January 21, 2011. For Angels fans, it is a day that shall live in infamy.
Less than a month into the new year, Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera found themselves bound for the great white north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Meanwhile, in Anaheim, players and personnel awaited the arrival of the Angels' newest acquisition: Veteran outfielder Vernon Wells. A man that has had more news about his contract than his play in recent years, Wells had signed a contract worth a backloaded $126 million with the Blue Jays in 2006 and the figurative bill was being brought to the table. However, in a move that is still debated to this day, Arte Moreno reached out and saved the Blue Jays, taking on the higher paying years of Wells's contract and bringing him to the Big A.
The rest, as they say, is history. A sad, underperforming, unexceptional history.
“Bust” is rarely a word that people want used to describe them, but it was a word floated liberally in Vernon's time with the Angels. At times, it seemed his only purpose was to make Gary Matthews Jr. (long since traded to the Mets) not seem so bad. Wells ended the 2011 season barely above the Mendoza line at only a .218 average, falling far short of expectations. He made a better showing in 2012, but this can be attributed to the fact that it would be difficult for a veteran athlete to have a 2011 worse than his. So it went, with “bust” rarely spoken out loud, but with words like “second-rate”, “middle-of-the-road”, “garbage” and the friendly-by-comparison “slumping” used in its place.
For some reason, fans never took to Vernon the way they've taken to recent super-contract signings Albert Pujols and Josh Hamiltion. Maybe it was because Mike Napoli was so beloved in Anaheim (and would later destroy the Angels in division play with the Rangers) and Vernon was barely a true replacement. Maybe it was that Angels fans had their heart set on Carl Crawford, who ultimately signed with the hated Red Sox. Maybe it was because fans expected more out of a player set to make $86 million off of their ticket and beer sales. Whatever the reason, Vernon never really seemed to fit in SoCal. It is a very sad tale because Vernon Wells was never a real bad guy. Indeed, since arriving in Anaheim, he had done nothing but make every effort possible to improve and seize opportunity with the team. Were he a traditional no-cares-given antagonist like Milton Bradley or Roger Clemens, his place in Angels history would easily be set in stone. With all of the ire directed towards his contract, it would be far easier for fans to justify our anger if he were a true douchebag.
Presently, Vernon is on his way to don the historic pinstripes of the New York Yankees who will be paying a mere $14 million for his services (with the rest of the tab to be picked up by Arte Moreno and his ample checkbook). Understandably, Vernon is playing to the New York crowd with the typical lines about always loving the team and the "history" of the team. Strangely, these remarks are being met with none of the usual outrage. Perhaps the fans are tired. Afterall, drinking enough beer and consuming enough stadium food to defray a multi-million dollar contract has to lead to one hell of a hangover. Furthermore, the Josh Hamilton signing shows the contract train isn't slowing down anytime soon. It stands to reason then , that fans just don't have the time to contemplate Vernon Wells. Two years is barely a blip on the radar of longtime fans, and the news of free agent acquisitions over that time may have made us partially forget the $86 million, .200 hitting elephant in the room.
Tired as we are, we bid adieu to Vernon Wells and wish him all the best in his future endeavors. Wells didn't seek a trade. In fact, his no-trade clause made it so that he could have stayed in Anaheim and simply collected a paycheck by riding the bench. Vernon did not take that route and despite his middle-of-the-road play as of late, you'd be hard pressed not to at least respect the man. His contract will linger and will certainly be a sore subject for fans for years to come. The situation brings to mind the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Ultimately, we can only shake our heads and laugh. Despite the arguments surrounding his contract, Vernon Wells was simply a man doing his best, and no one can fault that.
Even if his best was riding the bench behind Mark Trumbo.