By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
The first “Boomer” Wells to play for the Toronto Blue Jays wasn’t given much of an opportunity to excel with the club.
And in hindsight, it’s hard to understand why.
In August 1981, when the 6-foot-5 slugger, whose birth name is Greg, was summoned to the big leagues for the first time, the Blue Jays were coming off a lengthy and damaging players’ strike and were headed for another last-place finish in the American League East.
With attendance at Exhibition Stadium starting to slip and the Blue Jays’ offence the worst in the league, it appeared to be the perfect time for the club to introduce a towering, charismatic power-hitting first baseman. The then 27-year-old Wells had hit .292 with 20 home runs in 112 games in triple-A Syracuse and was a team leader and fan favourite wherever he played.
But despite all of these assets, Wells was used primarily as a pinch hitter by Blue Jays manager Bobby Mattick and had just 73 at bats in 32 games after his promotion. Granted the Blue Jays had veteran John Mayberry at first base, but you’d think they could’ve found more at bats for the young slugger.
“I don’t think Bobby Mattick liked me,” said Wells in a recent phone interview.
The two were well-acquainted because Mattick had been the farm director while Wells was ascending the club’s ranks. At every stop, Wells had been one of the top hitters and was generally looked up to by his teammates. He worked hard but he also had fun when he played and the ultra-serious Mattick sometimes didn’t appreciate this.
Wells also believes his status was hurt by that fact that he was signed out of a tryout camp and was not a draft pick that the club had invested a lot of money in.
“Every time Bobby had a chance to get on me about something, he did,” said Wells. “I think the only reason I went up that year was because of the strike. And when they had the strike, the television cameras came to the minor leagues and they saw what I was doing down there.”
Following the 1981 season, Wells was dealt to the Minnesota Twins to complete a trade for outfielder Hosken Powell. To be fair to the Blue Jays, the Twins didn’t give Wells much of a chance either. He competed in just 15 contests for them in 1982 before he was sold to Hankyu Braves of the Japan Pacific League where he evolved into one of the greatest foreign players in the league’s history.
So by the time the second “Boomer” Wells – the outspoken left-handed pitcher – debuted with the Blue Jays in 1987, the first “Boomer” had established himself as a superstar slugger in Japan.
Now a 66-year-old grandfather living in Cartersville, Ga., Wells, who’s still quick with a laugh and a humorous anecdote, is not one to hold grudges. He may not have always got along with Mattick, but he sings the praises of his other coaches and managers in the Blue Jays’ system like Duane Larson, Vern Benson and Jimy Williams and he credits the club’s original administrator of player personnel, Elliott Wahle, for jump-starting his professional baseball career.
“I still have warm feelings towards the Blue Jays because they gave me the opportunity to play,” said Wells. “I will always be grateful to Elliott Wahle and the Toronto Blue Jays.”
Wells grew up in McIntosh, Ala., a small town about 40 miles north of Mobile. His dad, William, was a school principal and his mom, Julia, a teacher.
“My dad was probably the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen,” said Wells. “He didn’t get a chance to play professionally, but he was a legend wherever he played . . . I never remember him hitting a single. I remember guys walking him with the bases loaded to keep him from hitting.”
Wells learned the game from his dad and it wasn’t long before he was similarly feared at the plate. But there wasn’t much of an organized Little League in McIntosh when he was a kid.
“It was funny. We used to play in places that didn’t have fences,” remembered Wells. “When I see these Little League games on TV today, I tell people, ‘Man, if we had played on fields with a fence that was 300 feet, I’d have been Babe Ruth in Little League.’”
Baseball was Wells’ sport of preference, but when he began attending McIntosh High School, coaches looked at his 6-foot, 180-pound frame and tried to recruit him for the football team. The athletic teen, who was also a power forward on the basketball squad, declined invitations to play football for his first three years of high school. With his parents in the education field, Wells was a straight-A student, but when he got a report card with a “D” in physical education, which was taught by the school’s football coach, he reconsidered his stance on football.
“I thought if it’s going to mess with my grades, I guess I’ll play,” he said.
So in his senior year, with only a few football practices under his belt, he found himself starting at offensive tackle and then at nose guard on defence. And he quickly became a standout. In fact, his athletic prowess earned him several scholarship offers. Most schools wanted him to focus on one sport, but he chose Albany State University because they were OK with him competing in all three sports (baseball, basketball and football).
However, after attending his first collegiate hoops practice, he realized that, at 6-feet, he was too short and opted to focus on baseball and football.
As with many southern collegiate sports programs, football was the priority at Albany State, so Wells was most prized for his gridiron skills. He had to convince the school’s baseball coach, Joe Brown, who doubled as the offensive line coach, to start him at first base in the season opener. And he was only able to do so when he told the coach that his parents were coming to watch him play. In that game, Wells belted two home runs and he became the club’s starting first baseman for the rest of the season.
