The son of a professional football player, Vernon Wells was born with phenomenal natural athletic ability and raised on the principles of hard work and dedication. Now shining as the All-Star centerfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, Wells has reached the pinnacle of his sport. But his path to stardom, although fast and fortunate, didn't happen without a few bumps along the way. Here, Wells discusses the choices he's made, the experiences he's had, and the advice he offers, based on his rise to becoming one of baseball's most gifted athletes.
STACK: Your father was a receiver for Texas Christian University, tried out with the Kansas City Chiefs and, ultimately, had a career in the CFL. Did his career as a pro athlete influence your career path?
Wells: I think it helped in terms of my preparation at a young age. When I played football, he knew everything to do as far as running and getting myself in shape. Since I played quarterback, running back and linebacker on the team, I had to be in pretty good shape, and having him there was a big help.
STACK: Did your father push you to do those things, or were you self-motivated, turning to him just for advice?
Wells: He always told me that he'd be there for me, but it was a matter of what I wanted to do and how hard I wanted to work for it; it was always my choice. That allowed me to grow as a person and understand what Ineeded to do to be successful.
STACK: At what point did you realize being a professional athlete was in the cards for you?
Wells: Probably the summer after my junior year [in high school]. I started hearing different things, like I might be a second- or third-round picksomewhere around there. I thought that was cool and everything, but you never want to settle. During my senior year, onceI finished football, it was time to see what I could do in baseball. And I had a good senior year, so more people started showing up to my gamesscouts and scouting directors. Actually, my first high school baseball game that season, I ended up having 40 scouts watching; it was fun to experience that.
STACK: Did you ever feel pressure to pick one sport or the other?
Wells: Not really. As much as I loved football, I knew my future was going to be in baseball. You have a much longer career in baseball. I loved both sports, but when it came down to it, I felt the smarter decision was to play baseball.
STACK: Originally, your plan was to attend Texas on a baseball scholarship. But then your dad set up a workout for you in front of scouts, which vaulted you to becoming the fifth overall pick in the 1997 MLB draft. What happened there?
Wells: We held a workout a few weeks before the draft, right at the end of my senior year. About 60 to 80 scouts and a few GMs showed up. It was a neat experience. I got to throw, hit, catch and run my 60 in front of all those people. It was a chance to show them what I could do, and it really helped.
My dad wanted to get my name out there as much as possible so people could see what I could do. He ran with me in the 60. He started about 10 yards in front of me so I could try to catch him. He was there with me the whole time.
STACK: As you were coming up through the minors, there was a time in 2000 when you and Jose Cruz, Jr. battled for the centerfield spot with the Blue Jays. Winning that would have kept you in the Majors, but it ended up in his favor and you were sent back down to Triple A. How'd you bounce back from that?
Wells: It's always frustrating, especially when you get a taste of [playing in the pros] at an early age; I made it up when was 20 years old. You kind of think, "Okay, I'm going to be here the rest of the time," but it's not that easy. I struggled in spring training and throughout that whole year in Triple A. So I sat back after that season, and realized that I needed to just get out there and play, and try to make [management's] decisions harder. In the next spring training, 2001, I went out and hit about .400; and still got sent down. I realized that there just wasn't room for me at that point. I needed a situation where I could play every day, and the only place I could do that was in Syracuse. So I just made the best of it. It was a learning experience, and I think it really helped me along the way.
STACK: Things have gone a lot better recently. You were selected to the All-Star team in 2003 and again this season, and you won Gold Gloves in 2004 and 2005. Now that you've accomplished so much, what kind of personal goals can you even set?
Wells: None really, personally. You get to the point where the only thing that's important is winning. All the personal things that come after that are cool, but the ultimate goal is winning a ring.
STACK: You're in the same division as Boston and the Yankees. What's it like having two perennial playoff teams in your divisionexciting or frustrating?
Wells: A little bit of both. Obviously, it's great playing against the bestand those two teams have been the best in baseball for years. It's fun to match up with those guys. But it gets old playing them almost 20 times a year.
STACK: About your transition in the Blue Jays organization: how has going from the young guy surrounded by older talent to the accomplished veteran changed your role on the team? Are you more of a leader now?
Wells: I think there's a natural progression. The longer you're here, the more faces you see come and go, so you start to develop different relationships with people. I just try to go out and play the game the right wayplay hard every day and carry myself right. My hope is that younger guys coming up see that and realize how the game should be played at this level. Then, just have fun with it.
STACK: What mistakes did you make along the way, but ultimately learn from?
Wells: The thing about baseball is that you never stop learning. continue learning new things every day, and that's what's fun about this game. You're going to make mistakes, and you're going to struggle. You can see what kind of man a guy really is by how he comes back from the mistakes and struggling.
STACK: Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for players who want to make it to the pros?
Wells: You just have to know that it's not easy. When you're in the minors, you go through cities that have populations of a couple thousand people; you have 12- to 13-hour bus rides; and through it all, you have to remain determined to get to where you want to gothe Majors. You have to work hard, because it's not easy to get here. And, once you are here, it's even harder to stay. You gotta work and be willing to do it for the long haul.
STACK: Now that you've been a day-to-day player for six seasons, have you developed a certain pre-game routine to fire up or stay calm?
Wells: I'm different than most; I'm more relaxed. With 162 games, you kind of have to pace [your emotions] and know what it takes to psyche yourself for the game. But since I'm pretty low key, there's not much I need to do to get ready.
STACK: Any superstitions when things are going wellor when they're going badly?
Wells: Personally, no. I don't believe in superstitions.I just go out and try to hit that round thing with the bat. If it happens it happens; and if it doesn't, luckily, there's always tomorrow.
STACK: Any final words of advice for young athletes?
Wells: Just for life in general, don't ever sell yourself short. Don't ever look back and wish you would have done this or that, or you would've worked harder in a certain situations if you'd known you could've gotten better. I always refer to the quote from Remember the Titans: "Leave no doubt."
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