Farewell ‘V-Dub’

A week and a half before he was traded, Vernon Wells was right here on Laurier’s campus. He was putting on a clinic for some kids in the Athletic Complex along with three other members of the team as part of the Jays’ Winter Tour.

Partly out of sheer dumb luck, partly out of being polite to the right people I got the chance to do something I thought I’d never get to do, interview the four major leaguers. No disrespect to Jesse Litsch, J.P. Arrencibia and Travis Snider (the other three Jays at the event) but I will always remember that night as the night I got to talk to “V-Dub.”

Had I known it was going to be the last time anyone saw Wells in Jays gear, I probably would’ve taken that rare opportunity to say a personal thank you.

Now that Wells is a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (quite possibly the most ridiculously named team in sports) and his 12-year tenure with the Jays is over, the inevitable question arises, how will he be remembered by the city of Toronto?

Many will point to the enormous seven-year, $126 million contract he signed after the 2006 season. With that enormous contract came enormous expectations and Wells’s failure to live up that lofty hype tarnished his reputation for many disgruntled Jays fans.

Those people who were grumbling about how over-paid the three-time gold glover was will now be saying things like “good riddance” and “what did he ever do here anyway?” But was V-Dub really that bad?

Between 2002 and 2006, Wells became a star. Not just in Toronto, but a legitimate MLB star. In these five seasons he averaged 28 home runs, 97 RBI and a batting average of .287 per season. Then came the big contract and Wells went into a tailspin. Over the next three seasons, Wells’s numbers dropped to an average of 17 home runs, 74 RBI and .268 per year.

Between the massive contract, the weight of a nation on his shoulders (more Canadians like baseball than you’d think) and being essentially the only veritable hitting threat on the team it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that Wells faltered. But is that enough to tarnish the man’s entire career in Toronto?

For what it’s worth, this past season Wells very quietly had a solid year with teammate Jose Bautista grabbing most of the headlines with his 54- home run campaign. But for most, the respectable 31 home runs, 88 RBI and .273 average won’t be enough to resurrect the once high public opinion of Wells in Toronto.

What I’ll always remember about V-Dub’s time in Toronto won’t be how much money he made or whatever expectations he failed to live up to. It won’t even be the acrobatic catches or the home runs. What I’ll remember is a classy baseball player making the best of a losing situation.

Let’s face facts, with the way Major League Baseball is set up, there’s a legitimate chance the Leafs will make it back to the playoffs before the Jays. Let me reiterate that, I’m referring to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Jays just don’t have the financial resources to buy players like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox do, and they haven’t been bad enough for the past 10 years to stockpile first overall draft picks like the Tampa Bay Rays did. The Jays are stuck in a seemingly infinite cycle of mediocrity due to the backwards set-up of the MLB.

So Toronto has unfortunately become something of a black hole for talented baseball players. These players (like Wells) don’t get the airtime in the U.S. they often get overlooked in all-star voting and when they finish out of the playoffs so consistently the rest of the league just seems to forget them.

But did we ever hear V-Dub complain? No.

That is why I will look back over Wells’s career with the Jays with nothing but fondness. Not just for those good years he had on the field, but for how he carried himself off of it. He became the face of the franchise no American kid grows up wanting to play for and played the part to perfection. He embraced Toronto, embraced the Jays fans and ultimately embraced the idea of living and playing in Canada.

In the brief conversation I had with Wells as the groups of kids were rotating stations, he told me about moving to St. Catherine’s, Ont. as an 18-year-old when he was just starting out with the Jays. The look of fondness on his face and the laugh he let out as he recalled those days showed me that he was genuinely happy to have experienced these past 12 years in Toronto and I believe that’s been reflected in the way Wells carried himself throughout his career in Toronto and especially in his emotional goodbye to the Jays’ fans and media on Monday.

Wells has been an athlete of class and dignity under some of the toughest of circumstances and for that he deserves all the respect in the world.

Chris Bosh, take notes.