Vernon Wells III was born December 8, 1978, in Shreveport, Louisiana, to Vernon Jr. and Dianne. Plans to name the boy Michael were scrapped as soon as his parents got a look at him—his huge nose (a Wells family trait) was obvious at birth.
Vernon’s father was an athlete of some note, recruited out of junior college in 1975 to play for Jim Shofner’s TCU Horned Frogs. Working in a two-receiver offense, he shared pass-catching duties with future NFL star Mike Renfro for two seasons before carving out a brief pro career. A tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t go anywhere, so Vernon’s dad went north of the border, where he caught on with the Calgary Stampeders.
The elder Wells ultimately finished his career with the semipro Shreveport Steamers. He hung up his cleats about the time Vernon came along.
Vernon inherited a good bit of athletic ability from his dad. He loved baseball, and played second base as a youngster. In 1988, the Wells family moved to Arlington, Texas, where Vernon also shifted gears, changing to centerfield. The switch occurred during a Little League practice when the 10-year-old was fielding grounders. When a ball took a bad hop and smacked him square in the face, Vernon decided then and there to move to the outfield, and never looked back.
As a schoolboy, Vernon
was no stranger to the world of professional baseball. Ironically, however,
it was his father’s artistic ability that actually provided Vernon’s
first exposure to the big leagues.
The elder Wells was—and still is—an accomplished painter. He became well known around the Texas Rangers’ organization for his portraits of ballplayers and other athletes. Vernon Jr. was a regular in the visitors’ clubhouse in The Ballpark at Arlington, and would often let his son tag along. The boy became acquainted with many players, especially Oakland A’s stars Rickey Henderson, Dave Parker and Dave Stewart.
While dad was busy painting the players, Vernon was soaking up the big-league atmosphere, and making some friends who would have a major impact on his future. Once when the A’s were in town, an excited Vernon told his fellow Little Leaguers that Stewart, Oakland’s ace, might be coming to their game. His teammates were skeptical—until the All-Star pitcher actually showed up at their field. He wasn’t disappointed, as Vernon smacked a pair of home runs.
Vernon entered Arlington’s James Bowie High School as a freshman in 1993. Blessed with outstanding ability, Vernon excelled in football and baseball for the Vols, starring at quarterback in the fall and as a centerfielder in the spring. It was natural to assume that he would follow his father’s gridiron footsteps, but in truth, Vernon was always happier on the diamond.
The teenager soon began to attract the attention of scouts, agents and big-league front offices. Near the end of his senior year, in 1997, Vernon was having a typically outstanding game for the Vols, a performance that included two home runs. Afterwards he was visited by Brian Peters, who was in town to watch Lance Berkman, Rice University’s switch-hitting slugger. Peters had heard a group of scouts buzzing about Vernon, and made a bee-line for Bowie. Taking a more personal approach than others interested in Vernon, he became fast friends with the teenager, starting a business relationship that remains strong today.
Though the 12th grader
had picked out an agent, he still had to decide where his career was headed.
Meanwhile, the accolades were starting to pile up. After finishing his
senior season with seven home runs, 20 RBIs, 24 stolen bases and a .565
batting average, Vernon was named to the Texas High School Baseball Coaches’
All-State Team. USA TODAY selected him to its All-USA Second
Team, and also honored him as the Texas High School Baseball Player of
the Year. The second distinction was a pretty lofty one, considering that
the honorable mentions for the award included Adam Dunn and Josh Beckett.
ON THE RISE
Like his father, who had also played baseball at TCU, Vernon had plenty of collegiate options available. He signed a letter of intent with the baseball program at the University of Texas, and figured to take a shot at the Longhorns’ football program in his second year. The Toronto Blue Jays, however, had different ideas.
Vernon’s commitment to Texas came just shortly before the baseball draft in June of 1997. The teenager had no real expectations about when he would be selected, but his father did. Vernon Jr. arranged a showcase workout session, and some 40 scouts attended. Vernon flashed his considerable hitting and fielding tools, then ran an impressive 6.4-second 60-yard dash. With that one sprint, his draft status took a giant leap upward.
Toronto advance man Jim Hughes was among those watching, and became convinced of Vernon’s potential when he witnessed his speed. Less than two weeks later, the Jays used their first pick—the fifth overall—on the 18-year-old outfielder. Vernon would never wear the burnt orange of Texas.
Toronto’s choice was a surprise to some. Picked ahead of Vernon were Matt Anderson, J.D. Drew, Troy Glaus and Jason Grilli—all of whom were college stars. As the very first high schooler drafted, Vernon immediately raised eyebrows. Though players like Berkman, Adam Kennedy and blue-chip prospect Darnell McDonald were still on the board, Toronto scouting director Tim Wilken convinced GM Gord Ash that the teenaged Texan was worth a shot. Ash visited the Wells home on the eve of the draft, and while no promises were made, it was fairly clear which way he was leaning. The next day Ash made it official.
