John McGrath: Former Mariner Wells fell victim to lies of March in 2013

February 28, 2014 

The sounds of a baseball game finally sang from my radio Thursday. Rick Rizzs and Aaron Goldsmith were back in the Mariners’ broadcast booth, and during the occasional lull, a vendor (“cold beer!”) and sometimes even a fan (“good eye, Carlos!”) could be heard in the stands beneath the booth.

Exhibition games don’t count, but that’s not to say exhibition games are meaningless. Listening to the descriptions of a faraway place where outfield flags are flapping in the wind – and fly balls are lost in the sun – can be relaxing to the point of therapeutic.

As the Mariners put together an early lead en route to a 7-1 victory over San Diego, I was reminded how well spring camp went for them last year, before March turned into April and the wheels fell off.

And then I was reminded of Casper Wells.

Remember Casper Wells? Acquired by the Mariners from Detroit as part of the misbegotten 2011 trade that sent starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Tigers, Wells is one of those “tweener” types who has no spectacular skill, but is pretty good at a lot of them. He can run. His arm is strong. He’s got some power, and he can play all three outfield positions.

Wells appeared to be in contention for a starting job last spring, and because his minor league options had expired, he figured to at least qualify for a roster spot as a fourth outfielder. But when camp closed, then-manager Eric Wedge determined veteran free agent Jason Bay to be

a better fit for that role, and Wells was designated for assignment.

Thus began one of those only-in-baseball journeys that mock the false promise of spring.

On April 10, Toronto claimed Wells off waivers. Five days later, the Blue Jays, without using Wells in a game, designated him for assignment. He was traded to Oakland for cash on April 22.

Wells had joined his third organization in three weeks, and if he had any temptations to unpack his suitcase, he should have resisted them. He went 0-for-5 before his name reappeared on the transaction wire as a DFA (designated for assignment) victim. On April 29, the A’s traded Wells to the White Sox for cash.

Wells got only 11 hits with the White Sox, but he managed to hang on in Chicago for more than three months, appearing in 38 games – including one as a pitcher, throwing a scoreless inning in relief.

A three-month stint is barely more than a cup of coffee – it’s a full cup and maybe a top-off – but in the vagabond world of Casper Wells, three months spent with one organization qualified as an era.

Ah, but all good things must come to an end. He was put on waivers, and the Phillies signed him Aug. 8.

If the frustrations of a ballplayer’s peripatetic path from Seattle to Philadelphia (with stops along the way in Toronto, Oakland and Chicago) can be reduced to a single night, that night would have to be Aug. 24, when Wells was called upon to take the mound in the top half of the 18th inning of a game that found the Phillies and Diamondbacks locked in a 7-7 tie.

The Phillies’ bullpen was empty – nine pitchers preceded Wells – and the right fielder merely changed positions, hoping to reprise his scoreless-inning effort with the White Sox.

That didn’t happen.

He gave up three walks, three hits and five earned runs in two-thirds of an inning, a shelling that obscured his woeful offensive performance: 0-for-7 with four strikeouts.

Between the relief-pitching disaster and his struggles at the plate, Wells might have endured the worst night in the history of big-league baseball. But he didn’t cry, because he couldn’t cry.

Three days later, he was put on the disabled list with “dry-eye syndrome,” a common post-operative consequence of Lasik surgery.

Wells was granted free agency Oct. 18, enabling him to sign a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs on Nov. 20.

To recap the not-so-happy totals: Between late March, when he was a candidate to break camp on the Mariners’ roster, and late November, when he hooked on with the Cubs, Wells was employed by six teams.

The record for most teams in an MLB career, by the way, is held by relief pitcher Octavio Dotel, who has worn 13 different uniforms and likely is amenable to a 14th. Matt Stairs, a position player with no signature position, also wore 13 different uniforms, but there’s a caveat: He debuted with the Montreal Expos and retired from the Washington Nationals, the same organization. Stairs played for 12 different teams.

Wells has his work cut out for him to challenge the likes of Dotel and Stairs, but he’s only 29. If 2013 was a portent, and his contract is held by six different teams every year, he’ll have been associated with every major league franchise by the time he’s 33, in 2018.

A strange career, perhaps, but the stuff of an entertaining autobiography. (I’d love to co-author it, if only for the opportunity to be known as Casper’s ghost writer.)

And yet I hope his new gig with the Cubs works for a while. Wells has coped with his up-and-down-and-over-and-around career with a cheerful resilience.

On his Twitter account, he recently posted a quote from Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

I’m not sure whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist. I’m just a sentimental sap who listens to an exhibition game on the radio, savoring the beautifully sweet sound of a bat meeting a ball, and then recalls Casper Wells hitting home runs for the Mariners in March.

Six teams ago.


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