Perfect I’m Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball , by David Wells with Chris Kreski. William Morrow, 415 Pages, $25.95.
In the late spring of 2002, those of us who spend our time listening to sports radio while quietly questioning what’s gone wrong with our lives heard perhaps a week’s worth of rants, by everyone from Tony Kornheiser to Mike and the Mad Dog to Marcus, the 23-year-old who hosts the Sports and Grain Report in Iowa City, about a book being shopped around by former major leaguer Jose Canseco. Mr. Canseco-the famously buff, argumentative former slugger who once dated Madonna and had a ball bounce off his head for a home run, said he had something to say about steroids. Major leaguers used them, he said, and he was ready, in the spirit of Elia Kazan, to name names.
As it turned out, Mr. Canseco couldn’t find the book deal he so desperately wanted, and now the yammering over his allegations has been drowned out by the uproar over pitcher David Wells and his memoir, Perfect I’m Not . Mr. Wells, currently a starting pitcher with the Yankees, was a presence on two of the team’s championship runs, in 1998 and 1999, playing the good ol’ no-nonsense fat boy who evoked invented memories of Babe Ruth. But after it was discovered that advance copies of Perfect I’m Not claimed that 25 to 40 percent of major leaguers use steroids and that Mr. Wells pitched his 1998 perfect game “half-drunk,” good ol’ Boomer Wells became the most hated player in spring training since Garrett Morris’ fictional shortstop, Chico Escuela, showed up to camp after writing his tell-all Bad Stuff ’bout the Mets . Mr. Wells apologized to his Yankee teammates and toned down certain passages for the book’s final version. His team fined him $100,000.
Now we’re left with the book itself. And that’s a problem. For starters, Mr. Wells doesn’t point the finger at any steroid users besides Mr. Canseco and former San Diego and Houston third baseman Ken Caminiti, both of whom have come clean about their drug use. Mr. Wells still claims that steroids are being used (though he has revised his estimate down to something like 10 to 25 percent of players). Otherwise, this is a dry, season-by-season account of two decades in professional baseball, peppered with expletives and off-color adjectives. Like Mr. Wells himself, Perfect I’m Not hurtles hard but aimlessly through seasons, teammates and managers.
This should be an interesting story. Here’s a man raised around a band of Hell’s Angels, who struggled for years as a major leaguer-someone known only to the bespectacled men clutching Street & Smith annuals and crunching rotisserie statistics. Then he became a good pitcher with teams like Detroit, Baltimore and Cincinnati-and upon his arrival with the Yankees in 1997, became the brassy champion of every drunk, shirtless man sitting in the bleachers of the Bronx. But Mr. Wells is mostly interested in his own celebrity, and his public persona as the hard-charging everyman. It’s typical that he starts off his book with a chapter on how he came to dress in drag on Saturday Night Live . Some players are desperate to keep their carousing a secret; Mr. Wells seems determined to exploit his after-hours hanky-panky for promotional use.
The offensive thing here isn’t that Mr. Wells went out on an all-night bender with the cast of Saturday Night Live the night before he pitched the first perfect game for the Yankees since Don Larsen. It’s that the whole book seems like a tedious mission of vindication for a boozing lifestyle occasionally broken up by drunken fistfights. And it’s never Mr. Wells’ fault-not the fisticuffs with the cops in Chicago, nor the bloody brawl with two men the night of his mother’s funeral. Also not his fault: his release, early in his career, from the Toronto Blue Jays, or his public castigation of slugger Frank Thomas in 2001, his teammate at the time with the Chicago White Sox.
Presumably written in his own voice, Mr. Wells goes out of his way to insult the mental capacity of every reader over the age of 16. He writes that he hates being injured because “I LOVE pitching,” but offers little help in understanding what-besides blaring Metallica-motivates the most important player on the field at any given time. He offers up a list of banal commandments for rookies (“Keep the beer cold and available”) and, as an extra-special bonus, gives us the “David Wells ‘Got-Balls-Star’ Team” of his favorite players. He tells about one case of dysentery, and about a case of stomach flu cured by “one very brave trainer with a suppository gun.” Oh, by the way, ballplayers have sex on road trips, and “stat sheets don’t mean dick.”
We know what Mr. Wells is trying to do. He’s trying to shock and titillate, and at the same time make us love him. He wants his autobiography to be the muscle-shirted, loudmouthed, 21st-century version of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four . But he can’t pull it off. Even with the help of ghostwriter Chris Kreski, Mr. Wells can’t do what Mr. Bouton was able to do all on his own: expose the frailties and moral failings of ballplayers while making us appreciate the greatest game ever invented.
Maybe that’s too much to ask. With very few exceptions, the experience of reading any athlete’s autobiography always feels a little like the scene late in Everybody’s All-American , when a former football star forces his wife and cousin and the cousin’s girlfriend to listen to his own cassette-recorded account of his playing days. The warm feelings of fans and competition, of winning, of being in the moment-they’re all gone, replaced by this terrible, deflated retelling.
Of course, some ghostwriters can pull the best out of their subjects. They give order where typically there’s none; they give new life to vanished emotion. But one gets the feeling that even Dick Schaap would have a hard time crafting a sensible story if he were working with David Wells. In the end, Boomer’s just an ass.
Sridhar Pappu writes Off the Record for The Observer.