Afterward, the Blue Jays front office was roundly criticized for its top selection, with many openly stating that Toronto chose Vernon only because of his “signability.” The youngster was eager to play ball, and just three days after the draft he became the first first-round player in ’97 to ink a deal. His $1.6 million signing bonus was viewed by many as a bargain-basement price.
The criticism heaped on Toronto didn’t escape Vernon’s ears. Rather than letting it get him down, he turned the negative comments into positive motivation. Vernon clipped news articles and downloaded Internet stories, then posted them all on his own “mental bulletin board.” He was determined to prove that the Blue Jays had not committed a mistake.
assignment was with St. Catherines (Ontario), Toronto’s Class-A
team in the short-season New York-Penn League. His manager was Rocket
Wheeler and his teammates included future major leaguers Cesar Izturis
and Michael Young. Worlds away from Bowie High School, Vernon started
slowly, but picked up the pace. Named to the NY-PL All-Star Team, he hit
.307 on the campaign, with 10 homers (third-best in the league) and 31
RBIs. At season’s end, Vernon was tabbed as the league’s #2
The following spring, the Jays promoted Vernon, Izturis and Young to the Hagerstown Suns, a higher Class-A team in the South Atlantic League, where they joined hot prospect Josh Phelps. Manager Marty Pevey plugged Vernon into the leadoff spot, but the switch to the top of the order was difficult on him. He batted only .184 in April, and at one point struggled through an 0-for-21 stretch.
For Vernon, the 1998 season was all about adjustments. He adjusted to playing the longest season of his baseball life—134 games and 509 ABs, second most on the team. He adjusted to another new city far from home. He also learned that he would have to adjust at the plate, as SAL pitchers were better than any he had previously faced. Sensing the pressure on Vernon, Pevey dropped him in the lineup. He responded with a .340 average in May. By the close of the summer, Vernon had raised his overall numbers to more than respectable totals (.285, 11 HRs and 65 RBIs). His .476 average in the playoffs capped a campaign of sound growth.
After the season, Vernon and pitcher Gary Glover—a fellow Toronto farmhand—headed Down Under for an exotic twist on winter ball. Both players joined the Sydney Storm of the Australian Baseball League. Vernon spent the next few months in the cleanup spot, proving he could hit in any hemisphere. Then, as soon as spring training rolled around, he turned his attention back to North America.
Vernon’s dizzying 1999 itinerary began in Dunedin, Florida, home of the Blue Jays’ highest-level Class-A team. Vernon ripped it up from day one, batting .343 with 11 homers, 43 RBIs, 16 doubles and 13 steals in 70 games. Those numbers, plus his continued excellence in centerfield, were enough to get him into the Florida State League All-Star Game, where he earned MVP honors. He was also named league MVP (and voted the FSL's #1 prospect) but at that point he was long gone.
Pleased with Vernon’s first two months, Toronto bumped their top prospect up a notch, to the Double-A Knoxville Smokies in the competitive Southern League. Among the young fireballers dominating the circuit were Francisco Cordero (27 saves, a 1.38 ERA, and 58 Ks in 52 innings), Kip Wells and Aaron Myette.
Though the Blue Jays wouldn’t have been surprised by a lull in Vernon’s production, he continued his magical season. No one in the Southern League—pitcher or hitter—could stack up to him. In his first (and only) month in Tennessee, Vernon hit .340 with 17 RBIs. Shortly after his arrival, he was selected to play in the first-ever Futures All-Star Game, being held in Boston’s Fenway Park in conjunction with the major league All-Star festivities.
Ash and company were obviously keeping a close eye on Vernon, and it wasn‘t long before they were once again making travel plans for him. On July 25, the Jays sent Vernon back on his ever-northward journey through the ranks, this time heading for Syracuse, NY.
The Class AAA Syracuse
SkyChiefs were playing just their third season in the beautiful new P&C
Stadium, a facility whose field dimensions precisely mimic those of Toronto’s
SkyDome. That was a stipulation handed down from the big club during the
stadium’s design stages, as a way of familiarizing future Blue Jays
with the big-league field. The only notable design aspect the park was
missing was a retractable domed roof.
