had to fight for a place in the rotation. That's called disrespect the way I see it."

Nevertheless, Wells regrets the incident that soured his relationship with Gaston. He knows now that he shouldn't have showed up his manager by trying to throw the ball over the left-field fence, but he doesn't feel he should have to carry that moment around with him the rest of his career.

"It never should have happened," Wells said. "He came out to get the ball and I said, 'If you want it, go get it.'

"If you know Cito, he's the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. . . . He is a wonderful person. I respect him as a person and as a friend, but on a managerial level and a playing level it was a different thing."

Wells also resented the way that his weight became an issue when things did not go well. He is a stocky guy who never is going to be mistaken for a marathon runner, but he had the same build when he won 15 games in the 1991 season.

"I know I'm not Mr. Olympics," he said. "I'm not a hard-body. You've got to be in shape, but look at all the big dudes who have done well in this game. If you had a bad year, it was because of your weight and if you had a good year, nobody said a word about it."

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