- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- When David Wells takes the mound on Sunday against the Yankees, it's a near-guarantee the cheers will cover him like a soft rain. He's a Padre, but that's only a technicality to the fans who've adored Boomer. To his extended family in the bleachers, Boomer is larger than life, if not slightly larger than his uniform.
But that's not to say there's peace between Wells and his former employers -- not after he reneged on a handshake deal last winter to sign with San Diego. Boomer's decision to leave New York forever severed his ties with the Yankees, and that includes owner George Steinbrenner, his sole advocate, who made the divorce official when he left Wells a blistering message on his voicemail.
That's why the elements are in place for a perfect storm this weekend, when Wells pitches against his old teammates. Boomer has told reporters this is this biggest week of his season, starting against the Red Sox and the Yankees in a five-day span. And while he nearly matched Pedro Martinez inning for inning at Fenway Park on Tuesday, getting a no-decision in a 1-0 loss, it's the Yankees who Wells is really targeting.
"He always looks for things to get juiced up about," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He'll make this a big game for himself."
There's a subtle disregard for Wells in Cashman's otherwise respectful assessment -- as if to say, Boomer is poison to hitters, but only when he feels like it. It's exactly that pick-and-choose mentality that drove the Yankees crazy, and ultimately ended the relationship with the 40-year-old left-hander.
In fact, the final moments of Wells' career with the Yankees ended with neither a bang nor a whimper, but an unspoken Take That from the October gods -- the ones whom Boomer had dared to taunt during the World Series against the Marlins.
There he was, just eight pitches into Game 5, doubled over in pain, so disoriented by a bulging disk in his lower back, Wells would later confess "I thought I'd pass out" had he taken the mound in the second inning.
That was a turning point moment for the Yankees, who went on to lose Game 5 to the Marlins, 6-4, and were then wiped out by Josh Beckett, 2-0 in Game 6. If you believe in karma, the downward spiral began in the press conference before Game 5, when Wells was happy to reveal the secret of his success.
"Goes to show you don't have to bust your butt every day," Boomer said. "I've been blessed with a rubber arm."
What Wells didn't say, however, was that he was experiencing stiffness in his lower back that very day, but never mentioned it to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. Instead, Wells showed up for Game 5 in pain, only then revealing to Stottlemyre that he was in trouble.
"I found out before the game, when he was warming up," Stottlemyre said. "It was all a surprise to me."
Had the Yankees known Wells would only last only one inning, it's possible they would've never sent Andy Pettitte home a day early to prepare for Game 6. Pettitte might've taken the ball on three days' rest, saving manager Joe Torre from turning to a clearly-exhausted Jose Contreras, who allowed three runs in the second inning.
Wells later said, "I'm not going to risk my health" -- even in a World Series. And of course, no one expected him to. But years of poor eating habits and sluggish workouts caught up to Wells, and it's not unfair to say his injury cost the Yankees a world championship.
Still, the Yankees were willing to forgive Wells after he underwent offseason surgery. He was offered a minor league, incentive-laden deal -- which Wells agreed to in principle -- but the relationship cooled once the Yankees insisted on monitoring the pitcher's weight and body-fat percentage.
That's when Boomer looked for the door, signing a major-league, all-you-can eat contract with the Padres. The Yankees shook their heads -- feeling betrayed but not altogether shocked. In fact, Wells' own agent called the Yankees to apologize. In the words of one club official, "(Wells) did it to the Diamondbacks (after the 2001 season), so what do you expect?"
Even today, both sides are disputing each other's version of the truth. Wells told the New York Times, "the Yankees gave me a deal they knew I wouldn't take. It's just trying to make me look bad."
Cashman responded by telling the newspaper, "If he wants to rewrite history at the Yankees' expense and expect me to cover for him by lying about it, I'm not going to do it."
The Padres were the obvious beneficiaries of this feud, but so far, their dividend has been mixed. Despite Wells' fine performance against the Red Sox, he didn't win his first game until April 29. Wells soon after went on the disabled list for nearly three weeks after claiming he tripped over a barstool in his kitchen and landed on a wine glass he was holding.
Wells severed a tendon in his right wrist, requiring surgery, and cut his left palm.
The Padres were quick to say they believed Wells' explanation, although the San Diego Union invited its readers to come up with "punchy and plausible" scenarios explaining Wells' injury, promising to print the winning version.
In fairness to Wells, he never promised anyone a incident-free career. And no one has ever questioned his skills or his heart, or the magic of his breathtaking curveball. The problem was never Wells' arm, or even his waistline, but his head. Who else would ever admit in his own biography that he pitched a perfect game in 1998 while hungover?
That's Wells -- hard to understand, even harder to ignore. Love him or hate, Torre's vision of the future is probably right when he predicts that when Wells steps out of the dugout on Sunday, "the fans will come out of their seats to welcome him.''
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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