Vernon wasted no time in figuring out the International League hurlers. In 33 games under manager Pat Kelly, he hit .310 and drove in 21 runs. It was all looking easy for Vernon, who fit smoothly into the new clubhouse, and handled his third team of the season like a veteran. Opposing managers, teammates and Toronto brass all took note of his remarkable maturity, his baseball instincts and his “athletic presence.” He carried himself like a big leaguer, and with each game it became more apparent that that’s exactly where he was headed.
Given Vernon’s swift progression to Class-AAA, a shot at the 2000 Jays seemed plausible—perhaps even a September call-up in ’99. That was partly because there was trouble in the Toronto outfield. In early August, promising slugger Jose Cruz, Jr. was demoted to Syracuse. Here suddenly were two gifted ballplayers, destined to compete for the same big-league position, both thrust onto the same minor-league roster from opposing directions. Vernon was flying high and rising, Cruz barely hitting .240 and struggling.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays acquired centerfielder Brian McRae from the Colorado Rockies on August 9. They also continued to experiment with journeyman outfielders Jacob Brumfield and Curtis Goodwin. With leftfield and rightfield reliably occupied by bona fide stars Shawn Green and Shannon Stewart, centerfield presented the only spot for a newcomer.
Vernon responded to the opportunity by playing great baseball. Adding his Syracuse numbers to those from Knoxville and Dunedin, his ’99 totals were outstanding: .334, 18 HR, 81 RBIs and 26 SB. Vernon's batting average was tops among players in the Toronto organization.
Platooning in center, neither Brumfield nor McRae managed to hit above .250 for the big club. So when McRae went down with an injury, Vernon got the call. At the time, the Blue Jays were heavily involved in the AL wild card race, despite having lost nine straight home games. Beleaguered manager Jim Fregosi needed dependable defense and some offensive pop from centerfield. Vernon was plugged in as the starter, and stayed there for the remainder of the season.
The 20-year-old went hitless in his major-league debut, but made an immediate statement by gunning down Minnesota’s Todd Walker as he tried to stretch a single into a double.
It took three games for Vernon to get that coveted first major-league hit—a double off Eric Milton of the Twins. Hitting in a lineup with stars like Stewart, Green and Carlos Delgado, he saw plenty of good pitches to hit. Still, this was a big jump for a young player who started the season in A-ball. After batting .132 in his first 10 games, he settled in and boosted his average to .261.
The Jays finished with a solid 84-78 record, but ended up far out of the playoff picture as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox ran away from the pack. Vernon’s biggest thrill came on September 13 at SkyDome, when he swatted his first big-league homer off New York’s Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Before the season was over, Vernon also got his first stolen base, had a four-hit game against Boston, put together a six-game hitting streak, and handled 55 centerfield chances with an error.
In October, Vernon
left for the desert, where he led the Arizona Fall League in extra-base
Despite his fine performance in ’99, Vernon opened 2000 back in AAA. Toronto management felt the 21-year-old still had plenty of room for development, and the best way to do it was to play every day. Still, the Jays gave Vernon a shot in spring training, pitting him against Cruz. When Vernon barely hit .200, the decision to send him back to Syracuse was easy. The team wanted to see more consistent long-ball power, more aggressive baserunning, and continued improvement at tracking balls in the outfield from their young star.
A colder-than-usual spring in the Northeast put a chill on Vernon as he muddled through April in Syracuse. Part of his struggles could be attributed to the IL pitchers finally having an opportunity to find his weaknesses—more breaking balls and inside fastballs. Two weeks into May, with Vernon hitting just .224, the Blue Jays suddenly showed signs of agitation. Kelly was fired amid speculation that Toronto was not pleased with the way their top prospects were progressing. Former Blue Jays’ pitching coach Mel Queen replaced him.
In Toronto, meanwhile, Cruz was putting together a career year. He anchored himself in centerfield on Opening Day, and never budged once in all 162 games. Cruz committed just three errors all season, and blasted 31 home runs. Green had been dealt to Los Angeles in the off-season for Raul Mondesi, who was also playing well. Leftfield was still Stewart’s territory, giving Toronto with one of the league’s best outfields.
With seemingly no place to go, Vernon’s play began to stagnate. By late June he was still in a funk, hitting only .222 with 4 HRs and 31 RBIs. That’s when Queen sat Vernon down and stressed the importance of maintaining his focus on the present. The skipper urged him to take a more consistent approach to every at-bat.
Through July and August, Vernon’s stats rose steadily. After being chosen to play in his second straight Futures Game, he was recalled to Toronto in September. This time, however, he appeared in just three contests. His future now seemed uncertain at best. For the first time, Vernon’s name began to surface in trade rumors.
Vernon skipped winter ball that year, and entered spring training well-rested and relaxed. This time there would be no head-to-head battle with Cruz, who had earned the centerfield job the previous season.
