Midway through a seven-year, $126-million contract that he has largely failed to live up to, Vernon Wells has become a whipping boy for disgruntled Blue Jays fans, but he is also an icon. The 31-year-old outfielder is nearing several franchise records, as he currently ranks second in total bases, hits, doubles, and RBI, and third in runs scored and home runs. Now in his 12th season in Toronto, the personable and socially-conscious Wells is doing everything he can to turn the catcalls into curtain calls, as he is hitting a resurgent .301/.359/.596 with 11 home runs.
David Laurila: How would you describe Vernon Wells?
Vernon Wells: Pretty laid back. A family guy. In this game, we spend so much time at the ballpark and on the road that you cherish the time you have with your family. Also, you cherish the relationships you build in the clubhouse. I’ve gotten to be around some strange and interesting human beings in the clubhouse, but I just love having a good time. I think that’s me in a nutshell.
DL: How do you think you’re viewed by Blue Jays fans?
VW: People who have seen me over the years know that my demeanor is going to be consistent regardless of what’s going on and I think that rubs some people the wrong way. They want me to get frustrated when things go poorly, but I try to be the same person. I think most fans understand that. My job is to go out and try to help this team win, and if I do that, people are happy. If I don’t, they won’t be.
DL: How much has the media colored fans’ perception of you over the years?
VW: I don’t know. I don’t really worry about it much. I don’t read much of what is written or said. Everybody has an opinion, but I have an opinion about myself that I’m probably my toughest critic. I look at every situation I’ve been in, and to this day, you have a good day but there are still some at-bats where you know you needed to come through. Those are the ones that stick in my head the most, because I want to come through in every situation. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but whatever is written about me, or said about me, is part of the territory.
DL: What about your peers? How do you think people in the game see you?
VW: I have great relationships with everybody we play against. The biggest thing for me, since day one, has been to be respectful of everyone, no matter what uniform they have on. I respect the jobs that everyone does in this game. For me, it is important to be a person everyone looks at and is like, “I like that guy.” I don’t want to be the guy that everybody hates.
DL: Are baseball players role models?
VW: I think we can be. We can be role models. It’s all on that person’s demeanor. If they want to be a role model and be out there for kids, and adults for that matter, being someone that people can look at and say, “I want to be like that guy; I want to represent myself the way he does.” It’s the player’s choice. But you always have to remember there are kids that are going to be looking at you each and every day that you step on the field.
DL: Is there any difference between being an African-American role model and a Caucasian role model?
VW: I think there are different responsibilities. In this game, the lack of African-American ballplayers is a big topic right now, but it’s such a hard and long road to go down because the game of baseball is not marketed the same as the NBA or NFL is. It’s not the hip-hop generation. You look at basketball, it’s an entertaining game to go and watch. You’re entertained from the time you step into that arena. Baseball is more of a mathematical game. It’s not the same, but for me, it’s educating everyone. Race doesn’t matter. It’s being a role model for anyone you need to be a role model for.
DL: Can you elaborate on “mathematical”?
VW: Obviously, the numbers are one thing and all the statistics that go into it. Statistics that come out every year… there seem to be new ways of dissecting players, but there are so many plays that, unless you’re around the game, you won’t understand—a simple hit-and-run or getting the guys over. It’s not a game of three-on-one and throwing an alley-oop to somebody and posterizing somebody. It’s a long game, and it takes a lot of concentration to play it.
DL: Some people feel that athletes in general, not just African-Americans, shy away from baseball because of the long road through the minors. What do you tell people who say that?
VW: I can understand that. Obviously, another one of the things is that coming out of high school, or out of college, you’re going to go to some city you’ve never heard of and play in front of 500 people, take 12-hour bus rides, and things like that. For me, and when I talk to people about it, you go through it and grind through that, and it makes you a stronger person and a stronger player. When you get to the big leagues, I think you appreciate it more.
DL: What do you remember most about the minor-league grind?
VW: I think it was just all the bus rides and guys trying to sleep in luggage compartments above the seats—guys figuring out ways to get comfortable on a bus, whether it’s sleeping on the floor or whatever. It was those kind of things that make you appreciate what we have at this level.
DL: Can you talk a little about the Vernon Wells Perfect 10 Foundation and why that’s important to you?
VW: We started up our foundation and finally got it established a year and a half ago. It’s to try to reach as many underprivileged people as possible. We started off with just children and we’ve moved to single moms. We’ve understood, over this time, that if we are able to educate the mom and strengthen the mom, who in a lot of cases is the head of that family, you’re kind of breaking two cycles at once. You’re able to take that mother down the right path and hopefully she can take that to the children. Unfortunately, in society today, it’s gotten so bad that everyone is looking for the easy way out and taking the easy road instead of how it was when I was a kid and people worked for what they wanted to get to. It’s unfortunate that it’s gotten to that point, but I think that a lot of us are in a place where we can reach out and help change that cycle.
DL: What are some of the ways in which you‘re helping?
VW: Well, we go out, and some of the motels that are in Arlington [Texas]—the kids and the families who live there are scrounging in dumpsters for their next meal. We try to go out and do cookouts for them, and we just started building two quads with four apartments in each of the two buildings for single moms and their [kids] with Arms of Hope. It allows them to get there, get the help that they need, mentally and physically, and allows them to change their lives.
DL: You’re from Arlington, but you play in a completely different part of North America. What is Toronto like?
VW: It’s definitely not a baseball town or a baseball country. But at one time it was and I think that’s the goal of everyone here, to get back to those times. We’re never going to be as big as hockey, and we understand that and have come to grips with that, but hopefully we can sway some of those fans to come back and be Blue Jays fans.
DL: What about the city itself?
VW: It’s a beautiful city. I think it’s one of the cleaner cities you’ll go to in North America. People are friendly and it’s a great place to spend a summer. We ended up buying a house there, a little ways out of downtown, because we’re suburb people, but my kids love being up there. Living in Texas, it’s 100 degrees every day. In Toronto, it’s 80 degrees and people start panicking if it gets above 85. It’s different, but we’ve learned to love it.
DL: Do you care where you play?
VW: I’ve thought about playing for other teams, but my situation right now is that I want to be here when we’re winning. I’ve gone through all the losing, gone through all the changing, and I think I’ll enjoy it a lot more if we’re winning here.
DL: Earlier, you mentioned interesting human beings in the clubhouse. Who are some of the more interesting individuals you’ve met in the game?
VW: I got a chance to play with Shea Hillenbrand, and there are obviously stories around him and what was happening in the game. He was a different personality and someone I actually enjoyed being around because he made me laugh. He was one of those guys that kind of said what was on his mind and you don’t run into too many people like that. You respect that about people, and unfortunately some things he might have needed to keep quiet about. But he was a pleasure for me to be around. He was an interesting individual.
DL: That sort of circles back to what I asked you earlier—how much the media colors perceptions. Are a lot of players viewed differently than who they really are?
VW: I think so. I think some situations happen, and they can be run with in other circles unless you know the person and are around the person every day. It’s tough in some situations, but I think, for the most part, that we make our own beds. You make mistakes and you have to live with them. That’s a part of life, no matter what occupation you’re in.
DL: You’re off to a great start this season. Why?
VW: I try to be consistent, I think. I got into so many bad habits last year, whether it had to do with my wrists or my head or whatever the heck was bothering me. It was kind of a strange time. I went into the offseason, had the wrist surgery, and kind of had a chance to step away from the game, clear my head and be with my family. What I went through last year changed me mentally and made me stronger. Coming into the season, it was just go out and try to be the best player I can be.