Wells' perfect day Left-hander baffles Twins, joins Larsen in Yankees' lore

May 18, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Nervousness gnawed at David Wells in the seventh inning yesterday, when he began realizing he might pitch a perfect game. He wanted the roaring Yankee Stadium crowd of 49,820 to remain silent, and he desperately needed his superstitious teammates to talk to him and ease the mounting tension.

Nobody would oblige him, save for fellow New York Yankees pitcher David Cone, who removed his good luck sunglasses and approached Wells. "I think it's time," Cone said, his delivery perfectly dry, "to break out the knuckleball."

Wells burst out laughing, and though he found himself shaking in the ninth inning, his fingers numb to the feel of his final pitch to Minnesota's Pat Meares, he completed the 13th perfect game in modern major-league history, beating the Twins, 4-0.

Wells' was the first perfect game at Yankee Stadium since Oct. 6, 1956, when Don Larsen retired 27 consecutive Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series.

The moment Meares' soft fly dropped in the glove of right fielder Paul O'Neill, burly and balding David Wells bent down and then thrust his left fist into the air. "This is great, Jorge! This is great!" he yelled to catcher Jorge Posada.

After Wells hugged his other Yankees teammates and was carried off the field on the shoulders of Darryl Strawberry and Bernie Williams, after he emerged from the dugout to acknowledge one last long salute from the crowd, a phone call awaited.

Don Larsen was on the line, and he confirmed to Wells that, yes, the only two pitchers to throw perfect games in Yankee Stadium attended the same high school, Point Loma High, of San Diego: Larsen, Class of '47, Wells, Class of '82.

"Right now, I'm the happiest man on Earth," said Wells, 34, who seemed genuinely humbled.

Said Larsen: "He won't forget it. He'll think about it every day, like I do."

Larsen's perfect game was considered improbable, given the pressure of a World Series and Larsen's career as a journeyman pitcher. Wells' is incredible, considering that many of his past managers and pitching coaches have regarded his work ethic as less than perfect.

Managers and coaches thought Wells -- who went 11-14 for the Orioles in 1996 -- had extraordinary ability and admired his ability to pitch well in important games. But many have been confounded by Wells' inattention to detail, bothered by his expanding girth and uncertain how to deal with his maverick personality.

As recently as May 6, Joe Torre, the Yankees' manager, removed Wells in the third inning of a game after Wells allowed seven runs in 2 2/3 innings. After the game, Torre suggested that Wells was out of shape.

Torre, Wells and Mel Stottlemyre, the Yankees' pitching coach, met several days later to hash out their differences. Early in his last start, Wells wouldn't make eye contact with Torre or Stottlemyre in the early innings.

But when Stottlemyre watched Wells warm up in the bullpen before yesterday's game, he was stunned by the quality of Wells' fastball, the sharp break of his curve and his overall command of pitches.

Torre, who was in the stands at Yankee Stadium the day Larsen pitched his perfect game, began to think Wells might have a chance at a no-hitter in the fourth inning.

The crowd at Yankee Stadium, unusually inflated because of a Beanie Baby giveaway, began to stir in the fifth when Wells reached a two-strike count on Ron Coomer, then finished him off with a curveball.

"He had all his pitches working, so you couldn't look for one pitch," the Twins' Brent Gates said.

Wells struck out the first two hitters in the sixth, and the inning ended with an easy flyout to center. By now, everyone in the stadium had noticed it: Wells had a no-hitter going. He walked into a wall of cheers as he left the mound in the sixth.

But his teammates seemed to avoid him, lest they violate baseball's tradition that no one should make mention of a no-hitter in progress. "They were killing me, man," Wells said later.

Cone, a friend of Wells' as well as a fellow pitcher, understood that Wells needed some conversation, so while the Yankees batted in the seventh, he suggested that Wells throw his knuckleball. "I can't tell you how much that helped me," said Wells.

Wells dropped his glove down in the clubhouse after the eighth. "It's getting a little hairy out there," he said to Cone, who complained, in response, that Wells still hadn't thrown a knuckler.

Again they roared for Wells as he strolled to the mound for the ninth, the top button of his jersey undone.

Jon Shave hit a high fly to right. Javier Valentin flailed at a curveball for strike three. Posada couldn't breathe. Wells was shaking, struggling to feel the ball.

Meares fouled off a fastball straight back, the infielders lurching expectantly. Then Meares reached out and poked a high fly to right, where O'Neill waited.

The great thing about Wells, his former manager Sparky Anderson once said, is that he will always be a kid at heart. When O'Neill squeezed the ball, Wells began jumping around, perfectly happy.

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