With no pressure to put up big numbers, Vernon did just that. In 13 Grapefruit League games, Vernon hit a hefty .405, then kept the momentum going in the regular season, hitting safely in 12 of the first 13 SkyChiefs games.
When Cruz suffered a back strain and was placed on the DL, Vernon returned to Toronto.
In eight starts, he hit a solid .267 (including a two-run homer off Seattle’s Jamie Moyer) and played well in the field. Despite the strong contribution, the job still belonged to Cruz, and Vernon went back to Syracuse after just 11 days. On the plus side, his short stint gave new Blue Jays’ skipper Buck Martinez a first-hand look at the organization’s top prospect.
Speaking of new managers,
Syracuse had one, as well—Omar Malave stepped in for Queen, who
moved into the Toronto front office. Known for his ability to shepherd
young talent, Malave was a perfect fit for Vernon. He had already managed
him briefly, during his 26-game stint in Knoxville in 1999. By late August,
Vernon was hitting .281, and led the SkyChiefs with 116 hits in 107 games.
Then, thanks to an injury to Stewart, Vernon got another promotion.
The youngster made noise right away, hitting in his first four games and stealing three bases. He logged 30 games altogether (including 21 starts in centerfield), as Cruz was nudged over to left. With six multi-hit games, Vernon wound up with a .313 average in 96 at-bats. Clearly, he belonged in the majors, but the math still didn’t add up in the Toronto outfield.
As the 2001 season approached, a big shakeup came at the top of the Toronto organization, as Ash was canned in favor of J.P. Ricciardi. And after a sub-.500 season, Martinez was on the hot seat as manager, too.
Vernon’s life was also changing. On November 10, he married his high school sweetheart, Charlene Valenti. As a newlywed, Vernon still found time to think baseball, spending time with new Toronto hitting coach Mike Barnett. After studying videotape of Vernon’ swing, Barnett suggested he widen his batting stance just a bit, to enhance his balance and use his legs for more power.
MAKING HIS MARK
In the spring of 2002, Vernon picked up where he left off, batting .375 and solidifying himself as a member of the team. Designated hitter Brad Fullmer had been dealt to Anaheim in January, so the Jays appeared to be trying to make room for Vernon without trading an outfielder.
In early March, Ricciardi and Martinez announced that Vernon would be the opening day DH, despite his fresh legs and proven defensive ability. But before the team headed north, management did an about-face and moved Stewart to the DH role. Still, the Jays weren’t willing to give Vernon the permanent centerfield job. Martinez played him in right for 13 of his first 16 starts. Eventually, however, it became clear that Vernon was the best defensive centerfielder on the roster.
At the plate, Vernon hit most often in the five-, six or seven-slot, and delivered power, average and run-production. In the season’s first week, he homered in two consecutive games against the Yankees, including a two-run shot off Andy Pettitte.
Vernon put together a 13-game hitting streak in June, but saved his best for after the All-Star break, when he piled up 13 homers, 58 RBIs and a .286 average. The highlight in July was when he took Baltimore’s Jason Johnson out of the park three times over a two-game span. Vernon led the team that month in HRs, RBIs and batting.
Despite their strong offense, the Jays struggled early and Martinez was fired after a 20-33 start. By mid-season, with their playoff chances shot, Mondesi was traded to the Yankees, a move that settled the Toronto outfield once and for all. New manager Carlos Tosca guided the team to a third-place finish, behind New York and Boston, more than 25 games off the pace.
Blue Jays fans had no pennant race to watch, but one of the game’s most exciting young players kept them coming back to SkyDome. Vernon was repeatedly compared to Atlanta’s Andruw Jones, and he lived up to his “five-tool” billing. For the season he ranked second in the AL in centerfield assists (11), and third in fielding percentage at .995. He also led his team with 278 total bases.
Vernon’s first full season as a Blue Jay certainly was a success: .275, 23 HR and a .459 slugging percentage. At 23, he also became the youngest Blue Jay ever to collect 100 RBIs (65 of which were driven in during his last 78 games).
Vernon kept striving to improve in the offseason, refining his hitting stroke, reviewing pitchers’ tendencies and working on his patience at the plate. He entered 2003 with the world by the tail—an uncontested job in center, a new baby son (Jayce), and a new five-year deal worth $14.7 million.
Vernon rode those
good vibes into the ’03 campaign. Cleanup hitter Delgado is notorious
for putting up big numbers in April, but Vernon—slotted in the three-hole,—matched
the big man almost hit-for-hit. A grand slam against the Red Sox on April
9 gave him 14 RBIs in the first eight games, setting the tone for the
Midway through the season Delgado had a ridiculous 89 RBIs, and Vernon was close behind at 75, putting them on pace to drive in a combined 330 runs. No teammates had topped 300 RBIs since Ted Williams and Vern Stephens did it for Boston back in 1949.
