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The Padres' big game hunter

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PEORIA, Ariz. – David Wells has a pain in the neck.

The veteran San Diego Padres left-hander is throwing an expletive-filled bullpen session on a back field at the team's sprawling complex here three hours before a Cactus League matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Backup catcher Rob Bowen is asking if he should stand in the batter's box to add some realism to this otherwise tedious exercise.

"I don't care," Wells said. "It's not going to hurt if it hits ya."

The old lefty grunts with each pitch and labors a little more than he used to, but don't let the self-deprecation fool you. Wells – who said he had "graduated" to a life of surfing Pacific Beach and hunting with Kirk Gibson after going 3-5 with a 4.42 ERA in 2006 – still has some life in that arm. Enough that the Padres lured him back with a one-year, $3-million contract that could earn him up to $7 million with incentives.

After 20 seasons in the majors and an October washout to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series, Wells said he intended to retire, but he realized once he hit the couch that he knew no other way.

"I was bored," Wells said while relaxing post-workout in front of his locker. "I had a lot of time to think, 'What am I going to do?' You're used to going to a certain place for 25 years and it stops and you're confused. You can't go to the park and cut up with the boys, talk (expletive) and have fun and all the above.

"I guess I'll just go until they rip the uniform off me."

At 43, Wells is probably right, but he nearly had a lion do it first.

Forgoing his usual offseason pastime, surfing, Wells spent three weeks on safari in Africa hunting what he called "the big five" (lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants and buffaloes) with nothing but a guide and trackers and his trusty .375 Holland & Holland Magnum strapped to his back.

And then a guest showed up.

"There's nothing like walking up a cliff and (expletive) hearing a lion roaring at you and you don't know where it's at," Wells said. "And all of a sudden you see it and it's 40 yards from you behind a bush with two cubs. A lot of things can go wrong."

He recounted the thrill of bagging game that will be mounted in his home, but it was the solitude of that trip that made Wells, a big game hunter on the field as well, realize how much he needed the competition.

"Slept in the bush, in a tent," he said. "So I came back fearless. You [would too if you] survived 21 days in the bush. Just as long as you don't get shot in the face by Dick [Cheney]."

Getting to the African nation was an adventure in itself. Wells flew from Evansville, Ind., to London to Cairo to Kilimanjaro to a final landing on a dirt road somewhere in Tanzania, and from there, he says, it was a three-hour drive deep into the middle of nowhere.

All of this for the chance to live off the land and spin entertaining tales about:

• Food: "Ostrich was phenomenal. Wart hog is outstanding. … Probably the best animal I had, and it doesn't sound good, was dik-dik. Had dik twice. Very tasty. Very, very tasty. Except zebra. I wouldn't want to eat a zebra."

• Geography: Mt. Kilimanjaro was "bitchin' ".

• Privilege: "At eight dollars an hour, people are bitching here and they're over there making 20 cents a (expletive) week."

• Perspective: "I encourage anyone to go over there and see how they live. It will put life in a whole new perspective. It really would. It's sad."

• Testicular fortitude: "Some of these guys over there are (expletive) nuts. They're out of their mind. They get right up on the elephant charging you. Large stones."

• Fear: "I'd rather get eaten by a lion than get bitten by a snake. … You're crawling in tall grass, so you're on all fours. You don't know if there's one right there to bite the (expletive) out of you."

Wells has always been a larger-than-life figure, and is not without ego. But he seems genuinely excited to be pitching with future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Padres, giving them one of the NL's best rotations.

"He's a blessing for this club," Wells said. "I think he has a lot to offer for the young guys. I'm sure I can learn a lot from him, and vice versa."

With Wells, Maddux, Jake Peavy and Chris Young in the rotation and Scott Linebrink, Cla Meredith and Trevor Hoffman in the bullpen, pitching was not the Padres' issue last season, nor does it figure to be in this one. Their failure to advance in the playoffs was largely a result of not having an offense that could produce runs, an issue the club hopes it has solved with the addition of second baseman Marcus Giles and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff.

But that is not Wells' current worry, which revolves around a more vexing question. Which is scarier: facing big league hitters, or wandering the plains of Africa?

Wells sat for a moment, no doubt weighing the adrenaline rush of an approaching lion against the horror of seeing Albert Pujols in the on-deck circle, a choice difficult enough to give the toughest of men a stiff neck, and back came the answer.

"Fifty-fifty."

Spoken like a man ready for the hunt.