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NEW YORK – Considering there have only been 23 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball, it’s safe to assume that every single one has its own special legacy.
Of those, however, none may be more memorable or unlikely than the one David Wells threw while hungover on May 17, 1998 – 20 years ago Thursday.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen, it really wasn’t and it did,” Wells said.
To that point in his career, Wells had been a serviceable left-handed starter, sporting a 106-85 record and 4.02 ERA. Just two starts prior to his perfect game, Wells had looked disastrous, failing to pitch three innings and giving up seven runs on seven hits. Perfection seemed to be the last thing on anybody’s mind.
However, 11 days later, Wells stunned the world by retiring 27 Minnesota Twins batters in order, etching his name in baseball history and becoming a cult icon whose feat continues to impress, two decades later.
“Even if he had never pitched a perfect game, he appealed to New Yorkers,” Michael Kay, the voice of the Yankees, who called the game on the radio in 1998, told Yahoo Sports. “He didn’t take much from anybody, he played by his own rules and he was successful.”
At the time, everything seemed normal, or at least as normal as a perfect game can be, but little did anyone in attendance – or even the media at the time – know, Wells’ legend was about to grow even greater.
“No, the stuff about him being hungover [we didn’t know right away], he disclosed it later on,” current New York Post columnist Ken Davidoff, who covered the Yankees for The Record at the time, said.
Considering the Twitter age we live in today, it’s almost unfathomable to believe that Wells was able to keep it hidden that he had been out the night before – allegedly partying with “Saturday Night Live” cast members – and pitched the game hungover with little sleep.
“It was a rough night and that’s probably why it happened,” Wells said at a charity event for his Perfect 33 foundation. “I think I overdid it. Thank God for coffee and water. You would never think in a million years that you’re going out, hungover as [expletive] and throw a perfect game.”
Even Joe Torre didn’t seem to notice the state of mind Wells was in during the first few innings.
“The one thing you knew about David is that he was going to challenge the hitters,” Torre said. “The thing I recognized more than anything was that he was standing very tall on the mound. You could just read his face ‘I dare you.’”
Had that happened today, it’s not farfetched to believe that Wells’ secret shenanigans would have been trending on Twitter and tabloid fodder before his head hit the pillow that morning.
“With TMZ and phones and all of that, it would be really difficult [to do what Wells did],” Kay said. “I just don’t think you can party as much. I think you have to keep it in house.”
Twenty years ago, however, all Wells had to worry about were a few pesky reporters.
“Back in the old days you had to sneak out because we had reporters in the hotel waiting to see us come in,” Wells said. “We had to find a loophole around that. I was a claustrophobic guy, I wanted to go out and see what was going on. I was the most interesting man in the world. I was looking for the most interesting thing in the world back then.”
That was Wells though. He wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most baseball players – then or now – and despite spending just a short period of his career in pinstripes, his authenticity is what helped him achieve revered status in New York alongside Yankees icons from that era such as Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera.
“[The perfect game put me] on the map,” Wells said. “New Yorkers they get it, they embrace you when you do something like that. Regardless of if they like you or they don’t like you, they’re not going to forget a perfect game.”
So much so, the Yankees’ most die-hard fans made an exception to a Yankee Stadium tradition for Wells.
“I don’t know, but I would like to take credit for the ‘Roll Call’ with the ‘Bleacher Creatures’ out there, I love that [expletive], that was off the charts,” Wells, who was the only pitcher to acknowledge the crowd’s chants, said. “Every five days when I went out there, that fired me up, that was icing on the cake.
“In that era that was what we did, this era is different. Now they have headphones on, they’re not accessible.”
The other aspect of Wells’ appeal was that he looked like he was ready for a beer-league softball game, not pitching in front of thousands for the New York Yankees. With all due respect to Bartolo Colon, pitchers built like Wells – both physically and mentally – don’t come around very often.
“I think Yankee fans loved him from the start because he didn’t look like your typical ballplayer, perfect body,” Kay said. “Guys today are really into bodybuilding and year-round work, but David never put on too much muscle that would affect him, he was very fluid, his body was like that and it played into his success.”
Despite his success with the Yankees that year, finishing 18-4 and winning ALCS MVP en route to capturing the World Series, Wells was traded to Toronto that offseason for Roger Clemens, but his crowning achievement would live on forever.
“It did cement his legacy, he’s part of the history of that era, those great teams that we had,” Williams said.
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