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Wells vs. Key? Playing it safe pays off for Orioles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

David Wells wore an Orioles uniform for only a year, and in that short time, we learned much about him. He has two large tattoos, one of his son and the other of his grandmother. He loved wrestling with his boy, Brandon, a 4-year-old who ran free in the Orioles clubhouse.

Wells hates jogging, and his reluctance forced pitching coach Pat Dobson to alter the running program for all of the team's pitchers. Wells' girth expanded and shrunk and expanded again by season's end, and all along Wells joked about his figure.

If the standings and circumstances dictated a must-win performance, Wells would almost uniformly pitch well. When the Orioles turned around their season in early August, Wells and Mike Mussina carried them, Wells agreeing to pitch every fourth day. When the workload wore down the staff in mid-September, Wells implored manager Davey Johnson to leave him on the mound in one-sided games. Wells said he didn't care about taking a beating, he didn't care about his ERA, if it helped the team. And you knew he meant what he said.

Wells also gets bored and frustrated, and turned in several of the most pathetic pitching performances of the season. He clearly quit on the mound in California on May 31, his lack of interest so blatant that his former manager, Sparky Anderson, sought him out to chastise him the next day. Wells caved in to the lowly Detroit Tigers on June 10, done in by his poor physical condition in the sixth inning; it was the next day that Dobson began regulating the running program. Part of the reason Wells was out of shape is that he did not diligently tend to a foot problem he had earlier in the month.

Wells is honest. He acknowledged he quit against the Angels, and when he pitched poorly, he almost always accepted blame. Wells is emotional. To hear him talk about his mother, who recently passed away, you could feel his deep affection for her, and when a friend died before a game he pitched in August, you could see in his demeanor and body language how it hurt him. Remember when Wells pitched for the Blue Jays, and how he got mad at Toronto manager Cito Gaston during a mound conference and threw the ball away? Not exactly a textbook reaction, but there's no doubt Wells was sincerely angry.

Wells is funny. When he described how doctors had given him shock treatment to regulate his rapid heart rate in spring training, wildly jerking his body and producing sound effects, it was impossible not to laugh.

He is the most human of ballplayers, his personality uncurbed and unaffected by the demands of his profession. If Wells were a geographical mass, he would be the San Andreas Fault -- completely unpredictable, capable of the incredible. He is eccentric, but unlike Dennis Rodman, nothing Wells does is staged.

Playing baseball and earning its millions does not require players to honor a regimen suited for monks or Marines. But the chances of repeated success are greatly improved through a simple discipline: Take care of your body, be consistent and avoid situations that leave you, as public figure, vulnerable.

Wells wanted a three-year contract from the Orioles, and a commitment of something close to $13 million. General manager Pat Gillick, knowing all that he knows about Wells from 1996 and those years when Wells pitched for Toronto, decided to sign another left-hander.

Jimmy Key does not come to the Orioles without risk. He will be 36 in April, and a year ago no one really knew whether he would recover from major arm surgery. But he pitched effectively in the final months of the season, and showed in the postseason against the Orioles that he has a talent for winning pivotal games.

And if Key were a geographical mass, he would be the Great Plains -- flat, predictable and steady. He has a rock-solid personality, and if Wells has the ability to lead on a given day in October, Key will be a leader, so long as he remains healthy, March through September. Because of his age and the questions about his shoulder, the Orioles signed Key for $7.65 million and two years, or a little more than half what the New York Yankees gave Wells.

Shortly after midnight on the morning of Jan. 12, Wells -- in San Diego for the funeral of his mother -- and a friend were involved in an altercation with two men. What exactly took place and who swung first is in dispute. Armand Trottier told police he and a friend, Daniel McAvoy, had been drinking, and as they walked down the street, a man Trottier recognized -- "David Wells, you know the baseball pitcher that makes $4.2 million -- came running up to me and said, 'Where's my [car] keys?' I told him I don't know where his keys are. Before you know it, he hit me in the face."

Trottier had a swollen right eye, and McAvoy, reportedly hit by Wells' friend, had fallen and suffered a cut on the back of his head. Wells broke his hand, and will be out a month; he probably will be ready by Opening Day.

