- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PEORIA, Ariz. -- San Diego's pitchers were participating in some routine spring drills last week when one of the younger players asked David Wells if he had a cough drop to spare. Always happy to oblige, Boomer pulled a lozenge from his back pocket and handed it to his teammate.
As if on cue, Greg Maddux's sly deadpan pierced the morning silence.
"Do you have a candy bar in there, too?" Maddux asked, eliciting laughs all around.
Wells trumped that punch line when he arrived at stretching the next day carrying a Baby Ruth bar. This is what happens when two guys in their 40s share a summer at the sleepaway camp also known as Major League Baseball.
Brothers Brian and Marcus Giles are making an impression with their fratboy synergy in San Diego's camp this spring, but Maddux and Wells are a close second for entertainment value. They provide the mirth and, in Wells' case, the girth.
At first glance, the veteran pitchers go together like Felix and Oscar. While Maddux looks ultrastudious with his glasses and earnest expression, Wells keeps thinking of new and inventive ways to aggravate Dean Wormer. One guy is standing in line for his Hall of Fame plaque, while the other waits in line for the keg to be tapped.
The reality is, knee-jerk impressions can be misleading. Maddux is a bit more like Wells than people think. And Wells, in turn, is more like Maddux than you'd ever imagine.
His schtick as the reincarnation of Babe Ruth notwithstanding, Wells is an attentive student of the game. Teammates and former teammates talk about what a terrific athlete he is, with the ability to pounce off the mound to field choppers, then spin and make the throw to first base. And if you think Wells must be goofing off during bunting drills, think again.
"He's one of the few guys in this game who have a little culture. He's a lot smarter than the average dude."
-- Greg Maddux on David Wells (right)
But baseball is just one element in his world. Wells owns a ranch in Michigan with Kirk Gibson and spent the winter on an African safari, hunting big game while silently praying that a lion or lethal black mamba wouldn't spring from the high grass. Then Wells returned home and pondered his baseball future while watching California sunsets and nursing a glass of wine.
"He's one of the few guys in this game who have a little culture," Maddux said. "He's a lot smarter than the average dude."
Maddux? For a guy with a CPA's demeanor, he has a sense of humor that a 12-year-old would envy. Maddux is a master of strategically timed nose picking, sidling up to an unsuspecting rookie in the shower and urinating on the kid's leg, and inventing just the right nickname for a teammate with big ears, a prominent schnozz or some other pronounced physical qualities.
"I call him 'The Silent Scumbag,'" Wells said. "You would perceive him to be Einstein because he's quiet and he's always sitting there at his locker with a crossword puzzle. But he's got a silent sickness to him, sort of like David Cone. Those quiet guys are the ones you have to watch out for."
After a combined 41 major league seasons and 563 career victories (333 for Maddux, 230 for Wells), the two veterans are destined to play out their days in the land of perfect weather and spacious outfield gaps. Maddux, fresh off his 18th season with 15 or more victories, contemplated a return to the Dodgers before signing with San Diego in December for $10 million and an option for 2008.
Wells, acquired from Boston by trade in August 2006, returned from the African bush in December to discover his competitive juices still flowed. He received overtures from former Padres manager Bruce Bochy to pitch in San Francisco before deciding to play for his hometown team.
The Padres, 13th in the National League with 731 runs scored last season, might be offensively challenged in 2007 with Mike Piazza and leadoff man Dave Roberts no longer in the lineup. The question is, how many runs do they need to score? The bullpen went 30-23 with a 3.42 ERA in 2006, and the rotation looks just fine with Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Maddux, Wells and Clay Hensley.
"I call him 'The Silent Scumbag.' He's got a silent sickness to him. Those quiet guys are the ones you have to watch out for."
-- David Wells on Greg Maddux (right)
Young, the Princeton guy, remembers how Wells pulled him off to the side last year and helped him with his curveball and other pitching nuances. Now that Wells and Maddux are both in the fold, Young knows his pitching education will continue.
"It's somewhat surreal being around the two of them and seeing the way they interact," Young said. "Boomer is a little louder and likes the attention, and Greg kind of flies under the radar. I think they're the perfect example that there's no one way to go about things.
"From a learning standpoint, this is the best situation I could ever be in. I can't wait to soak up as much information as I can."
While Wells' diet and off-field hijinks aren't particularly conducive to longevity, his fellow pitchers rave about his fundamentally sound mechanics. Wells believes he has lasted until age 43, in part, because of the arm strength he's cultivated through years of playing long toss between starts.
Maddux, 40, is not a long-toss devotee. But like Wells, he's convinced that nothing spells consistency and pinpoint control like a repeatable delivery. Throw the ball from the same release point with the same mechanics time after time, says Maddux, and you can't help but put it where you want it.
San Diego's staff allowed a mere 468 walks last season, the second-lowest total in the National League behind Cincinnati, and the old guys are certain to put a dent in that number. Maddux has averaged 1.84 walks per nine innings in his career, and Wells is two ticks behind at 1.86.
"They have a common philosophy," San Diego manager Bud Black said. "They believe in strikes, and they believe in them often."
The beauty of the arrangement is these guys never stop learning. Wells watches Maddux and takes note how his buddy grimaces in anger when he fails to hit the desired spot with a pitch. Keep in mind that we're talking about Maddux's spring training bullpen sessions, before the Cactus League season has even begun.
Wells' unquenchable desire for information means he's always trolling for nuggets to gain an edge. Awhile back Wells asked Maddux why his ball moves so much, and he recalls that Maddux told him the secret is applying extra finger pressure to the ball. But when they revisited the topic last year, Wells says Maddux denied ever making that claim.
"I was like, 'That's what you told me,'" Wells said. "He said, 'No, I didn't.' So we started arguing."
If Wells is going to pry loose any trade secrets now, the golf course might be the best place. The two pitchers have gone head-to-head several times in Arizona, but the results are subject to dispute.
When asked who has the better golf game, Maddux went into an extended discourse on Wells' strengths.
"He's pretty good, man," Maddux said. "Hits it far enough. Chips it OK. Putts it OK. Keeps it on the course. Usually finds it. That's half the battle."
Wells, apprised of Maddux's comments, shook his head in mock disgust. He said he plays to a 10-12 handicap, compared to Maddux's 3, and that he has yet to come within 10 strokes of his teammate in spring training.
"He's a compulsive liar," Wells said. "He's not going to show his hand. He's probably good in cards, too."
The golfing routine sure worked in Atlanta, where Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz strengthened their friendship from tee to green. In San Diego, it's more a case of two baseball geezers bonding in the twilight of their careers. The only thing missing is the Sansabelt slacks.
"It's cool," Maddux said. "Now that I have someone in my age group, I don't have to hang around with the coaches."
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