Greener pastures for Angels outfielders
Like Torii Hunter before him, Vernon Wells is transitioning to real grass, new position
TEMPE, Arizona -- Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells became friends about 10 years ago while training at Athletes' Performance Institute in the Dallas suburbs. Hunter was a young outfielder with the Minnesota Twins, and Wells was working his way up the Toronto Blue Jays' chain. Soon enough, they began bumping into each other at Dallas Mavericks games and charity golf tournaments. Inevitably, the personable young athletes developed a bond that transcended the weight room.
So it's no surprise that when the Los Angeles Angels acquired Wells from Toronto by trade in January, the two outfielders were on the phone looking forward to the start of a new season. Hunter, a human Chamber of Commerce brochure, reeled off some of the fringe benefits that Wells would enjoy with the move from Canada to Southern California.
1) You get to play with me.
2) You get to play in abundant sunshine, in the shadow of Disneyland, before 3 million fans and the Rally Monkey.
3) You get to play on natural grass, the way the Good Lord meant for baseball to be played.
"That's the first thing we talked about," Hunter said. "He's gonna be rejuvenated. I told him, 'You're going to feel great. Your body is going to feel great. You're not going to have to get in the ice pool anymore [after games].'
"My numbers have been more productive over here with the Angels, and think that has something to do with it. Your body is made to be on grass. It's just natural. At the end of the season, I don't feel the soreness in my body now. I feel like I can go another month."
When two ballplayers in their 30s have a history of general soreness caused by hours of standing around interspersed with frantic bursts to the gap in pursuit of fly balls, it's amazing which factors begin to take precedence in their lives.
Artificial turf, once hailed as an innovative vehicle for playing baseball indoors and a competitive canvas for some great "Whiteyball" teams in St. Louis in the 1980s, has gone the way of doubleheaders and Scott Boras-free offseasons. Now that the Twins have left the Metrodome for Target Field, the Rogers Centre in Toronto and Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay are the only remaining parks with synthetic playing surfaces.
Even though the new brands of turf are considered more pliant and player-friendly than the old stuff, some perceptions are hard to shake. When Andre Dawson made the Hall of Fame last year, one testimonial after another cited his 12 knee surgeries and the monumental toll from all those years of playing on the "cement" surface at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. It was no accident that Dawson spent a healthy chunk of his speech in Cooperstown thanking all the doctors and athletic trainers who helped keep him ambulatory through the years.
Hunter, not surprisingly, has some entertaining stories from his days on the turf in Minnesota. After making a sliding catch on former Oakland catcher Ramon Hernandez, Hunter smelled something burning. When he looked down, he discovered that the buttons on the front of his uniform jersey had melted from the friction-induced heat. Hunter also burned a portion of his goatee in the process.
The Twins ripped up the old AstroTurf at the Metrodome and replaced it with FieldTurf in 2004, but the change barely registered with Hunter. His knees and joints didn't ache as much on the newer turf, but he felt the impact in his quads, hamstrings and calves. If cows can't eat it, he would rather not play on it.
"From a player's end, it hurts regardless," Hunter said. "I want to challenge people: Go to the beach, sprint 20 yards in the sand and then go home. And let me know how you feel when you wake up the next day."
GRASS IS GREENER
Torii Hunter has been a more productive player since leaving the turf in Minnesota for natural grass in Anaheim.
Hunter is correct when he points out that he's been a more productive hitter since his arrival in Anaheim. How much he's benefited from experience, a more mature approach at the plate or the hitters around him, it's impossible to say. But the numbers suggest that the move from the Twins to the Angels through free agency in 2007 was a positive development for his career.
Will the change have a similarly therapeutic effect on his new outfield pal? Wells, who downplays the physical toll from his decade on turf in Toronto, is withholding judgment.
"I got used to it," Wells said. "Maybe my answer will be a little different when I see how my body feels going into August or September. That remains to be seen."
