By IAN WILSON
David Wells could barely navigate connecting flights, let alone figure out where Medicine Hat was when he made his way outside of the United States for the first time.
The trip north in 1982, his introduction to professional baseball, offered the left-handed pitcher an education in sports and life. Wells was forthcoming about both aspects of his journey in his 2003 autobiography, Perfect I’m Not. One chapter of the book provides a compelling look at the minor-league experience at the lowest level.
The San Diego high school star – a second-round draft pick, 30th overall, of the Toronto Blue Jays – entered the Pioneer League with no clue of what to expect on the field or away from the ballpark. But the Medicine Hat Blue Jays provided the 6-foot-4 southpaw with the perfect tonic of development and real-life experience.
“Less than twenty-four hours before traveling to join that team, I still haven’t got the foggiest idea of where the town of Medicine Hat might actually be located. I know it’s supposedly in western Canada, and I know Canada sits on top of the U.S.A., but that’s as close as I get. Worse, as a recent high school graduate, I’m completely incapable of even finding Medicine Hat on a map,” Wells recounted in his book.
“My knee-jerk reaction is to assume I’ll be playing ball amid Eskimos and igloos, in a town where the locals probably chew on blubber and drink fresh-squeezed penguin juice for breakfast. I fully expect that polar bears will occasionally wander through left field. Thankfully, I’ll soon be proven wrong … mostly.”
At 19 years of age, Wells had never been outside of southern California. But he packed up his black concert T-shirts, Hawaiian-printed button ups, shorts, flip flops, Black Sabbath eight-tracks, jock straps, socks, sneakers and his toothbrush into a duffel bag and headed to the airport.
“I don’t have a thing in the world to fall back on … this is my one real shot at moving above and beyond the confines of Ocean Beach,” wrote Wells, who met up with his teammates in Montana, where the Baby Jays were on a six-game road trip.
His first start pro start came in Billings, where he threw seven innings of four-hit, one-run baseball during a 4-3 loss to outfielder Kal Daniels and the Mustangs. Wells struck out eight batters and issued only one walk.
GETTING TO KNOW THE PIONEER LEAGUE
During the trip, Wells got to know his competition a bit better.
Cecil Fielder – a “moose-size, home-run-hitting stud” – played first base for the Butte Copper Kings. The all-star slugger led the eight-team circuit with 20 home runs that year.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Falls A’s had a “very tall, very skinny, slap-hitting third baseman” named Jose Canseco.
“Ham-handed in the field and anemic at the plate, this kid looks exactly like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. He has little power, no speed, and rumours are already circulating that this scrawny rookie’s career is hanging by a thread,” recalled Wells.
“One year later, with both of us clawing our way up the minor-league food chain, Canseco and I would cross paths again, but this time around, I wasn’t laughing. Instead, halfway through the first inning, with Canseco stepping into the batter’s box for his first at bat, my eyes went wide, my jaw dropped to the rubber and I was stunned to find that ‘the Idaho skinny guy’ had somehow grown up to become a freaking Macy’s balloon. Brand-new biceps ripped out from under his uniform sleeves. Thick slabs of beef padded his formerly bony frame. A pair of tree trunks now connected his hips to his ankles.”
Wells, who started the summer in a rotation that included rising star Jimmy Key, also got to know his teammates during his lengthy bus rides through Idaho, Montana and Alberta.
“Our Medicine Hat pitching staff lines up like this. A guy named Keith Gilliam is clearly our ace. He throws nearly 90 miles per hour, and he’ll lead the league in wins at season’s end. Behind Gilliam, there’s a solid righty named Daniel Gordon, and behind him, there’s a slim, quiet, college graduate with glasses, who looks more like an accountant than a ball player. He seems like a nice guy, but we’re oil and water, ammonia and chlorine, fat guys and thongs. At first glance, I assume he’s stuck up. At first glance, he assumes I’m a devil worshiper. His name is Jimmy Key,” noted Wells, who would go on to win his first of two World Series titles alongside Key with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992.