It should also be noted that Wells came to college as a 16-year-old (He skipped a grade in elementary school) and grew five inches while at Albany State and by his senior year, he was 6-foot-5 and had filled out to around 220 pounds.
But he was still surprised when he was selected by the New York Jets as a guard in the 16th round of the 1975 NFL draft.
“I thought I was too small to play professional football at my position,” he recalled.
But his passion continued to be baseball and he was hopeful that he’d be selected in the MLB draft that same year, but when that didn’t happen, he signed with the Jets. Unfortunately, he suffered a severe knee injury in his first camp which essentially ended his football career.
After he recovered, he decided to resume his baseball career and the following spring he secured a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he only spent a short period with them before they suggested he join the Beeville Bees of the independent Gulf States League. He proceeded to bat .356 and knock in 78 runs in 81 games and latch on with the Cleveland Indians in February 1977, but he was released towards the end of spring training and returned home feeling disillusioned.
“My dad said, ‘Hey, if you feel you can play, why don’t you just ride down to Florida and walk into a camp?’” recalled Wells.
So that’s what he did.
He drove to the Chicago White Sox camp in Sarasota and convinced them to give him a look.
“I didn’t have any money for a hotel, so I drove down and parked on the beach and cracked my windows and went to sleep,” said Wells. “I went back to the stadium the next morning. I took a shower and I stood there waiting for everyone else to come in.”
He slept in his car again the next night, but unfortunately, the White Sox eventually cut him.
Not ready to give up, he heard that the Blue Jays, about to begin their first major league season, might be looking for players. He drove to Dunedin and spoke with Wahle, who told him the club would be holding a tryout camp in Utica, N.Y., the home of their New York Penn League class-A Short-Season affiliate. Wells flew up to the camp and tried out and was ultimately signed. He went on to top the New York Penn League in RBIs (68) and finish third in batting average (.339) and was elevated to the class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays the following year.
In Dunedin, he continued to be an offensive force, topping the club in batting average (.317) and RBIs (79). His performance earned him a call-up to the club’s triple-A affiliate in Syracuse for 29 games.
Wells, who had recently turned 23, was feeling like the big leagues were within his grasp. His plan was to play in triple-A in 1979 and then hopefully get called up to The Show. But despite a torrid start in spring training, Wells was assigned to class-A Kinston. He expressed his displeasure and asked why he was being sent back to class-A.
“And, of course, Pat Gillick and Bobby Mattick, they don’t want to hear any of this. They just were like, ‘Here sign these papers and you’re going down,'” recalled Wells. “I told them, ‘Why don’t you loan me out to a double-A team?’ They told me they weren’t going to do anything that could cause them to lose my contract . . . I guess I pissed them off.”
Eventually he had a heart-to-heart with Syracuse manager Vern Benson who told him the reason he was being sent to class-A was because the club had veterans (including Doug Ault) who would eat up much of the playing time at first base in triple-A and the club wanted him to be on a team where he played every day and Kinston was the only option (The Blue Jays did not yet have a double-A affiliate).
After Wells arrived in Kinston, he quickly proved that he belonged at a higher level, batting .356 and blasting 10 home runs in 37 games before he was promoted to triple-A. He’d hit .274 with 13 home runs and 65 RBIs in 99 games with Syracuse, but he did not receive a September call-up.
In 1980, he enjoyed another solid triple-A campaign, batting .263 with 14 home runs and 76 RBIs in 139 games, while further cementing himself as a team leader and fan favourite in Syracuse, but he still didn’t get promoted to the big club.
It became even more frustrating for Wells in 1981 when he found it difficult to even get playing time in triple-A when the season began. Wells clashed with manager Bob Humphreys, who had been a pitching coach in the organization. Humphreys was determined to play Charlie Beamon at first base, but Wells slowly won Humphreys over and batted .292 with 20 home runs and he even swiped a career-best 15 bases in 112 games.
And in early August, he was on a road trip with Syracuse in Rochester when he finally got the call to the big leagues. He travelled on a bus with his teammates to Toledo and then rented a car and drove to Tiger Stadium in Detroit to meet up with the Blue Jays.
Facing Tigers reliever Kevin Saucier on August 10 with the Blue Jays trailing 3-2 and pinch-runner George Bell on second base with one out in the top of the ninth inning, Wells hit a game-tying RBI single in his first major league at bat.
When the team returned to Toronto to play the Milwaukee Brewers in the next series, Wells was booked into a room in the Westin Hotel in downtown Toronto. He can remember taking the street car to Exhibition Stadium.