When Wells learned that the Blue Jays had traded him to Los Angeles for outfielder Juan Rivera and catcher Mike Napoli, hurt feelings took precedence over aching hammies. Wells had been an organizational mainstay since Toronto chose him No. 5 overall in the 1997 draft. And even when he became a target of fan and media dissatisfaction for his failure to perform to the level of his seven-year, $126 million contract, Wells felt a kinship with the city that made the trade difficult to process at the outset.
"It was hard to deal with the first few weeks, just saying goodbye to guys and knowing the baseball world as you know it is going to change," Wells said. "Now I look at it as a new chapter in my life and my career. Fortunately I haven't had to grow up and be an adult yet. I still get to play a game for a living. I'm having as much fun with it as I can."
Wells is a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner with an .804 career OPS and six seasons with at least 154 games played, so he's going to help the Angels. Maybe not enough to justify the $80 million-plus in salary that Los Angeles general manager Tony Reagins assumed in conjunction with the deal. But Wells brings a lot of pluses to the table.
There are also some questions that need to be addressed. Over the past two seasons, Wells has hit an anemic .201 against left-handed pitching -- the lowest in baseball among 96 right-handed hitters with at least 250 at-bats versus lefties during that span. He is also a .226 hitter with a .607 OPS in 39 career games at Angels Stadium.
Wells and Angels manager Mike Scioscia both attribute the poor numbers in Anaheim to the presence of John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver and some strong Angels staffs in recent years. Wells' meager production against lefties is tougher to explain, and, if the trend continues, potentially more worrisome.
"There were some numbers you looked at and went, 'Whoa,'" Scioscia said. "But from a scouting perspective, Vernon is a terrific fit. He's a really good situational hitter, and he'll take a walk. I don't think he has to be the guy who always breaks the game open with a three-run homer here. He can just play baseball."
Barring a change of plans, Scioscia will hit Hunter third in the order this season. Kendrys Morales will bat fourth once he returns from his broken leg, and Wells will hit fifth. Defensively, the Angels will go with Hunter in right field and Wells in left. They'll flank Peter Bourjos, a burner and defensive difference-maker in center field. Hunter describes Bourjos, 23, as "the fastest white guy I've ever seen."
Scioscia, a stickler for aggressive baserunning and going first to third on singles, sees the defensive equivalent playing out this summer in Anaheim. When the Angels' outfielders aren't turning fly balls into outs, they'll be cutting off potential extra-base hits in the gap and preventing baserunners from going first to third.
The prep work is going smoothly thus far in Arizona. While Wells acclimates himself to different angles and balls curving down the line in his transition from center field to left, Hunter will pick up where he left off last season in his shift from center to right.
"I'm kind of familiar with it," Hunter said. "It's just boring. In center field, you control everything. That's the one thing I had to get over moving to right -- that pride and that power trip. That's all."
It's never boring in the Angels' clubhouse when Hunter is around. He lockers next to Wells in Tempe, and the good-natured banter between the two is fueled by contrasting personalities. Hunter is perpetually smiling and refreshingly candid. If there's a more engaging player in the game, it's hard to find him.
Wells, conversely, speaks softly and flashes a dry wit. Knock him for being overpaid, if you will. But it's admirable the way Wells has absorbed so many body shots and maintained his sense of perspective and professionalism.
Major League Baseball FOVs (or Friends of Vernon) are privy to one special fringe benefit: Wells' father, Vernon Sr., is an accomplished artist who specializes in portraits of sports figures. Through the years, the elder Wells has painted six portraits of Torii Hunter and sold them to the All-Star outfielder for an unspecified discount.
"I get handsomer with every painting," Hunter said. "It keeps me young. There are no wrinkles in any one of my paintings."
For those keeping score at home, Vernon Wells has been the subject of about 10 portraits by his dad. "But I've been around him since I was a kid," Wells said. "And mine were free."
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick