The Yankees set an MLB record with 125 wins, including playoffs, during their 1998 championship season. None was more memorable than May 18.
It was in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd of 49,820 — many lured by the promotional giveaway of Beanie Babies — that a balding, overweight 35-year-old carrying a 5.23 ERA was immortalized in pinstripes. When Paul O’Neill caught the final out of a 4-0 win over the Twins, David Wells became the 15th pitcher in MLB history to throw a perfect game.
It was the first perfect game thrown at Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen improbably achieved the feat in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. When Wells, a Class of ’82 alum of Point Loma High, left the field, a phone call was waiting from Larsen, who graduated from the same San Diego high school 35 years earlier.
“He won’t forget it,” Larsen said then. “He’ll think about it every day, like I do.”
Wells thought too much when he was on the mound. He thought even more when he was alone in the dugout. The gregarious southpaw hated the tradition in which teammates stayed away from the starter chasing history, avoiding a potential jinx.
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“They were killing me, man,” Wells said.
David Cone sensed Wells’ nervousness. He sensed the need for levity in the seventh inning and approached Wells.
“I think it’s time to break out the knuckleball,” said Cone, who threw a perfect game at Yankee Stadium just over one year later.
Cone’s gamble paid off.
“I can’t tell you how much that helped me,” Wells said.
Wells was in his 12th major league season, playing for his fifth team since 1992. Less than two weeks prior to perfection, Wells was pulled from a start in the third inning after giving up seven runs, prompting manager Joe Torre to suggest the lefty was out of shape.
During the greatest performance of his career, Wells claims he slept just one hour beforehand, writing in his 2003 autobiography, “Perfect, I’m Not.” that he was “half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover.”
Still, Wells threw 120 pitches and recorded 11 strikeouts, facing one slight scare in the eighth inning, when Ron Coomer hit a one-hop laser to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who knocked the ball down and made an easy throw to first for the out.
Then, Wells became another improbable Yankees legend, emphatically pumping his left fist after the final out, as teammates rushed him to celebrate.
“That was the finest moment of my baseball career,” said Wells, who finished the season 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA and would later pitch Game 1 of the 1998 World Series. “To be out there and be mobbed by every single member of the team, it was unbelievable.”
Wells saluted the crowd and was carried off the field, atop the shoulders of Darryl Strawberry and Bernie Williams.
“Nobody can take this away from me, no matter what happens,” Wells said. “I’m just going to cherish this for the rest of my life. I’m honored and I couldn’t be happier.”