Former Hankyu Braves star Greg ‘Boomer’ Wells was raised to be an overachiever. That mentality and a willingness to focus on the positives allowed him to fashion a career in pro baseball where none might have existed. In a recent conversation, Wells touched on a wide variety of subjects, and rather than cover them all at once I’ll present them in a series of posts.
Football was one of the dumbest games
The son of a baseball-loving school principal father and a school teacher mother, baseball and good grades were a way of life for Wells as a child in Alabama. Although later drafted by the National Football League’s New York Jets out of college, Wells had no interest in high school football and didn’t play until coerced.
“I thought football was one of the dumbest games I’d ever seen,” he said.
“When I was in high school, I played baseball, basketball and saxophone in the band. I just didn’t like football. My senior year, the football coach was the P.E. instructor and he gave me a ‘D’ one grading period. I said, ‘What the heck?’ He gave one of the best athletes in the school a D in P.E. I didn’t bring home nothing but As and Bs. My dad wanted me to play football, too, but he wouldn’t force me. So, he looked at my report card, handed it back to me. I couldn’t bring a C home, but I bring home a D in P.E. and he don’t get upset?”
“I passed it to my mom and she went insane. I thought she was going to pick up a knife and go find the football coach and stab him to death. ‘How you going to get a D in P.E.?’ ‘I have no idea Mom.’ ‘That fool just wanted you to play football. That’s all it is.'”
“So, when I saw the reaction from my dad. He didn’t get upset or nothing, I said, ‘O.K. They want me to play football,’ so I went on out there.”
“I went on and played football and I wanted to make him kick me off the team, so then it would be no problem. I’d be practicing, and when I get tired, I’d just walk off the field and go to the sideline and sit down on one knee. The assistant coach would be screaming and yelling to get back on the field, but the head coach would be like, ‘Leave him alone.'”
“When Friday night showed up and we were playing. I started at offensive tackle and nose guard, and I didn’t like getting beat at anything so I played hard.”
Warren Cromartie asserted in a recent live chat that Japanese all play the same way, and there is some truth to that. But what makes Japan confounding to many is that so much of what is common here is rare back home. Imported players who succeed here, learn to deal positively with the unexpected, which brings the story back to Boomer.
Playing baseball as a child, Wells said, was a lesson in baseball improvisation, and I would argue, great training for a career in baseball where one’s old ways of doing things don’t always apply.
“Where I grew up, you’d play either little league or you’d play with the men. So at 10-years-old, you’d be playing against guys who were 16. If you were older and you were around our same size and you’d play little league if you weren’t good enough to play against the men.”
“When I was 10, 12 years old, I’d play a little league game during the day, and if my dad had a game at night, I would throw my bat and glove in the trunk of the car and go to the game with him. If one of his players didn’t show up and he was a player short, I’d play right field or second base with the men, and believe me, the men on the other team did not want the little boy hitting them because they’d be talking about them, so they’d bear down. I didn’t care, though, because I could hit. So, after the game, guys on the other team would come up to my dad and say, ‘Mr. Wells, that little boy can hit.'”
“My dad was the high school coach, and during the summer he would move our high school team into the men’s summer league and we used to beat these men down. We had a serious team. In the country, we played in places most of the time in places that didn’t have a fence. The field would go so far and then you’d have woods all around. I hit a ball way over into the woods and be jogging, thinking it’s a home run, there was no way the outfielder could find it. He disappeared into the woods no more than 10 steps and here comes a ball flying out of the woods. We’d be going, ‘Wait a minute.’ They knew we could hit so they’d have balls hid out in the woods. It was some of the craziest stuff.”
Some of the fields were really big. And they had a center fielder who could run, they’d put that guy out there. You’d hit the ball a mile and if it stayed in the air long enough, he was going to run it down and catch it. Man, you just don’t know. We had some stuff going on.”
“My coach and somebody he worked with was a coach of another team. They’d get to arguing about who’s got the best team, they’d get off work, both of them had pickup trucks, they’d go round and pick up their players. We’d jump on the back of the truck. We’d go to some man’s cow pasture, herd the cows into another section of the field and lock the gate, and drop some bases, and they always had a home plate carved out, dropped the plate and we’d play to see who had the best team.”
They taught us to catch the ball
Although Wells was drafted to play in the NFL, no MLB team took him out of Georgia’s historically black Albany St. College, and he only caught a minor league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays after they agreed to try him out.
And while his background in country ball prepared him for many things, he said his first year in pro ball in 1976 with the Single-A Beeville Bees in Beeville, Texas, was an eye-opener.
“My first year as playing professional with the Blue Jays, I was getting dressed, and my locker and my manager’s office was at an angle where he could see me getting dressed at my locker. So, I’m getting dressed and he comes out of his office and says, ‘Boomer. Where’s your cup?’”
“So, I reached up into my locker to get my drinking cup, and I said, ‘Here it is right here.’ And he said, ‘Nah. Your protective cup.’ I said, ‘What do you mean protective cup? What is a protective cup?’ He went back to his office and brought back a cup. And I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ He said, ‘You’re supposed to put it in your jock so you won’t get hit.’”
“’You’re telling me you played little league and high school and four years of college and you don’t know what a protective cup is? You never wore a protective cup?’ And I said, ‘Nah. Skip, where I’m from they taught you to catch the ball. They didn’t teach you to let the ball hit you. Where I grew up, we’re playing in corn fields and everywhere else and we caught the ball.’”
“We caught the ball because my dad would be coaching and if a bad hop came up and hit you, he might holler out of the dugout, ‘Beat him up ball, he jumped on you first,’ and everybody started laughing. He’d say, ‘That’s right son, save your glove,’ if a ball came up and hit you. ‘Save your glove. Leather costs too much now,’ stuff like that. So we made sure we caught the ball.”
“The reason I didn’t strike out so much is because you’d strike out and my dad would be standing at third base and say, ‘Whew. It really was hot out here son, but thanks for the fan,’ and stuff like that. He just liked teasing us. It was fun. It was crazy.”
“I used to let the manager see me put the cup in and he would leave and I’d hide it in my locker and play without a cup. The next year during the offseason, I saw I was going to have to wear a cup, so I did my running in the offseason with a cup so I could get used to it. And the funny thing is I never got hit in the crotch until I started wearing a cup. I had never took a bad hop to the balls until I started wearing a cup. I don’t know if it started making you get complacent.”
“Even in Japan, I never took ground balls in practice with a cup on. I only put in a cup when I got ready take infield and play the game.”
“They teach you to catch the ball. If the ball takes a bad hop, the glove is supposed to go to your crotch and your hand is supposed to go in front of your face and you sacrifice the rest of your body. But one hand goes one place and the other hand goes the other place. We never wore cups. Back then we played a lot of ball. It was something else. It was a different game then.”