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By Peter Gross
The word ‘new’ is in play in Toronto baseball circles these days. A new name to the stadium as the Rogers Centre becomes the sporting hive. New giant outfield video monitors. New turf. And a new team leader.
Vernon Wells, 6’1”, 225 pound centerfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays is only 26 years old. But he’s a really old 26. Check out his baseball itinerary:
• First round pick of the Blue Jays as an 18 year-old
• Class ‘A’ ball in St. Catharines 1997.
• Then on to the Hagerstown Suns.
• A Winter in Australia playing for the Sydney Storm.
• 70 games with the Dunedin Blue Jays.
• Then the Knoxville Smokies of Double ‘A’.
• Invited to the Futures All-Star game at Fenway Park.
• A step up to AAA Syracuse Chiefs.
• Called to the Majors by the Blue Jays in September of 1999.
• Played in the Arizona League later that year.
• Back to Syracuse.
• Recalled by the Blue Jays.
• A third stint in Syracuse.
• A second call-up by the Jays.
• Hello Syracuse for the fourth time.
• Called back to Toronto,.
• In 2002, finally declared the centre fielder for the Blue Jays.
Whew! Play baseball. See the world. Ride a lot of buses. As an 18 year –old Vernon received a $1.6 million signing bonus from the Blue Jays. Some kids might have partied hard with that kind of coin.
“I got the bonus in two cheques, $800,000 each, I bought one car – a Montero Sport – and put the rest in the bank.”
Though he’s had just three full seasons as a Blue Jay, Vernon is not at all intimidated that many consider him the big star on the team
“I’ll accept the label,” he says with the typical low-key approach he takes to interviews,
“Whatever other people label you doesn’t really matter as long as you’re playing the game the right way, and having a good time.”
Wells presents himself in public and to the media as a mature, co-operative guy. But, apparently, there’s a closet comedian itching to break loose.
Take a game last season against the Texas Rangers:
“We’d been struggling the whole week as a team.” he says as a way of setting up his gag,
“I hit a single and as I pulled into first, I took out these goofy oversized false teeth and put them on. Rafael Palmeiro was the first baseman and he laughed and shook his head.”
So Wells actually planned the Jerry Lewis impression. Have to wonder, though, what if he slid into second and sustained teeth bites on his leg? How do you explain that to the team doctor?
“I put them in my left pocket,’ he says logically, “I always slide on my right.”
Wells’ appeal to the Blue Jays even as a teenager was something even veteran scouts drool over. He is a five-tool player. That means he is exceptional in hitting, hitting for power, catching, running and throwing. Be above average in three of those categories and the Major League faucet flows green into your bank account. Go five for five and you’ll never buy on credit again. Interestingly, he values his defence more than the terror he represents at the plate to opposing pitchers.
“I take pride in what I do in the field. Being an outfielder, you have the chance to stop a big inning by robbing people of doubles and base hits. It’s a position that if you’re good at it, your pitchers love you.”
Already early in the season, the love must be showing, because Wells is flashing the leather in centre field, making several stunning catches. As much as he prepares himself for the moment that he can lope, almost Gretzky-like not to where the ball is, but to where the ball will be, Vernon Wells is very much a man driven by career objectives.
“I want to win at least one championship and I want to make it to the Hall of Fame,” he says without a trace of bragging, but vibrating with confidence.
Opening day critics have predicted the Blue Jays can do no better than fourth place and 75 wins. Think higher, insists Wells who is the Jays’ firmly etched-in #3 batter.
“That kind of stuff actually motivates me. It’s a totally different team than it was last year. The focus is better. I don’t think there’s a limit to what this team can do. Should be a fun year for everybody watching.”
Vernon loves Toronto, and lucky baseball fans just might catch a glimpse of him off the field, but still at the plate, sampling the local cuisine. He enjoys a good steak at Morton’s and the prolific power hitter gets his pasta and pizza fix at Poppa Leoni’s Italian Restaurant, a couple of singles north of the Rogers Centre up Blue Jays Way.
As he continues to grow and improve as a hitter, Wells admits the New Age book of baseball might not apply to him.
“I’m a little different from the whole Moneyball approach,” he says, referring the idea of building a team from on-base statistics.
“I’m aggressive from the first pitch to the last pitch. If I walk, I walk.”
Walking might help the team from time to time, but Vernon Wells is way more fun to watch swinging and running.
In his second at-bat of the new season, he slammed his 83rd career homerun bringing his RBI total to exactly 300.
And there’s lots more where that came from.