Another member of both the 1982 Medicine Hat Blue Jays squad and the championship Toronto team was Pat Borders.
“Pat’s a tough guy, but with manos de piedra he’s forever booting routine grounders to third into the visitor’s dugout … in the outfield, where he’s moved to minimize his potential for error, he loses balls in the sun, even during night games. Pat could hit like an absolute son of a bitch, but we just couldn’t seem to find him a position. Years later, in an evolution that surprised us all, Pat would slowly emerge as one of the very best catchers in the major leagues, ultimately becoming Toronto’s MVP in the 1992 World Series,” wrote Wells.
LOOKING IN THE MIRROR
As blunt as Wells was in his assessment of his Pioneer League rivals and teammates, he was also critical of his own play. A couple of rough July outings against Idaho Falls, during which he yielded five earned runs during each start, had Wells second-guessing himself.
“I’m the fourth starter in a four-man rotation, and it quickly becomes apparent that I barely deserve even THAT standing … nearly all the overconfidence that came with me from San Diego to the Great White North is shot. For the first time in my life, I’m not dominant on the mound. I’m not intimidating. I’m not even good,” he said.
“I’m throwing smoke like I always do, but here in Billings and Idaho Falls that’s not enough. Guys are raking my ass … only after I’d gotten thoroughly and repeatedly shelled did the obvious finally hit me: nearly everybody in this league was at least as good as me. Every single one of us used to be the dominant stud on our high school teams. I’d gone from ‘exceptional’ to ‘barely average’ overnight.”
Added Wells: “I came to Medicine Hat expecting business as usual. With a fifty-fifty mix of confidence and ignorance, I’d just assumed I’d be as successful as ever, and with any luck at all, I’d be up in the bigs in a year. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. Two losses and a couple of 400-foot dingers had opened my eyes pretty quick. This wasn’t going to be easy. If I was going to make it at this level, I was going to have to pitch smarter. Getting by with a scowl and some decent velocity was a thing of the past. I needed to work at this – I needed to focus.”
Wells found his focus and his game during a late-July start against the Calgary Expos and their ace, Greg Richards. The pitching duel saw both hurlers go the distance, but Medicine Hat came out on top 2-0 on the strength of a five-hit shutout by Wells, who struck out six batters and walked just a pair of Expos during the complete-game effort.
“I surprised myself and I guess a few others,” Wells told Calgary Herald reporter Daryl Slade after the game.
“I was just being smart, throwing the pitches where I should, because I saw how they could hit last night. I had to figure that I’m better than they are and it worked. I think I finally found myself.”
Wells revealed the importance of the Cowtown performance in greater detail in Perfect I’m Not.
“Finally, I’d broken through. Finally, I could take a bit of a deep breath and convince myself that maybe I wasn’t going to be a total washout. Getting onto the team bus after the game, our manager, Duane Larson, went out of his way to give me a very public pep talk, even going so far as to lead the team in a loud, heartfelt round of hip hip hoorays. A the back of the bus I was beaming, and another reality check was rapidly setting in. I did belong here, and with some work, and some smart pitching, I might even be able to thrive,” he explained.
ON THE ROAD
In addition to sharing his ballpark insights in his book, Wells also discussed the day-to-day life of a minor leaguer, including the many hours players spend shuttling from town to town.
“One major fact of minor-league life is the long, long, LONG hours you’re inevitably going to spend rolling along highways in your team bus,” said Wells.
“Pulling out of the parking lot at the town’s Athletic Park, we Medicine Hatters would roll across the tundra all through the night – seven hours to Helena, eight hours to Billings, eleven hours to Idaho Falls. It was an awful way to travel, but as weird as this sounds, it was fun too. With nothing else to do, guys would pass the time on those bus rides telling stories and jokes, slagging on one another, playing cards, listening to music, enjoying one another’s company, and as the hours wore on, jockeying for sleep space.”
He continued: “Prime bedtime real estate was up in the luggage racks over the seats. Stretched out on the metal, overhead racks where commuters would normally stow their coasts and briefcases, you could actually get a fairly decent night’s sleep. With that in mind, those spots went fast. At the same time, guys would also be crawling over one another in hunting down a halfway sanitary stretch of unoccupied floor space. Stretched out down the center aisle of the bus, you’d ultimately find as many as six of us Blue Jays, all snoring loudly, looking not unlike a long, unconscious totem pole. Miss out on those prime spots and you’d be stuck curling up across a couple of hard, lumpy bus seats, or sleeping sitting up.”
When the team returned home, the living conditions were marginally better. The entire roster was housed – two players to a room – at a four-storey hotel on South Railway Street that was a five-minute drive from the ballpark. The Silver Buckle Hotel, which still serves Medicine Hat, became a rowdy oasis for the Baby Jays.
“Located just across the street from a hustling, bustling, diesel-scented, eardrum-rattling freight train hub, that place made Motel 6 seem like the Four Seasons,” wrote Wells, who was one of about 30 players who bunked on the second floor.
Below them, the hotel bar that featured live music on most nights made many players wish they were cozied up in the luggage racks of the bus again.
“Guess whose room sat directly over the bandstand? Have you ever tried sleeping while twelve feet below your head a shitty Canadian lounge band is plowing through a clumsy, twenty-two minute cover of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’? It ain’t easy,” said Wells.
The man nicknamed “Boomer” settled in, nonetheless.
“Just after our game, we’d hook up in the hotel lobby, pool our money, then head out to the nearest liquor store, where we’d buy ten, or twelve, or fifteen cases of bottled beer. Next, we’d lug ’em all up to the top floor of the hotel. Then we’d climb out a window and drag our foamy party supplies onto the roof. Out there, amid the Silver Buckle’s air-conditioning condensers and fry-cooker vents, we’d relax, bond, and get royally ripped,” said Wells.
The rectangular roof became “sacred ground” for the minor leaguers. They took tables and chairs from the hotel bar up top, along with candles, coolers, and boom boxes.
“Some guys loved it so much out there on the roof, they’d actually drag their mattresses up the elevator, down the halls, and out the window so they could bed down under the stars,” stated Wells.
In describing himself as a “loud, pissed off, nocturnal” presence, Wells remembered cycling through a few different roommates while he was with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. He stayed with “a big corn-fed Canadian boy” named Tim Kuziumko, who played third base. Wells also roomed with outfielder Kash Beauchamp for a brief period.
“He just couldn’t stand it when I’d come wobbling in at 5 a.m., wide awake with yet another raging case of the munchies. I had a bad post-drunk, homecoming habit of pouring myself an enormous bowl of Cocoa Puffs, and then sitting on my bed, crunching and slurping and gobbling like a starving madman. One morning, after just such an impromptu pre-breakfast feast, Kash packed up his stuff and left me flat,” wrote Wells.
Another roomie Wells declined to identify would wash his hair and his teeth with green Palmolive dish liquid. When he turned in for the night, he would take turns grinding his teeth and screaming through his sleep.
Wells would have gladly ditched all potential roommates for a place to himself, but that would have doubled his rent from $300 to $600 per month. His monthly pay as a ball player was only $600, leaving no wiggle room for other expenses, primarily beer.
He did get a $50,000 signing bonus from the Jays, but that had yet to be processed.
“Nearly penniless now, and just a tiny bit desperate, I put on a clean shirt, screwed on a big, fake, cheese-eating grin, and hit up the hotel manager for whatever discount she could offer. Gazing with sympathy into the wide, wet eyes of the upstanding young man I was pretending to be, this chain-smoking, middle-aged angel of mercy took pity on my ass and told me I could keep my room, solo, at $300 a month for the rest of the season,” recalled the southpaw.
A few days later, his signing bonus came in.
“For months I’d been stretching every last dime in order to make ends meet,” he said.
“Once my pockets got stuffed with cash, I went temporarily, gloriously, gluttonously insane. I’d be scarfing down ham and a half dozen eggs for breakfast, with fat steaks and baked potatoes and pitchers of beer for dinner. The day my bonus money arrived in Medicine Hat, I weighed a solid 185 pounds. By season’s end, I’d go home at 210.”
There were other indulgences that Wells and his colleagues took advantage of, as well.
“I love the guys, I love the laughter, I love the camaraderie, but far and away, the single most mind-blowing aspect of life as a brand-new professional baseballer is the fact that women are suddenly everywhere. Y’know, by Medicine Hat standards, we Blue Jays are pretty big celebrities,” remarked Wells.
“Girls would find us at the ballpark, or in local bars, and when an entire baseball team lives in one hotel, it’s pretty easy to track us down … with a bit of effort, we could almost certainly hook up with somebody before the night was over, and with early 1980s morality mixing nicely with late-teens hormonal urges, we really didn’t care who.”
Somewhere in between the early morning mayhem and the late night shenanigans, the Baby Jays managed to work in some baseball games. They were playing well, too.
With a 44-26 record, Medicine Hat edged out the Great Falls Giants for the Northern Division pennant. For his part, Wells posted a 4-3 record with a 5.18 earned run average (ERA) and 53 strikeouts over 12 starts.
The division win set up a matchup with Idaho Falls for the Pioneer League title.
READ MORE: The Pioneers – Medicine Hat A’s
Wells got the ball for the first game of the best-of-five series in Idaho Falls and despite giving up 10 hits and four earned runs, he logged eight innings in an 8-6 victory over Canseco and the A’s. Wells held a commanding 8-3 lead when he handed things over to closer Dan Gorden in the bottom of the ninth frame.
“I have a good idea of who I want throwing and I’m going to go with the best arm I’ve got at that time,” Larson told the Medicine Hat News of his pitching matchups after the opening win of the series.
The skipper was also eager to return to The Gas City after being less than impressed with what McDermott Field had to offer.
“We accomplished what we set out to do, that’s win one here. Now we can look forward to winning it in front of the fans at the Hat. We’re looking forward to getting home. Idaho Falls is not really your ideal ballpark … there doesn’t seem to be much playoff atmosphere here,” Larson said in the News.
“There was a small crowd, most of them were drunk, the field is badly lit and it’s in rough shape. It’s not what I would call a real thrill-seeker.”
When the action shifted to Athletic Park, the Jays were able to seal the deal. A Saturday, Sept. 4th complete-game effort from Gilliam delivered a 6-1 win and a 3-1 series result in front of 1,500 fans.
The triumph provided the Toronto Blue Jays organization with their first minor-league championship and it was bliss for the Baby Jays. It also helped set the stage for Wells to keep moving forward in pursuit of his MLB dreams.
“The team had rented a banquet hall for our victory celebration, and the combination of championship victory, adrenaline, and a real ‘last day at camp’ atmosphere combined to make it one HELL of a party,” wrote Wells.
“After seventy-four games as teammates, dozens of hours crammed into the same crummy bus, and endless nights spent together on the tar-papered roof of a crappy hotel, it really was hard to say good-bye. Gallons of free booze just made it harder. The following morning, fighting off a hangover that felt like seven or eight weasels kickboxing in my head, I flew home to L.A. feeling like I’d accomplished something great. Granted, I hadn’t exactly set the league on fire, but I’d held my own. I belonged, and that in and of itself felt pretty good. Already I found myself looking forward to next season. Already I could feel myself getting excited about improving upon this year’s stats. Already I was dreaming of life as a full-bore, big-league Toronto Blue Jay.”
Wells realized that goal when he made his MLB debut for Toronto on June 30th, 1987. From there, he stayed in The Show for more than two decades, collecting 239 wins, 2,201 Ks and a lifetime 4.13 ERA during his 3,439 innings on the mound.
He even managed to be perfect on May 17th, 1998. Then a member of the New York Yankees, Wells retired all 27 Minnesota Twins batters he faced in front of 49,820 fans at Yankee Stadium.
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