Everyone's got a farewell memory of Yankee Stadium, maybe a personal shrine. I'm no different: as I left the great ballpark for the last time on September 21, I said goodbye to an abstract soft spot in my heart that won't make it across the street.
I consider it a shrine without shape or form; it's just a place. Actually, it's just air-space, the spot right outside the Yankee clubhouse where David Wells was waiting to launch the most bizarre showdown of my career.
I've had my share of shoot-outs (see: Bobby Bonilla, 1993), but none that could've been reviewed by journalism ethics class. Ok, a little background. In the summer of 1997, when I was still a beat reporter for the Bergen Record and one of the few writers who actually liked Boomer I always considered him slightly larger than life, if not larger than his uniform - I caught wind of a explosive confrontation between the lefthander and George Steinbrenner.
It occurred in the ninth inning of a game the Yankees were losing to the lowly-Expos, during which Wells had been knocked out. Steinbrenner, embarrassed that the defending world champs were getting punished by one of the National League's worst teams, was pacing the clubhouse. He was in a terrible mood.
Wells wasn't happy, either. He started a conversation with the Boss that would soon make headlines.
"Hey, George, you need to get some security out there in right field. Build a wall or something," Wells said.
He was referring to a fan who'd leaned over the railing and prevented Paul O'Neill from catching Darrin Fletcher's second inning fly ball. The fan caught the ball and it was ruled a home run.
That was all The Boss Steinbrenner needed to hear. The engine of his rage was now fully ignited.
Steinbrenner: "Never mind about the fucking security, you just worry about your pitching. You better start winning some games, because you're not the pitcher I thought you were."
Wells: "Is that right? Well, you can go fuck yourself. If you don't like it, you can trade me."
Steinbrenner: "Believe me, I would, but no one wants your fat ass."
Wells: "You better get the fuck out of this room, before I fucking knock you out."
Steinbrenner: "Go ahead, do it. Try it. You think I'm afraid of you?"
Wells and Steinbrenner apparently eyeballed each other for another moment, before the tension defused. No punches were thrown.
How did I know all this? Three teammates and one of the Yankee trainers were in the clubhouse during the exchange two of whom couldn't wait to give me the blow-by-blow as soon as the game was over.
Wells was already gone, so I couldn't verify the quotes. But, given how much I trusted the two sources, I ran with the story verbatim in the next day's Record. It was a clean scoop, the kind a beat reporter dreams about. All the other papers, including the tabloids,
were forced to follow it, which couldn't have made my editors any happier.
Boomer, however, was furious. He was waiting for me the next day at his locker, where we usually made small talk before batting practice. But not this time.
"Who told you about me and George?" Wells asked coldly. It was more of a threat than a question: our war was just beginning.
"You know I can't tell you, David," I said. "If you told me something in confidence, I'd respect that. It's called protecting your sources."
"Fuck that. I have to know who's the rat in this clubhouse," he said.
"Sorry," I said, even though I wasn't.
"Listen, you think about it during the game," Wells said. "You come down here afterwards and tell me who I can and can't trust. If you don't, we're done."
"Boomer, we're done," I said. "I can tell you that right now."
"Just think about it," he said, walking away.
There was no debate: a source is a source. I'm not sure I would've gone to jail to protect them, but luckily for me, I wasn't facing a judge after the game, only Boomer, who was too impatient to wait at his locker. There he was, at the door outside the room, like some hired muscle working the rope at a night club.
"What's it going to be, Bob," he asked, closing in on my airspace.
"We're done, Boomer," I said, holding my ground.
"Fucking right we're done," Wells said, walking away. It was the last time we spoke, but that's not to say the big lefty was finished with this story. In fact, he himself became the leak, repeating the incident to anyone and everyone his teammates as well as the rest of
I watched with amusement about two weeks later, as Wells was standing with several Orioles during batting practice. He was roaring with laughter as he mimicked Steinbrenner's most cutting remark "no one wants your fat ass."
Not true, of course. Wells' career lasted another 10 years, but true to his word, he never spoke to me again. He had his principles, I suppose, I had mine. Someday in his retirement Wells might realize I was right. But I'm not holding my breath.