Letter From America: Yankees banish `Boomer'

SPORT IS an unsentimental business, and New York is a cynical city. So you might not have expected anyone to have been especially surprised when the Yankees sent a much-loved baseball player into exile, since they gained a superior one in return. And you would be wrong.

David "Boomer" Wells is short and fat and unpredictable. He managed to pitch a perfect game last season, one of only 13 people this century to end a game without a single base against him. He is talented, but he is equally capable of picking a fight with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' cranky owner, in the clubhouse, antagonising Joe Torre, the manager, and all other manner of horseplay. "If you liked Metallica, tattoos, Howard Stern and post-game beers, you liked Wells," wrote the august New York Times.

And David Wells is no longer a Yankee, the thing that he wanted to be all his life. Even though they put his picture on the spring game schedule, even though he was one of the few real characters in a team that is perhaps the best ever, yet sometimes a little, well, mechanical, they decided they could do without him and two less well-known players, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush. They were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Wells had just done a slot on Bubba The Love Sponge (which apparently is a local radio programme in Tampa, Florida) when he was called in to see Torre. He was gutted. When Lloyd came in to join them, Wells said simply: "Graeme, you had better sit down. You're going north of the border." He left with his shades on, and wearing a Yankees cap, looking for all the world as if he had just been hit by a train. "I'm a little emotional right now," he said. "Just give me a coupla days. It's a little tough to take right now."

In exchange for Wells and the others the Yankees have got a real prize: Roger Clemens, one of the best pitchers the game has ever seen. Boomer was erratic; Clemens is a machine. Wells was not expected to repeat his glorious 1998 season; Clemens still has at least two years. It was a smart trade, in purely sporting terms.

But people hate it. Clemens is not popular. He is, for a start, associated with the hated Boston Red Sox (hated in New York, that is). He is a "carpetbagger," some of the papers said in comment the next day, who wanted out of the hapless Blue Jays because he was apparently never going to win a World Series medallion in the Town That Fun Forgot. He is not going to be liked, for a while anyway.

And why, people asked, mess with the best? The Yankees stormed through last season like a combine harvester, mowing down the opposition and setting a new record for the most wins in a season. "What, do they want to win 126 games this time around? One hundred and twenty-five wasn't enough for them," asked George Vecsey of the Times. It was a common reaction: they were already the best team ever, so who do they have to beat - themselves?

The team that won the 1998 World Series had remained almost intact until the Wells trade, giving a familiar sense that this was a team from another age, a 1950s holdover. Baseball fans have a powerful sense of community and a mystical idea that history unfolds with the pitcher's arm among baseball fans. It was cruelly flouted by the 1994 strike. But it came back last year, and not just because of the epic battle for the home-run record. Wells was part of baseball's recovery. He pitched his perfect game, and he wore a cap that had been worn by Babe Ruth, even though it was against the rules. He was liked because he was like others: there are plenty of fat, beer-drinking 36-year-olds out there to identify with in the bleachers, and the idea that this man could attain perfection was a revelation, an aspiration (albeit an unrealistic one).

Now, it is back to business as usual, apparently. Spring training is under way already, after a busy offseason that has seen plenty of players, like Wells, traipsing from one city to another, slouching towards Toronto or Baltimore. There is not much sentiment in the game, not while Rupert Murdoch is paying over one hundred million dollars to a pitcher (Kevin Brown) to reinvigorate his Los Angeles Dodgers.

All of this will pass as soon as the game gets going again, of course. No-one likes to think sport is driven by money, but it is. If Clemens pitches the Yankees back into the World Series this year, then he will be a hero, loved by the fans. But if he screws up, God help him: New York does not forgive.