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The Big Easy

Dodgers' 44-year-old left-hander is iconoclastic, anti-establishment and can turn a clubhouse into a fun house with his hang-loose personality, but he's all business between the lines

August 31, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Forget the perfect game, the three All-Star teams, the two World Series championships and the 236 career victories.

Mention the name David Wells to Buck Martinez and it conjures memories of a meaningless midseason exhibition game in 1986, when Wells was a 22-year-old prospect and Martinez an aging veteran with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"It was just a true David Wells moment," Martinez, a catcher and later manager with the Blue Jays, says with a grin. "He comes in and he's got nothing. No equipment bag. No clothes. Nothing. Just showed up.

"Figured in the big leagues they'd have everything. He didn't have a glove. He didn't have a cup. He didn't have a jock. He didn't have anything"

The point to the story, though, is Wells won that exhibition game, pitching four shutout innings to beat the Montreal Expos. So while he may come off as eccentric, iconoclastic, even slightly goofy off the field, put him on a mound with a ball in his left hand and he becomes something else.

A winner.

"He's always been just a character. And a fun-loving guy," Martinez says. "[But] he loves the main stage. He's one of these Southern California guys who doesn't care about a lot of things. But when he gets on that mound he's as tough as any competitor there is in the game."

Which explains why the Dodgers gambled their postseason hopes on the 44-year-old left-hander when they signed him to a free-agent contract last week. And though Wells rewarded that confidence with a victory in his first start -- a result he'll try to repeat tonight in a crucial pennant-race start in San Diego -- his biggest contribution could come in the clubhouse, where his carefree attitude already has begun to transform a tense and stoic atmosphere.

"He keeps everybody loose, which is a good thing," says Dodgers reliever Rudy Seanez, a teammate of Wells in both San Diego and Boston.

"I think he's a good fit," adds Mets coach Rickey Henderson. "They'll get a kick out of him. He might loosen up some of the guys that need to be loosened up and create that different atmosphere [rather] than put too much pressure on baseball.

"If you put too much pressure on yourself, you're not going to have fun out there and you're not going to do your job."

Wells may be a borderline Hall of Famer, the 13th-winningest left-hander in history with 236 victories, but his round and rumpled countenance is more John Candy than John Candelaria, more Chris Farley than Christy Mathewson.

Which is appropriate, because Wells' voice is a close match for that of the late comic actor Farley.

But Wells would rather identify with another round and rumpled character, Babe Ruth. Which brings us to another facet of the pitcher that people rarely see: David Wells, baseball historian.

"I try to absorb as much as I can about the game," says Wells, who has a museum-quality collection of baseball memorabilia including caps, jerseys, gloves and bats used by Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Al Kaline as well as what may be the only baseball signed by history's top three home run hitters, Barry Bonds, Aaron and Ruth.

"Certain artifacts that I have, I know the story behind [them]," Wells says. "In that way I pay attention to the game. I think it was a lot tougher back then. We don't know how good we've got it. And guys take advantage of that and I think it's a shame. Pathetic."

Wells, who has visited the Hall of Fame and several other baseball museums, got goose bumps when someone handed him a bat used by disgraced Chicago White Sox star "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

But he saves the bulk of his reverence for Ruth, who Wells says saved the game of baseball.

"Everywhere he went he was a presence," says Wells, who once pitched at Yankee Stadium wearing a cap Ruth once wore there.

And by signing with the Dodgers, Wells did something else Ruth did: wear the uniforms of the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, three of the sport's most storied franchises. (Ruth never played for the Dodgers, but he served as a coach for the team in 1938.)

"Not a lot of people can say that," says Wells, who wears No. 33, a tribute to Ruth's No. 3.

It's two hours before the latest in a series of crucial pennant-race games for the Dodgers and the clubhouse, while not quiet, isn't happy either. So as Wells -- in shorts and a cutoff T-shirt that does justice to his tattoo collection -- makes his way across the room, he pauses to place a bottle of ice-cold water on the back of Chad Billingsley's neck, bumps fists with another teammate and then says something to pitcher Brad Penny that produces a series of laughs.

"I'm just a very loose person," he says after taking a seat in front of his locker. "And my personality, I like to have fun, talk some crap. I think that takes the edge off."

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