According to league sources, at least one witness says Trottier and McAvoy started the brawl, corroborating what Wells is saying privately; as he has shown, Wells is honest. In time, Wells probably will acknowledge that this was a situation he should've avoided. He could've walked away. Being good-natured and self-deprecating, Wells probably is already cracking jokes about the altercation (he has not spoken to reporters about the incident), making friends laugh.

But when Gillick sat down in November with other club officials to make a business decision, to decide how to spend millions of dollars, they knew this: Jimmy Key would never bust his hand in a street fight at 2 a.m.

Benitez deal risky

There continues to be rumblings that the Orioles are going to trade for Texas Rangers left-hander Darren Oliver, and if a deal does take place, right-hander Armando Benitez would be included. Some league sources say the two teams will wait until spring training to make the trade, which isn't logical from the Orioles' standpoint. The only compelling reasons for trading Benitez are 1) fears that he will re-injure his elbow, and 2) fears that he will not maintain his conditioning. If the fears are sincere, waiting until exhibition games begin only increases the risk for the Orioles.

An NL executive insists that the Chicago Cubs will trade for Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs.

The Texas Rangers signed reliever Gene Harris to a minor-league contract and invited him to spring training. You remember Harris, don't you? The Orioles traded Andy Van Slyke for him in '95. Harris pitched three games and blew out his elbow.

Commitment to money

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza wants a six-year, $60 million contract. The Dodgers countered with an offer of three years and $20 million. "As far as I'm concerned," Piazza said, "I want to be on a team that's committed to winning." An interesting statement, considering that the Dodgers consistently play in the postseason. Is Piazza saying that to be committed to winning, the Dodgers must pay him $10 million per year? Sounds like it.

Darren Daulton said last summer that he thought his career was over. Now he thinks he can come back, and as a catcher. Wait and see.

La Russa mandate: improve

Tony La Russa warned the St. Louis Cardinals about his expectations for next season. "I said that the one word they were going to hear to the point of going nuts was 'improve.' Our whole objective has got to be to play better. We had a good year, but 88 wins is not 98 wins. We need to improve, so how do you do that?"

Oakland has talked to the Chicago White Sox about left fielder Tony Phillips, and if the Athletics can't get Phillips, they may try for Jose Canseco again. If they fail to land either Phillips or Canseco, then they'll probably turn to Danny Tartabull, a free agent.

Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig keeps saying he doesn't harbor secret dreams of continuing as commissioner, as some believe. "They're wrong," said Selig. "Dead wrong." If that's so, why doesn't Selig remove himself from consideration entirely? If Selig wants the peace of running the Brewers, why doesn't he merely refuse candidacy? Otherwise, he sounds like a teen-ager denying he has a crush on a schoolmate.

By the numbers

Right-handed hitters batted .302 against David Wells last season. Left-handed batters hit .225.

Wells seemed to improve when he got beyond 90 pitches in his starts last season. In pitches Nos. 91-105, batters hit .228, compared with .285 for his first 75 pitches and .320 for pitches 76-90.

Wells went 4-1 with a 5.05 ERA when he pitched on three days' rest, 4-10 with a 5.83 ERA when he pitched on four days' rest and 3-3 with a 3.38 ERA when he pitched on more than four days' rest.

Scott Erickson went 3-2 with a 5.70 ERA when working on three days' rest, 7-9 with a 5.05 ERA on four days' rest and 3-1 with a 4.30 ERA on more than four days' rest.

Rocky Coppinger went 2-3 with a 5.29 ERA on three days' rest, 5-3 with a 4.79 ERA on four days' rest and 2-0 with a 6.97 ERA on more than four days' rest.

Mike Mussina went 2-1 with a 5.46 ERA on three days' rest, 13-7 with a 4.66 ERA on four days' rest and 4-3 with a 4.98 ERA on more than four days' rest.

Collectively, the Orioles' starters went 12-9 with a 5.83 ERA on three days' rest, 33-34 with a 5.38 ERA on four days' rest and 14-16 with a 5.46 ERA on more than four days' rest.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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