David Wells' Journey from Shunned MLB Bad Boy to Respected High School Coach

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 20, 2015

Gregory Bull/AP Images

SAN DIEGO — "Listen up," David Wells says, and the players pull in tighter. It is crunch time in the high school baseball season, another practice about to begin, the state tournament just up ahead and mistakes to correct, fast.

The head coach looks at his boys, his boys look back at him, and right here along the third base line, another afternoon of teaching begins. In yesterday's loss, Wells saw some letup and tentativeness that he is not happy with. Twenty-one outs, he tells the boys. You've got to go hard for every one of them. If you are tired, he implores, wait until after practice, or after the game, and then go home, make yourself a nice little bath and relax.

A bath?

File this under words you never thought you'd hear from the bombastic pitcher who worked, often brilliantly, in major league parks for 21 summers from 1987-2007.

This, too: "I quit the Yankees job because I took over the head coach job here."

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It is midafternoon, and Wells is back in uniform at a place he left long ago, working on a field named in his honor and surrounded by a bunch of teenage boys who have won his heart. That Point Loma High School in San Diego, incredibly, has produced two of the only three pitchers ever to throw a perfect game for the Yankees only makes this circle more complete.

He is friends with his fellow Point Loma High alum Don Larsen, who famously pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series. Larsen, who now lives in Idaho, was in town in March and stopped by to say hello one afternoon, but the baseball team was on the road. So he left a message for Wells.

"Talk to him all the time," says Wells, who threw his perfect game in May 1998 against the Minnesota Twins in Yankee Stadium (David Cone, in 1999, is the third). "As friends, at [autograph] signings. I talk to him probably 20, 30 times a year."

The Yankees job that Wells quit was his running gig as an alumni coach during spring training. Before taking the Point Loma head coaching job, he worked as the Pointers pitching coach for the past three years but would take an extended leave of absence in February and March to suit up for the Yankees in spring camp in Tampa, Florida.

Anonymous/Associated Press

Finally, after pursuing and failing to land a full-time major league coaching job, he changed his post-career aspirations.

"Well, I've been trying to get a job in Major League Baseball for the last seven years that I've been retired, and nothing," Wells says. "It's crickets.

"I've talked to a lot of GMs. I've gone to winter meetings. I've talked to guys I know, Bruce Bochy (Giants manager), Theo Epstein (Cubs president), Brian Cashman (Yankees GM), and it's just crickets. So it's just tough.

"You have a passion for the game, you know the game, but if they feel I don't, or if they think I'm like I was when I played, stubborn and very opinionated…I spoke my mind. I think if they're going to think I'm still that way, they're crazy."

Turns out, reputations are tougher to shake than credit card histories.

"I have a passion for the game, and I think I have a lot to offer pitching-wise," Wells continues. "But you know what? I just said I'm through with it. I'm not going to try to go after a job in Major League Baseball.

"I've even said I'll go to the minor leagues. I offered to go to the minors, but just somewhere where it wasn't bus rides. Triple-A, stuff like that. The commitment to do it for me was there. But like I said, crickets.

"So I took this job."

Point Loma High School
Point Loma High SchoolScott Miller

Now what consumes him is the Pointers' recent skid, which is jeopardizing their guaranteed tournament spot.

"A play-in game scares the hell out of me," Wells says. "It's like the wild card."

What he most sounds like today, at 52, with two World Series rings, the perfect game and miles and miles in his rearview mirror strewn with white-hot spotlight highlights and controversies, is every other coach in America burdened with the normal things coaches carry: responsibility, worry and concern that his players aren't progressing as rapidly as he would like them to.

"It's just hard," Wells says. "I don't think they're giving up. They're not focusing. A lot of senior guys get a little lazy. Especially after games, cleanup, they want to get out of here and think the underclassmen should do it all. And I'm like, 'No, it doesn't work like that. We're a team. We do it together.'"

You know the old joke about how the best revenge for parents against their own children is watching, when the time comes, those children become parents themselves and deal with their own kids?

If only Joe Torre, Davey Johnson, Cito Gaston, Bochy and some of Wells' other big league managers could see him now.

Coach Wells, disciplinarian.

"I tell them, 'If you need help, talk to me,' but I think they're afraid to talk to me," Wells frets.

In his mind, his team should have 18 wins by now. Instead, it has only 13. Repeated mistakes on the field eat at him. Turning double plays has been a nemesis. Common sense, he grumbles. Mistakes made by lacking common sense are the worst.

Photo by Scott Hopkins, the Peninsula Beacon

He is not a yeller. When he sees the need for discipline, his preferred method is to make players run. That's constructive. Gets them in shape. Still, maybe because of his years in the majors or his blunt personality, he thinks some of the kids are afraid to approach him because they are intimidated. He wishes it weren't so.

"They all want to know when am I going to take them to a Padres game, or can we have the team party at my house?" he says. "Stuff like that. But it's not, 'Hey, Coach, what's going to make me better?'

"I think it's because they're afraid of me. I've told them time and time again, I'm not your enemy, I'm here to help you. I've got a lot of years in the game. The position players, too, because I've positioned some of my guys in the major leagues relative to how I'm going to pitch certain guys.

"I'd tell them, 'Hey, shade it over there because I'm pitching away.' I may tip my hand, but that's what you do."

No, it isn't every day that a man who once positioned Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr. comes to coach at your high school.

Photo by Scott Hopkins, the Peninsula Beacon

"It's great because he brings so much to the table," says Seth Urbon, a junior co-captain. "He's helped everyone I know get more into the game mentally. And he has suggestions on things you never knew would work.

"A little bit more movement from the fingers, a little more pressure on the index finger, can get the ball to move two or three more inches on a two-seam fastball."

"It's an awesome experience for us," says senior Cheyne Vanarsdale. "He's my third head coach in four years, so for him to come in and be the rock, loving the program like he does, he's a really cool guy."

Wells grew up in an area of town called Ocean Beach, just over the hill from Point Loma, and stayed tied to his roots no matter which of the 10 big league teams he was pitching for as his career flourished. That he and his wife live roughly 40 minutes away and he commutes daily through what can be rough Southern California traffic only emphasizes his dedication and commitment to giving back to his old school.

Point Loma High School
Point Loma High SchoolPhoto by Scott Hopkins, the Peninsula Beacon

The Pointers play at a beautiful field with freshly installed artificial turf, real major league foul poles and other amenities after a $1 million renovation, mostly paid for by a school bond, that Wells helped make happen. Then there was the roughly $135,000 he says he raised through a golf tournament fundraiser, and he donates his $3,000 salary back into the program.

During the team's winter program, he brought in guest coaches Alan Trammell, Jamie Moyer and Vince Coleman, and he invited Heath Bell to throw batting practice. One thing Wells can't do right now is throw batting practice himself: He has a torn rotator cuff that he plans to have fixed over the summer.

Wells, who pitched in three World Series and started two All-Star Games, remembers what it was like to pitch at this school—he led Point Loma to a championship in 1982. That and his love of the area is no small part of the reason why he is here.

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Mostly, it is because he cares. Though, in his typical fashion, he underplays it.

"That's why I'm giving back," he says. "Because I'm bored. I had an opportunity to take over and give back, and now I'm not bored anymore. It's [whetted] my appetite to come down here every day and get the field prepared, get my coaches here and talk.

"We have our meetings to try to progress these guys into better ballplayers and get them ready for the next level, if they're going to go there. Colleges, maybe drafted, who knows? That's our job, to fine-tune them. And that's what we do."

That he is here instead of employed as a pitching coach with the Yankees or the Tigers, or one of the other big league clubs to which he has ties, well, he is totally at peace with it after seven years of working to find his way back into professional baseball.

The man who once was scolded for wearing one of Babe Ruth's old caps in a game (he says he recently sold that cap in an auction) and who got into hot water after authoring the book Perfect, I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball (among the admissions: He pitched his perfect game "half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a raging, skull-rattling hangover"), lives in retirement the same way he lived as a player: with no regrets.

"No," he says. "F--k no. I don't regret anything. I played with emotions, I played with aggression. I wore my heart on my sleeve. I spoke my mind, and I didn't take any s--t. I don't care if it's (late, former Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner or (late, former Reds owner) Marge Schott, when I played for her. I'm a grown man. If I feel that I'm right, I'm going to defend myself. If I don't want to talk to the media, I won't talk to the media.

"To me, that's why I was what I was. I enjoyed the game, I wanted to win, I was a team player. Those are the values I teach these guys. Be a team player. Don't be afraid to make a mistake, but don't make stupid mistakes. Learn from your mistakes, understand who you're pitching against and when you pitch against him again, learn. Remember how you got that guy out. That's how you make a name for yourself."

Mostly, Wells gives the catchers and pitchers room to call their own game. But when key moments arrive, Wells will step in and call some of the pitches himself. When he does, the kids are taking signals from a man who ranks 49th on baseball's all-time games started list (489), 54th in strikeouts (2,201), 48th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.061) and 75th in batters faced (14,413).

"That's a lot of the knowledge I try to give to these kids," Wells says. "Knowing the situation. Knowing who can beat you. You've got to learn how to pitch on both sides of the plate. I've got some kids who can throw the ball real well, but those mental mistakes, and they make them every day, hitters will capitalize on mistakes."

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Over and over this spring, he has learned what usually and universally is the head man's most frustrating lament: He can tell his players what to do, but he cannot do it for them.

But this also has gotten into his blood. He preaches to the kids to take ownership of their season, because, as he tells them, many of you will not be back next spring, but I will.

He will?

"I'll definitely be here next year, and for the next couple of years," he says. "Because we've got some good kids coming up through the program that I'd like to see. So I want to be a part of that."

So this is the fiery Wells, famously raised by a single mother, who hung out growing up with her Hells Angels friends (they sometimes paid him for strikeouts when he was pitching in high school), perpetually rough around the edges, exterior shell hard as marble.

Yet sometimes when you're not looking, life has a way of softening you up on the inside. Even just a little. Even when you try over and over to get a job coaching in the bigs and are told simply, "We're good."

So he figures that chapter of his life is over. He regularly keeps in touch with old buddies like Pat Hentgen, Dave Stieb and Joey Hamilton ("all the time"). And former Yankees reliever Graeme Lloyd ("my mate right there").   

"I had a good life in the baseball industry," Wells says. "So you try to keep those friends."

Point Loma High School
Point Loma High SchoolPhoto by Scott Hopkins, the Peninsula Beacon

One chapter closes, the next opens. That's baseball, and that's life. Perfect, he never was, but he is enjoying this high school coaching thing far more than he ever thought he would ("100 percent, yes"). It may be a while before he returns to the Yankees in spring training as an alumni coach.

"I'm looking at Point Loma High," he says, grinning. "Point Loma High's my future."

Infield drills finished, they roll the batting cage into place and Coach Wells goes back to work. Now, if he can just avoid that play-in game...

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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