David Wells and ImmortalityBy
The baseball gods were kind to David Wells. They blessed the burly left-hander with a rubber arm and the ability to roll out of bed and paint the black on both sides of the plate. He didn’t have blow-you-away type stuff, but he did carve out an extremely long and productive big league career by throwing strikes and eating innings. On a Sunday afternoon in 1998, it all came together.
The Yankees were, without question, the best team in baseball in 1998. They won 27 of their first 36 games and were so good that they won eight of their number two starter’s first nine starts even though he had a 5.23 ERA. That number two starter was Wells, who then-manager Joe Torre used to call the “Fourth of July” because his personality was both unpredictable and explosive. The Yankees had split the first two games of a three-game series with the Twins on the weekend of May 15th, and Wells was scheduled to start the rubber game that Sunday.
It was Beanie Baby Day at Yankee Stadium, the plush stuffed animal toys that were near the end of their novelty lifespan. Wells spent the previous night at Saturday Night Live’s season-ending wrap party, he would later admit in his book Perfect, I’m Not. “This party is too much fun to even consider leaving at a reasonable hour,” he wrote, going on to explain how he plopped into bed at 5am and was woken up by his then-six-year-old son Brandon less than four hours later. Wells showed up to the park for the afternoon game hungover, downed some coffee and Tic Tacs, then went out to the bullpen for warm ups.
As he would go on to explain in his book, Wells felt terrible during his pregame routine, and not just from the hangover. He was bouncing curveballs and missing his spots in the bullpen, but then-pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre continued to sing his praises for a strong warm-up. Wells though he was nuts. The Twinkies had won four of their last five games but were without banged up leadoff man Todd Walker, who brought a .382/.420/.551 batting line into the series.
The first batter of the game nearly ended the whole thing before it all started. Matt Lawton swatted a 2-1 pitch to deep left field, but Chad Curtis corralled it for the first of 27 outs. Brent Gates popped out on an 0-2 pitch for the second out, and Paul Molitor grounded the first pitch to second for the third out of the inning. Stottlemyre greeted Wells with a “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout while opposing starter LaTroy Hawkins danced around a Derek Jeter single for a scoreless first inning.
The ball didn’t leave the infield in the second inning, as Marty Cordova grounded out back to Wells, Ron Coomer struck out, and Alex Ochoa popped out into foul territory behind the plate. Another 13 pitches, another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout. Bernie Williams created a run in the bottom half of the second, scoring on a wild pitch after he’d doubled to lead off the frame and gone to third on a passed ball. Wells struck out Jon Shave to open the third, but catcher Javier Valentin worked the count full and started fouling off pitches. The ninth pitch of the at-bat froze him for called strike three, and Boomer followed that up by whiffing Pat Meares to strike out the side. “Way to go, Boom-ER!”
Hawkins tossed a 1-2-3 inning, then Wells sat down Lawton, Gates, and Molitor on an infield pop-up, a strikeout, and a fly ball to left. Bernie added a second run on a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth while Wells needed just a dozen pitches in the top of the fifth; two strikeouts and a ground ball. Hawkins followed up with another perfect frame, as did Wells in the top of the sixth with another dozen pitches, another two strikeouts, and another fly ball. Another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” greeted him in the dugout.
The Yankees were up two-zip but Hawkins had settled into a groove, throwing another 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the sixth. He’d retired 12 of the last 13 men he faced, the one exception being Bernie’s homer. Wells had thrown 80 pitches in the first six innings, and he started to labor in the seventh. He fell behind in the count to Lawton 2-0 before the Twins’ leadoff hitter flew out to center. He ran the count full on Gates before getting a ground out to first, then fell behind in the count to Molitor 3-1 before running the count full and getting a strikeout. Stottlemyre greeted him with another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout, but Wells knew what was going on and he started to feel the butterflies. Plus he was still hungover.
Superstition is a serious thing during perfect games, hence the “Way to go, Boom-ER!” welcome after every inning. Wells sat alone at the end of the bench while his teammates were at the plate each inning, per tradition. ”Here the guy has a no-hitter going and he looks like he has no friends,” said television broadcaster Jim Kaat. The Yankees broke things open and scored a pair of runs thanks to a Darryl Strawberry triple and a Curtis single, all while Wells sat in the dugout with those butterflies in his stomach. His teammate and good friend David Cone then broke the cardinal rule of perfect games: He spoke to him.
”I think it’s time,” said Cone, ”to break out the knuckleball.” Wells burst out laughing.
The comic relief seemed to settle him down. The Twins didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the eighth inning — ground ball, ground ball, infield popup — and the crowd greeted Wells with monstrous standing ovation to start the ninth. Shave fouled off three pitches as part of a seven-pitch at-bat before popping out to shallow right for the 25th out. Valentin struck out on four pitches for the 26th out, his third strikeout of the game. Meares was the final batter of the game, and Wells got ahead of him 0-1 after a foul ball.
In his book, Boomer said his 120th and final pitch seemed to last a baseball lifetime. “The ball leaves my hand, heavy, and I swear to God, it takes forever to reach the plate,” he wrote. “I’m watching the pitch in slow motion.” Meares swings underneath the pitch and popped it up skyward, toward the right field foul line. Paul O’Neill runs over to make the catch — one-handed! — for the 27th and final out.
“David Wells has pitched a perfect game!” yelled John Sterling during the radio call. “Twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down! Baseball immortality for David Wells, and thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!”
It was the 15th perfect game in baseball history, and only the second thrown in Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen, who threw the other Yankee Stadium perfect game during the 1956 World Series, called Wells after the game to congratulate him. Coincidentally — or maybe not — both men are graduates of Point Loma High School in San Diego.
”Yeah, it was tough. From the seventh on, it was ridiculous,” said Wells after the game. Given his rock star persona, it’s not surprising that he made the rounds after the game, appearing on Howard Stern, Regis & Kathie Lee, and David Letterman in the following days. Mayor Giuliani gave him the key to the city, and endorsement offers rolled in. ”He’ll think about it every day of his life, just like I do,” said Larsen.
Wells spent two stints and four years in pinstripes, helping the team to the World Series in that 1998 season. His career is probably underrated historically, but he gained baseball immortality during that Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. Wells is part of the game’s most exclusive club, one of only 18 men to throw a perfect game and one of only three to do so for the Yankees.