Jack Curry

BALTIMORE, Maryland – The scene involving the patient Yankees manager and the sometimes rebellious and prodigal pitcher occurred last month in the weight room at Legends Field in Tampa, Florida. The first surprise was that DAVID WELLS was anywhere near the treadmills and barbells. The second was that Wells immediately offered to change the music from his floor-rumbling favorites to whatever JOE TORRE preferred seconds after he sauntered into the room.

"It wasn't Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or Barbra Streisand," Torre said. "It wasn't jazz."

Wells said he was working out to Van Halen, the kind of music he first listened to when he was a teenager, and Godsmack, the kind of music many of today's teenagers adore. Somehow, it does not seem strange to link Wells with the artistic tastes of teenagers. Then and now. "You know the music I like," Wells said, wearing tiny-framed black sunglasses that looked as if they had been stripped from a Buddy Holly wax figure. "The loud stuff."

There was a third surprise to this impromptu meeting because Torre said that metal rules and told Wells to keep the volume cranked. Well, Torre did not say it so descriptively, but he declined Wells' offer to give him some solitude. Still, Torre, no connoisseur of thumping guitars and murky lyrics, struggled to name those tunes.

"It was something I don't listen to," Torre said.

Torre recounted the story because it is supposed to be another sign of how Boomer has changed. Wells lost 30 pounds, he tempered his habits and he vowed to make his second tour with the Yankees successful and low maintenance. Torre actually described Wells as low maintenance, which before now would have been like describing him as emaciated. "Obviously, I'm older," the 38-year-old Wells said. "I've come a long way from when I was here before. You have to go through changes. I still think I'm the same person. I'm just a little more settled down."

We need to see the proof, mostly on the mound.

Everything sounds peachy early in the season. Wells does look much better, and his teammates have raved about how impressive he has pitched less than nine months after back surgery. He was 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA during spring training and walked only one batter in 26.2 innings.

Forget the reputed competition for one of the final spots in the rotation. Wells is vital enough to start the second game against the Baltimore Orioles tonight.

Still, the Yankees sound too giddy about Wells. Torre said Wells had "put to sleep a lot of curiosity" about whether he can be effective, and general manager BRIAN CASHMAN said GEORGE STEINBRENNER's unilateral decisions to sign Wells to a two-year, $ 7 million contract, was a "high risk, high reward" move that will prove savvy. Again, the proof will be in the pitching. That obviously means that Wells' back, the one that aches after short flights, must remain sound.

Wells is working to make his final ride with the Yankees pleasant and uncomplicated. He initiated a truce with a reporter, he will wear headphones in the clubhouse on the days he pitches so teammates do not feel as if they are on tour with Linkin Park and he spoke about Steinbrenner with reverence. No player has ever forged a stronger relationship with Steinbrenner, the principal owner.

"He told me: 'I'm counting on you. I'm looking for a big year.'" Wells said, recalling what Steinbrenner said last week. "He wants 15 to 20 wins out of me. I said: 'O.K. Let's renegotiate.'"

Only Wells and DEREK JETER can jab Steinbrenner that way. Wells was set to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks when he persuaded Steinbrenner to sign him, even though the Yankees did not need a starter. Wells is a shrewd salesman, which is why his talk about changing should not be judged for a few months. Steinbrenner asked Torre about his tenuous relationship with Wells, but Torre claimed that their problems were limited to the time Wells had a 9-0 lead against the Texas Rangers in May 1998 and quit on the team. Eventually, Torre admitted that managing Wells was different.

"He needed attention," Torre said. "That's the best I can do there. We had an understanding. He didn't like the fact that I warmed guys up early when he was pitching. I didn't like the way that he didn't fight his way through when he didn't have his best stuff."

After that Texas game, Torre told Wells that he would not call the bullpen quickly if Wells agreed to "work his behind off for nine innings." said Torre.

Wells became more of a fighter during games after being challenged. It helped that Wells pitched his perfect game about a week after his meeting with Torre.

Now Wells is pitching for Torre again and loving his life as a Yankee again. The Yankees would surely take the same results Wells generated in going 33-14 for them in 1997 and 1998. Whether Wells is more subdued off the field will be irrelevant if he produces on the mound. That process begins tonight. We need the proof.

The New York Times – 3 April 2002

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