Ultimately, they would fall 38 short of 300, but the hot starts landed both players in the All-Star Game—a first for Vernon. He was right in the center of the AL’s dramatic game-winning rally, rapping an RBI double off the otherwise invincible Eric Gagne to bring his team within a run in the eighth, then scoring on Hank Blalock’s decisive pinch-hit home run.
Vernon came back to earth a bit in late summer, but finished the year as the league leader in total bases (373), hits (215) and doubles (49). He was also among the top 10 in the AL in HRs (33), RBIs (117), batting average (.317), runs (118) and slugging (.550). His 215 hits established a new single-season Toronto record, breaking the old mark held by Tony Fernandez.
Vernon turned in stunning defensive plays all season too, including a catch in August at Fenway Park that was described as one of the best ever in the 100-year history of that legendary field. Manny Ramirez launched a rocket into the deepest part of right-centerfield, but Vernon got a great jump on the ball, ran it down 420 feet from the plate, crashed into the fence, then fired the ball in, chasing a surprised Todd Walker back to second base.
The Blue Jays surprised many onlookers by staying in the Wild Card hunt until mid-August. The bats remained potent all summer long, and righty Roy Halladay emerged as a dominant force of the mound, but a lack of pitching depth doomed Toronto. Though the Jays ended the year ranked second in the league in nearly every offensive category, they didn’t have the arms to match the Yankees or Red Sox.
were recognized by the Baseball Writers, when he finished eighth in the
balloting for AL MVP. He received one first-place vote and 84 points,
ranking significantly higher than such established stars as Jason Giambi,
Pedro Martinez and 2002 winner Miguel Tejada.
And what became of that crowded Toronto outfield? Stewart was shipped midseason to the Twins (where he sparked their playoff drive), and Cruz spent all of ’03 as a San Francisco Giant.
Vernon was now the
centerpiece of a subtle retooling program taking place in Toronto. The
team assembled a decent staff behind Halladay, with
But the season that many in Toronto envisioned never materialized. Injuries were a chief culprit. Halladay and Delgado both spent time on the DL, as did Vernon, who was hobbled by a sore right calf. The Blue Jays went 67-94, and couldn't escape the cellar in the AL East.
For Vernon the 2004 campaign was particularly frustrating. Over the winter he had worked hard to lose weight and get faster, which gave him more range in centerfield. He also assumed his improved quickness would help him at the plate.
But his calf injury ruined his season before it ever really got started. Vernon broke from the gate impressively enough, batting .300 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs. He was also stealing more, swiping six bases early on. More than a month on the injured list, however, slowed him to a crawl.
After returning to the lineup, Vernon was not the same player. He hit 14 more home runs and drove in 37 runs, but managed just a .246 batting average. Perhaps the one positive that came out of '04 was his developing patience at the plate. Despite fewer at-bats, Vernon finished with 51 walks, which eclipsed his previous high of 42.
Vernon and the Blue Jays face big changes in 2005. Most notably, Delgado will certainly find a new home as a free agent. Of all the big-name players who have patrolled the SkyDome outfield in the past five years, only Vernon remains. But that should come as no surprise. The Jays have been in Vernon’s corner ever since they took him in the 1997 draft. And, by the way, no one’s criticizing that move anymore.
An aggressive line-drive hitter with a good eye for the strike zone, Vernon appears to have many great days ahead. He continues to improve his patience at the plate and his ability to adjust to opposing pitchers. He’s deadly against low fastballs, and is learning to hit the curve more effectively. When Vernon struggles, it is often because he’s trying too hard to pull the ball.
The Blue Jays’ style on offense doesn’t fully use Vernon’s base-stealing speed, but he’s smart on the basepaths and not afraid to take an extra base. His quickness certainly comes in handy in centerfield, where early jumps and long smooth strides allow him to turn tough plays into outs that look routine.
As important as his progress with the glove and bat, Vernon is also developing into a team leader. A cerebral player who is quiet by nature, he has made a conscious effort to become more involved with his teammates. He is well-liked in the clubhouse, and his soft-spoken demeanor is a source of levity in the dugout. Vernon doesn’t swear, so he’ll often return from a bad at-bat muttering Brady Bunch-like epithets, much to the amusement of his fellow Jays.
It’s easy to forget that Vernon is only in his mid-20s. With Gold Glove-like fielding ability, MVP-type hitting and a serene, confident attitude, this is a player who should be a perennial All-Star for years to come.
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