The perfect game is the hardest feat to accomplish in all of professional sports. Twenty-seven up, 27 down with zero hits, walks, hit-by-pitches and errors in the field is rarer than any achievement in the most difficult sport in the world. Not to mention the umpires have to make the correct calls, as Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce will tell you.
Throughout 150 years of Major League Baseball history, only 23 perfect games have been thrown out of 220,541 total games played. For the math nerds out there, that means .01 percent of all games, or once every 9,588 games, result in a perfect game.
You might expect then that only the top-tier, Hall-of-Fame-type pitchers are capable of recording 27 straight outs. Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay are all evidence that support that. But try explaining how Philip Humber threw a perfecto for the Chicago White Sox in 2012 despite boasting a career ERA north of 5.00 and falling out of baseball the following year.
Tossing a perfect game as a subpar starter is one thing, but how about doing so hungover and out-of-shape like David Wells did in 1998?
To me, it’s one of the most impressive pitching performances of all time. I’ll admit Doc Ellis throwing a no-hitter while on LSD is a very close second. Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series is pretty remarkable as well.
But Wells took the mound for the New York Yankees on May 17 after a long night of drinking and partying at a Saturday Night Live afterparty and proceeded to send every Minnesota Twins batter he faced back to the dugout. He did so all while apparently feeling like death, like the reaper himself was standing behind him in the middle of Yankee Stadium.
Wells’ description in his 2003 autobiography, Perfect, I’m Not, summed it up perfectly: “Half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover.” He also said he went to bed at 5 a.m. and had gotten just one hour of sleep before he was schedule to pitch at 1:30 p.m.
“I was leaving the SNL show the night before, and [SNL producer] Marci Klein’s like, “Hey, why don’t you come to the after-party?” And I said, “Not this time. I’m pitching tomorrow.” And she goes, “You have to come. You know, Dennis Rodman came once, and the next day was one of the best games of his career, 23 or 25 rebounds or something.” I can’t say she called me a pussy, but I can’t say she didn’t. So I went, and I look around and there’s Jimmy Fallon and Will Forte and probably Fred Armisen, and one thing just led to another.”
— David Wells to Complex in 2017
Everything about David Wells’ perfect game was electric.
Wells’ command was on. His fastball was buzzing. The bread-and-butter — his looping curveball that fell off the proverbial table — was unhittable. He took advantage of home plate umpire Tim McClelland’s expanding zone and recorded 11 strikeouts over nine innings. The only real scare was a Ron Coomer hot-shot, one-hopper to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. He knocked it down and fired to first in time.
Typically, pitchers in the midst of no-hitters and perfect games don’t talk to teammates in the dugout. It’s considered bad luck in baseball’s long list of unwritten rules. Nobody wanted to be the one to jinx Wells.
His catcher, Jorge Posada, wanted nothing to do with him on the bench. Darryl Strawberry would leave Wells’ side every time he sat next to him and tried talking to him. The only teammate to break the silence was pitcher David Cone, who cracked a joke after the seventh inning and eased some of Wells’ nerves.
“I just wanted to talk so it would ease my mind a little bit, but no one would come near me,” Wells told Sports Illustrated. “Coney comes over to me before the eighth inning and says, ‘Guess it’s time to break out your knuckleball.'”
After retiring the side in the eighth albeit without any knuckleballs, Cone quipped at him and called him a wimp. “That was all anyone said to me,” Wells said.
“I didn’t talk to [Wells] the whole day,” he told MLB.com in 2018. “We talked before the game. We talked after the game. It’s a perfect game — you don’t want to jinx anything. … He was throwing everything I wanted him to throw, locations and pitches and counts. It doesn’t happen often, so it was a very special day.”
Wells’ cause was helped by a pedestrian Twins offense missing its hottest hitter, lefty Todd Walker, and a young but very good David Ortiz who landed on the disabled list just before the team came to the Big Apple. It consisted of Paul Molitor, who had notched 3,000 hits but was well past his prime at 41. Twins starter LaTroy Hawkins didn’t look particularly sharp either.
Prior to the final out, Yankees manager Joe Torre sat like a statue on the bench. Hands in his oversized jacket and black shades resting on his cheeks, he didn’t move a muscle. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who contended Wells had great stuff in warm-ups, looked frozen on the bench as well. Cone had completely turtled into his jacket by then.
The final out and what followed was simply an iconic moment in Yankees history.
Paul O’Neill glided over to the right-field foul line to haul in an easy fly out off the bat of Pat Meares, the 27th and final of the day. Wells threw two forceful fist pumps. His teammates rushed the mound and hoisted all 250 pounds of him on their shoulders.
The raucous fans at Yankee Stadium — all 50,000 of them there on Beanie Baby Day — went wild. They asked for a curtain call. Wells, not one to shy away from the moment, obliged. The Yankees won, 4-0, and the scoreboard read, “David Wells Has Just Pitched A Perfect Game!!!”
David Wells had just pitched the 15th perfect game in MLB history. It was the second in Yankees history behind Larsen’s World Series perfecto in 1956. (Interestingly, Wells and Larsen went to the same high school.)
There was something about David Wells that baseball and Yankee fans loved. He was relatable. Owner George Steinbrenner once said he had the body of a beer-league softball player. Torre even complained about his weight the same season he was perfect. Wells played alongside greats like Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.
But to fans, he looked like someone who belonged in the bleachers, only he could manipulate a baseball like few others could.
Sports Illustrated once wrote:
“While his colleagues boast bulging veins on their arms and washboards for stomachs, Wells looks as if he just climbed out of the cab of an 18-wheeler. “It’s just the way I am,” he says, scratching his hairline, which is climbing into the hinterland of his head. “A little different, I guess.”
Maybe that’s why that final out sounded more like the last out of a World Series, even if it was a day game at the ballpark in the middle of May.
“I never saw the stadium so vibrant in a regular-season game,” said outfielder Bernie Williams, who clubbed a home run that day, to MLB.com. “Counting Jim Abbott’s no-hitter, counting Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter, David Cone’s perfect game. … Boomer just lit the whole city up.”Advertisement
Wells kept nearly every piece of memorabilia from that day, including the pitching rubber. Everyone in the Twins lineup — Matt Lawton, Brent Gates, Paul Molitor, Marty Cordova, Ron coomer, Alex Ochoa, Javier Valentin, Pat Meares — except Jon Shave signed it.
Thanks in part to “Boomer”, the Yankees did win the World Series that season. Wells finished 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA. The Bronx Bombers won 114 games, then an American League record. The All-Star won all four of his postseason starts, and the Yankees swept the San Diego Padres in the Fall Classic with ease.
Following the season, Steinbrenner traded Wells to the Blue Jays and obtained one of the best pitchers in the history of the game: Roger Clemens. Wells, in his mid-30s, pitched decently before returning to New York in 2002. Clemens helped the franchise win two more titles in 1999 and 2000 and won a Cy Young award in 2001.
Clemens never threw a perfect game. He never even threw a no-hitter (*scoffs* while writing this from my couch) despite any advantage he may have gained from his alleged steroid use.
Wells, on the other hand, was far from the perfect specimen (you don’t find many muffin tops on professional athletes). But on May 17, 1998, he was perfect… even with that skull-rattling hangover.