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Yankees Go to Old Hand Today

Baseball: Free-spirited David Wells turned out to be a real bargain, winning 19 games in his return to New York.

October 05, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the last place David Wells thought he'd be today.

But it's the only place he ever wanted be.

Wells will be on the mound this afternoon for the New York Yankees at Edison Field to try to keep his team alive in the American League division series against the Angels.

Around the holidays last year, Wells was shopping for a team for whom he could log a 16th big league season. It appeared he had found one in the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Negotiations proceeded so well that the Diamondbacks thought they had a deal in place. There was a verbal agreement, according to sources close to the negotiations

Then came the call from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.

Want to have lunch? Wells was asked.

Did he ever.

The left-hander broke in with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He had spent six seasons with the Blue Jays, then on to the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Yankees, back to the Blue Jays, and finally to the Chicago White Sox, where Wells spent last season.

But his favorite stop was the Yankees, his favorite player Babe Ruth, with whom he shares a sizable girth, a free spirit and memorable moments in pinstripes.

OK, so Ruth's memorable moments established the Yankee tradition while Wells had only a two-year splash with the team.

Wells was 16-10 with New York in 1997, but he went 18-4 the next year, finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting and was 4-0 in the postseason with one victory in the division series, two in the championship series and one in the World Series.

He also had a perfect game in the regular season against the Minnesota Twins.

Wells desperately wanted to finish his career in pinstripes. So he eagerly sat down with Steinbrenner at Pete and Shorty's Tavern in Clearwater, Fla.

"The way the conversation started at lunch, I thought I was heading to Arizona, to be honest with you," Wells said.

"We sat there, talked about family, about this and that, just nothing that related to baseball. Then he dropped it on me. I was in shock."

Steinbrenner wrote out an offer on a napkin: Two years, seven million.

It was suddenly the best meal Wells had ever had.

And one of Steinbrenner's best bargains.

Wells, 39, went 19-7 this season with a 3.75 earned-run average. He beat the Angels at Yankee Stadium, but in his only other appearance against them in the regular season, he lasted only two innings at Edison Field, giving up five runs in a game in which he had no decision.

Wells is 8-1 in postseason play with a 2.74 ERA, 68 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 85 1/3 innings.

His secret to postseason success?

"I'm not afraid to fail," he said. "That's my philosophy going in. If you are not afraid to fail, then what have you got to lose?"

Wells' manager, Joe Torre, thinks Wells' secret is his frame of mind.

"He likes to be challenged," Torre said. "You tell him, 'You're a little too heavy, David. I think you should lose some weight,' he's going to show me he can pitch at that weight. He's his own person. He has a great deal of confidence. He dares people."

And now Wells is back in the postseason, which he missed during his three years in exile.

"It's not fun watching it on TV," Wells said. "In the last three years, I very seldom paid any attention to the playoffs. It's hard to swallow because, knowing that you could be in that situation, it's not fun to watch it. I'm not a guy who likes to watch baseball on TV. I want to be right in the mix of it and enjoy it that way."

And that's exactly where he'll be today.

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