O's fans, do you recognize David Wells?

October 12, 1998|By John Eisenberg

CLEVELAND -- OK, if you expected this from David Wells when he walked away from the Orioles two years ago, please raise your hand.

Be honest. If you expected Wells to go 34-14 over two regular seasons, throw a perfect game in Yankee Stadium and become baseball's best postseason pitcher, raise you hand.

Hello? Anyone out there?

Of course not.

No one expected Wells to do this. Not even Wells himself.

After going 11-14 with a 5.14 ERA for the Orioles in 1996, Wells hardly seemed a candidate for a miraculous career leap. He was 33 at the time and a leap of any distance would have been an accomplishment, given his burly physique.

But look at him now, the big lug, leaping beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

He is the toast of New York and baseball's most feared big-game pitcher in the wake of the Yankees' 5-3 victory over the Indians yesterday at Jacobs Field -- a win that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship Series.

Lacking the shutout stuff he'd had in his earlier playoff starts, Wells kept his poise and kept the Indians behind all day, striking out 11 in 7 1/3 innings.

The win pushed his '98 playoff record to 4-0 and his career playoff record to 7-0.

"Are you having as much fun as it looks like you're having?" Wells was asked.

"Damn right," he said.

It was a typical day on the Wells beat, full of heavy metal bluster and bizarre incidents.

Wells said after the game that he lost his focus and gave up two runs in a rocky first inning because a knot of Indians fans had yelled insults about his mother while he was warming up in the Yankees' bullpen before the game.

His mother, who rode with a motorcycle gang in California and was nicknamed Attitude Annie, died two years ago.

"I was in awe" of the fans' mean spirits, Wells said. "To all those idiots out there, this one's for you."

He settled down and pitched well after the first, but his day was still anything but normal.

In the fifth, he sprinted across the field after a foul pop and almost dove into the Yankees' dugout to catch it. He stopped short at the last minute.

"Can I come in here [to the dugout] to catch it?" he shouted to his teammates after the play.

Yes, he was told, catching the ball was, um, one of his rights as a member of the defense.

Then, when the Indians' Jim Thome pounded a long home run off him in the sixth, he shook his head, smiled and said "wow" in admiration.

When Yankees manager Joe Torre came to the mound to yank him in the eighth, he initially refused to hand over the ball.

Yankees coach Don Zimmer was asked if Wells was on the list of the nuttiest players he'd been around in five decades of baseball.

"Very high [on the list], very, very high," Zimmer said. "[Former Brooklyn Dodgers star] Johnny Podres was [crazy] like that except when he went to mound. [Wells] even messes around on the mound sometimes. But that big man can pitch."

Zimmer said that Podres, who was a major-league pitching coach for many years, but now retired, often calls him after watching Wells on television.

"Pod says to me, 'I know he's crazy, but, God, can he pitch,' " Zimmer said.

This is the same Wells who floundered through a season in Baltimore before finding himself at the end?

Well, not really. The Wells who struggled in Baltimore probably wouldn't have lasted beyond the first yesterday. He tended to get angry, impatient and ineffective when he struggled -- a self-defeating habit that he still had last year, Torre said.

"The biggest change in him," Torre said, "is that [before] when things weren't right, he had the tendency to become a thrower."

An arm without a mind, in other words. Just a thrower, not a pitcher.

But look at him now.

"I'm prouder of this game than his [playoff] shutouts and even his perfect game," Torre said. "He battled today. It was a gritty performance."

And to think the Orioles thought they were better off with Jimmy Key, whom they signed off the Yankees' roster two years ago in what amounted to an exchange of free-agent starters. Key, of course, wound up having arm problems that severely limited his use, particularly this season.

But while you can criticize the Orioles for gambling on Key, who had a long history of injuries, you can't criticize them for passing on Wells.

No one expected him to go 20 games over .500 in two years in New York after going 19 games over .500 in his first decade in the major leagues.

No one expected him to take the same three pitches he'd always used -- an overhand curve, a sinking fastball and a changeup -- and become a late '90s version of Dave Stewart.

No one expected him to take his rock 'n roll schtick to the Big Apple and become the rock of a 114-win team driving to the World Series.

"It's a lot of fun," Wells said yesterday, reduced for once to a simple answer.

Who knew?

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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