“Some of my best memories with the Blue Jays are of my teammates,” said Wells. “Big John Mayberry was a great teammate, and Big John and Otto Velez and those guys treated me like I’d been in the big leagues for six or seven years. Because my locker was always close to Big John’s and Otto Velez’s lockers, they would always want me to play cards with them.”
Wells and Mayberry developed a fast friendship. Mayberry often gave him shoes and equipment and Wells would look out for Mayberry in social situations where the Blue Jays star may have had a few drinks.
When Wells arrived in the big leagues, a lot of his former minor league roommates were already there. While in the minors, Wells, at various times, roomed with Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw, Dave Stieb and Danny Ainge.
“Jesse Barfield was one of my roommates. We used to sit up all night and I tried to teach Jesse how to hit a curveball,” remembered Wells. “Jesse was my roommate for two years after he got drafted. He couldn’t cook. He couldn’t wash his own clothes . . so I had to treat him like a little brother. At first, I had to cook for him and wash his clothes . . . I remember Jesse used to call me his daddy.”
On the field, Wells saved his best for last. In the Blue Jays’ final game of the 1981 season, Wells went 3-for-3 with a double and two singles against tough Seattle Mariners left-handers Floyd Bannister and Shane Rawley at the Kingdome. But it wasn’t enough to convince Mattick and the Blue Jays to keep him and that off-season he was dealt to the Twins.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old slugger was assigned to the Twins’ triple-A club in Toledo and batted .336 with 28 home runs and 107 RBIs in 136 games before he was called up by the Twins and got into 15 contests.
Following that season, he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when he got a phone call from his agent who told him that he had been sold to the Hankyu Braves of the Japan Pacific League. Wells was irate and told the Twins he wasn’t going. Then he started receiving phone calls from Twins owner Calvin Griffith.
“I said, ‘Calvin, you can’t sell me to Japan without my permission. That’s slavery,'” recalled Wells. “And he said, ‘Well, we sold you and you’re going.’”
Wells was steadfast in his refusal to go. He would have to uproot his wife and he’d be thousands of miles away from his relatives.
“Calvin called me again and said, ‘Boomer, let me tell you something: If you blow this deal, there’s no telling where I’ll send you next year,'” said Wells.
Wells began to fear where he may end up.
“I said to my wife, ‘This is the situation, if I don’t go to Japan, then I’ll probably get blackballed and be out of the game,’ And she said, ‘Let’s travel,'” recalled Wells.
And the decision proved to be a great one for Wells. He developed into one of the first American superstars in the Japanese professional ranks once he grew accustomed to their rigorous training schedule.
“They didn’t stop moving all day except for about 40 minutes to eat a bowl of noodles and drink some tea,” he said.
In spring training, Wells would come home exhausted.
“I’d come back to the room and I’d be covered in dirt from head to toe,” he recalled. “And I’d walk in the door and my wife would be sitting there and she’d be like, “What are we doing? Where are we going?’ . . . And I’d say, ‘I’ll tell you where I’m going: I’m going to lay down behind the door on the floor and fall asleep for an hour.’”
But the training paid off for Wells. In 1984, he became the first American to win a Triple Crown in the Japan Pacific League when he hit .355 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs. In all, in his decade overseas, he had three 40-home run seasons, five 30-home run campaigns and seven 20-home run seasons. He also batted .300 or better eight times and took many of the Americans that came over to Japan under his wing.
Wells also showed his Japanese teammates that baseball could be fun. His teammates were initially hesitant to laugh with him because they feared the wrath of their manager.
“I always thought, This is not a job. This is a game and a game is supposed to be fun,” he said. “Finally everyone loosened up and we starting having some fun. And the manager never said a word. We were winning and having fun, laughing and joking and acting crazy.”
Wells played his last game in Japan in 1992, but he’s still a legend in the country and has returned there for appearances and alumni games.
These days, Wells lives in Cartersville, Ga., and is retired. He still offers batting instructions to local kids, but he spends most of his time around home with his wife, Debra. His daughter, Mika, teaches English in Korea, and Wells has a nine-month old granddaughter named Nari. He was fortunate that he got to visit his granddaughter last March before the COVID-19 pandemic started to shut everything down.
“I think my wife talks to my daughter and my granddaughter on FaceTime every night,” said Wells. “I talk to her maybe four times a week. I have a good time. She’s a happy baby. She’s always smiling and laughing. I tell my daughter that she’s going to have my sense of humour and my daughter says, ‘Oh God, I hope not.'”
Wells still follows the Blue Jays and has mostly fond memories of his time in the organization.
“With the Blue Jays, I got my opportunity to play and I’ll always be grateful for that and I made a lot of friends while playing with Toronto . . . And they have become lifelong friends,” he said.