Sports

Wells is one pitcher who can always get loose

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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."

Which isn't to say Wells' career has been all giggles and practical jokes. There have been fights off the field and suspensions on it -- including a seven-game penalty from July he is still appealing. The stately Yankees were so upset with some of the things that appeared in Wells' 2003 book "Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball" -- including claims that he developed his pitching arm throwing rocks at homeless people and was hung over from a "Saturday Night Live" cast party when he threw his 1998 perfect game -- the team fined him $100,000, then let him go at season's end.

For his part, Wells claims he was misquoted. In his autobiography.

"You know what?" Wells asks. "I'm happy and content with my career. I went out, I spoke my mind. I backed my words up.

"I've eaten a lot of my words. But the thing is I'm not afraid to apologize. I'm not afraid to fail. I don't think there's too many things in the game that can hurt me."

But if Wells' loose-cannon personality is among his weaknesses, one that helps explain why he's pitching for his ninth team in 21 years, it's also among his strengths and helps explain why teammates and ex-teammates still follow the fun-loving Wells around.

"You have to have that type of mentality to go out there," he says. "Don't take it personally. Just give them 100%. Do your best. That's all we ask.

"Yeah, we're serious. But I'm not serious until I cross the line or when the game starts."

Wells, then, will be very serious shortly after 7 tonight when he takes the mound at Petco Park to face the team that gave up on him a month ago, designating him for assignment after four poor outings.

The Dodgers didn't think he was done. Neither did Wells. So despite everyone's promises that tonight's matchup is just another game, it's clear there's more on the line than a game in the standings.

"I have mixed emotions because I'd been there almost the whole year," Wells says. "Now all of a sudden I'm trying to ruin their [postseason] chances and help mine. They all know it. I know it. It's mixed emotions.

"[But] I'm the enemy now and I've got to go out there and try to beat them. When the game starts and you go between the lines, I'm trying to win."

And that, Martinez says, is all anyone should focus on. Because who's to say Wells is the one who's a little off-center? Maybe the game of baseball would be better if everyone was like David Wells.

For the time being, the Dodgers are gambling that one beer-drinking iconoclast in the clubhouse is all they need.

"If there's anybody to prove the critics wrong it's David Wells because he's been anti-establishment his whole life," Martinez says. "He knows how to get out of situations because nothing's that big a deal to him. It's not life and death.

"That's the kind of guy David Wells is. [A person who] doesn't need to take himself too seriously. We need more David Wellses."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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