Bad boy of the Yankees David Wells: The former Oriole finds himself with an image problem after reporting overweight and defiantly defending his lifestyle.

February 20, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees are getting their first long look at free-agent pitcher David Wells, and they have to be wondering how they ever let Jimmy Key get away.

Wells made a bad enough first impression when he broke his pitching hand in a San Diego street fight in January, but his image has taken a further beating the first few days of spring training.

He has been unable to participate in full workouts because of a lingering case of gout that has inflamed the joint in his right big toe, the same problem that sidelined him in Baltimore for two weeks last May. It is a condition that is aggravated by certain foods and alcohol, but Wells was defiant when reporters asked him Tuesday if the problem might be the result of his indulgent lifestyle.

"If I'm hungry, I'm going to eat," he said, "no matter what it is. Overeating isn't [the cause]. It's what you eat."

Apparently, it's also what you drink, but that also got a rise out of the veteran left-hander, who seems to revel in his bad-boy persona. Someone asked about his beer consumption and also got an earful.

"What about it?" Wells replied. "It's good. It does a body good. If beer [is the cause], then go to whiskey. If it's whiskey, go to vodka. If I have to drink water, I don't care. I don't want to hurt."

Wells guaranteed that he would not get a sympathetic hearing from the New York press when he first told everyone that the pain was in his left foot (it was his right) and that he was suffering from bursitis after tests already had revealed that it was gout. He apparently felt that the truth would focus more unwanted attention on his behavior, and he was right.

The juicy headline in the New York Post was "Whiskey Business" -- just what you want to see over a story about a player you just signed to a three-year, $13.5 million contract.

Wells figured that out yesterday, when he saw that the media reaction to his comments was slightly larger in New York than it would have been in Toronto or Detroit or Cincinnati or Baltimore. Start spreading the news. The Yankees signed a guy who'd rather fight than pitch.

By yesterday, he was clarifying his flippant comments. He already had met with manager Joe Torre and the training staff and been told that the club expects him to take better care of himself.

"If they say don't drink alcohol, I won't drink alcohol," Wells said. "I don't abuse anything. I'm a moderate person a 'once-in-a-blue-moon' type of guy."

The club can only take him at face value. He has been in camp for several days, but he is yet to throw off a mound. He clearly is overweight -- 248 pounds upon arrival -- but he has never been a sculpted athlete.

"We talked about it today, and he's willing to do anything he can do to change," Torre said. "That's what he says. I can only listen and believe it until I shouldn't believe it anymore."

The Yankees don't need this kind of thing, but bad news seems to follow them. Kenny Rogers, last year's big free-agent acquisition, got hurt in spring training and wasn't a major player in last year's championship run. Now, general manager Bob Watson has two high-priced left-handers of questionable value.

You'd think that owner George Steinbrenner would be ready to drop the ax on somebody any minute, but he was the one who signed off on Wells.

"I like him," Steinbrenner said yesterday. "I think his image will fit good. The gout situation is something we can do something about if he adjusts his diet and cuts down on the drinking. I think he'll take the ball when the time comes."

Meanwhile, Key quietly goes about his business in Fort Lauderdale, preparing to fill the place left in the Orioles' rotation when general manager Pat Gillick decided that Wells was not worth the financial risk of a three-year contract. That decision is starting to look pretty good.

The Yankees' front office probably is beginning to wonder if it got the short end of that unintended free-agent exchange, but a lot can happen between now and October, especially with two pitchers of questionable durability.

"I hope everybody in baseball thinks that our pitching staff is in complete disarray," Steinbrenner said sarcastically. "We have nothing. We'll just show up."

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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