"He can push anything he wants to right now," Steinbrenner said after Wells's Game 5 win. "He's more than just a pitcher for us. He's been a leader on this team."
Wells's leadership qualities until recently had been limited to buffet lines. Even now he's the rebel who arrived last for the team photo in September. He cost teammate David Cone a $20 bet with one of the New York trainers just by showing up for an optional workout last Thursday. Of course, Wells never actually worked out. He didn't even change out of his jeans. "Just came in for some vitamins," he said.
But, at 35, Wells finally has matured as a pitcher. He was so headstrong in his younger days—unthinkingly pumping fastball after fastball when he encountered jams and refusing to learn how to pitch when lacking his good stuff—that the Toronto Blue Jays released him at 29. As recently as 1996, he had a losing record (11-14) and the second highest ERA of his career (5.14) for a Baltimore team that won 88 games and broke the record for most home runs in a season. Still, the Indians and the Yankees wanted to sign him after that season. "We always liked his arm, the fact that he was lefthanded and his competitiveness," says Cleveland assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd.
One day that winter several Indians executives took Wells and his agent, Greg Clifton, to a Cleveland restaurant for lunch. Wells rolled up his right sleeve at the table and showed off the tattoo on his biceps, a portrait of his son, Brandon, and demonstrated how he could make Brandon smile by twitching his muscles a certain way.
He then began a long, profane story that involved his "dropping" some guy. An elderly, white-haired man strode to the table. "Pull up a chair, dude," Wells said and continued his story. The man happened to be Indians owner Richard Jacobs.
"Mr. Jacobs liked it," O'Dowd says. "He liked the fact that there was no pretense about David. We wanted to sign him. We just didn't step up with the money that the Yankees did. Of course, we should have."
Wells signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract, took an apartment in Manhattan and uniform number 33—doubling the digit of his hero, Babe Ruth—and, just like that other beefy lefthander, began enjoying New York by day and by night. He won a career-high 16 games last year and topped that with 18 this year, including a perfect game on May 17 at Yankee Stadium, during which he thought of his mother, Eugenia Ann, between innings. Eugenia Ann, who ran with motorcycle crowds in San Diego, had died in January last year. "She had the baseball gods by the throat that day," Wells says. "I know she did see it. She had the overhead view."
"Ever since the perfect game, he's raised his expectations of the kind of pitcher he should be," Torre says. "It's made him better."
Wells commemorated the perfecto by giving about 40 specially designed, diamond-encrusted rings to teammates, Torre, coaches, front-office personnel and even the Yankees' masseur. "Cost me some serious glue," Wells says. "It was worth every penny" Then again, he concedes that since the perfect game his money has almost never been good at restaurants and bars around the Big Apple. "New York has been very, very good for me," he says. "I've been overwhelmed by the support. But, you know, I've been pretty good for New York. I'd call it even."
When Wells beat Cleveland in Game 1, getting all but the last two outs of a 7-2 victory, he improved his record in the House That Ruth Built to 30-7. Afterward, Kevin Costner chatted with him at his locker. Costner is making a movie about an aging pitcher who reflects on his life while throwing a perfect game at Yankee Stadium. "It's like he'd tapped my phone, had someone following me 24/7," Wells says. "I said, 'You're so into my head.' It was spooky, man. I told him I'd help him any way I could."