NEW YORK -- It isn't easy being David Wells right now. Wells can't walk onto the field at Yankee Stadium without being reminded about the man he replaced in the New York Yankees' && starting rotation.
"You hear it from the fans," Wells said. "We want Jimmy Key back."
Wells hears it everywhere. The New York media have not yet tired of trumpeting that Key is off to the best start of his career. The Orioles left-hander is 8-1 and, until Friday night's pasting by the Indians, was leading the American League with a 1.80 ERA. Only future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens has been better, at 8-0, but Wells is always the subject of comparison.
No mystery there. The loosely connected chain of events that placed Wells in New York and Key in Baltimore have left fans treating the exchange as if it were a trade, even though both pitchers were signed last off-season as free agents. They did trade places, and that has put Wells in a dim light, even though he has pitched well in pinstripes.
"It's not really ticking me off, but I get tired of it," Wells said. "Jimmy and I are two completely different pitchers. I think that the ball just goes a lot farther because I throw it harder."
Wells has been able to keep his sense of humor because he has been able to hold up his end in a good Yankees starting rotation. He is 4-3 with a 3.84 ERA, and he knows that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.
"We'll just have to wait until the end of the season and see who has the better record," Wells said. "I guess whoever has the better record after the season is over will be the better pitcher."
Don't misunderstand. This only is a rivalry in the minds of the people making the comparisons. Wells and Key were teammates for years in Toronto. There is no bad blood between them. Quite the contrary.
"I'm happy for Jimmy," Wells said. "He's overcome a lot of obstacles. He's a fabulous pitcher. I also know what my ability is and what I'm capable of doing. I guess everyone will have to wait until we face each other. Whoever wins is the best pitcher."
That won't happen this week. Wells is scheduled to face the Orioles on Tuesday in the second game of the two-game series at Yankee Stadium, but Key pitched on Friday and will miss the brief series.
Though Wells is looking forward to facing his old teammates, there is no bad blood there, either.
"That's a great team," he said. "It was one of the best teams I've ever played on. The one thing I miss about Baltimore is the great atmosphere in the clubhouse, but I've come into a new atmosphere and I'm settling in well."
Atlanta Braves center fielder Kenny Lofton has had three five-hit games in the first seven weeks of the 1997 season, which puts him in a position to join an elite club. The record for five-hit games in a season (yes, Virginia, there is a record for that) is four, and it is shared by four of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
The first was turn-of-the-century Orioles great Wee Willie Keeler in 1897. Ty Cobb matched him in 1922. Stan Musial turned the trick in 1948. And, most recently, Tony Gwynn had four five-hit games in 1993. Lofton looks like a lock to join them if he stays healthy. He's still got 115 games to work with.
No ill effect
Apparently, Mike Mussina's decision to sign an under-market contract did not have any ill effect on the earning potential of Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, who complained that Mussina had "sold himself short" when he signed a three-year extension worth $21 million.
Glavine had a right to be concerned that Mussina's contract might slow the rise in salaries for premier pitchers, but it didn't. Glavine's new deal -- a four-year extension reportedly worth $34 million plus an option year -- sets a salary record for pitchers and raises the bar slightly for teammate Greg Maddux. Maddux, depending on the outcome of this season, could become baseball's first $10 million pitcher if he enters the free-agent market this off-season.
There probably are some baseball fans scratching their heads in Cleveland after the club signed Jim Thome, David Justice and Marquis Grissom to expensive long-term extensions. But there is a method to this economic madness. The three deals locked up all three veterans beyond the turn of the century and cost the club about $75 million, which should prompt some fans to ask why the club didn't just re-up Albert Belle and Lofton.
Here's why. The deals locked up Justice and Grissom a year beyond Belle's five-year, $55 million deal and the Indians weren't convinced they would be able to sign Lofton. Even if they did, the combined value of Belle's and Lofton's contracts would have been more than $100 million.
This way, the club saves a significant amount of money, fills three spots in the lineup for much less than the price of two, stabilizes the roster, and is rid of two players who -- particularly in combination -- had become more trouble than they were worth.
Once again, John Hart is ahead of the curve.
Angels open up