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ON BASEBALL

Not exactly an idiotic idea

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This should give pause to anyone who thought the Red Sox might be interested in toning down their image as idiots: They've made a serious contract offer to David Wells.

You say the Sox did shots before a playoff game? Wells invoked the wrath of the Yankees, and incurred a $100,000 fine, when he claimed in his autobiography that he'd pitched a perfect game after partying all night, "half drunk and . . . with a raging hangover." David Letterman cracked that after that game, Wells drank 27 Heinekens to celebrate.

Ancient history, you say? Well, yes, the incident in question took place in 1998, but two years ago, Wells was punched out in a New York diner in the wee hours of the morning, and last season, he went on the disabled list after severing a tendon in his nonpitching hand and taking stitches, an injury that occurred, he claimed, when he tripped over a barstool in his kitchen while carrying a wineglass.

Wells does score points for self-awareness in choosing the title of his autobiography: "Perfect I'm Not . . ." And except for the times he let himself get woefully out of shape -- and the Yankees will always wonder what would have happened in the 2003 World Series against the Marlins if an overweight Wells hadn't curtailed his Game 5 start because of back spasms -- no one has ever questioned Wells's ability to pitch.

Which is why, at the winter baseball meetings yesterday, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein met with Wells's agent, Gregg Clifton, and offered a one-year deal for roughly $6.5 million, with performance-based incentives worth at least another $1 million, to a pitcher who turns 42 May 20.

The Sox, who appear to be close to re-signing Pedro Martinez, are still in the hunt for Carl Pavano, though there were indications last night that the Detroit Tigers had offered Pavano a five-year deal, and that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, the man who owns Little Caesars, might have thrown in a pizza franchise or two as a bonus. (Preposterous? No more than the $250,000 Arizona gave Troy Glaus for "business expenses" to cover the costs of his wife's equestrian pursuits.)

They also have talked with the A's about a multiteam deal for Tim Hudson, but may not be able to put together the prospects the Braves, Dodgers (Edwin Jackson), or Mets (Jose Reyes) could.

Thus, their willingness to entrust what was Derek Lowe's No. 3 slot in the rotation to Wells, with an offer that probably knocked the Indians out of the running and also trumped that of the Padres, who have asked Wells to return for a guaranteed $4 million, with incentives that would bring the total package to $7 million.

If it's strictly about the money, the Sox have the inside track on Wells. But this, remember, is a guy who has never pitched well at Fenway Park -- 10-10, 4.87 ERA -- and four years ago, after a typically wretched outing, said: "I want to be the one to push the button, I want to blow the SOB up."

On the other hand, Wells, who already has pitched for seven teams, including two tours of duty with both the Yankees and Blue Jays, may see poetry in the chance to end his career in the same place his idol, Babe Ruth, began his. Call it the blessing of the Bambino.

Wells's devotion to Ruth knows no bounds. When he was with the Yankees in 1997, Wells pitched an inning while wearing a cap that once belonged to Ruth, for which he is said to have paid $35,000. At Wells's Florida home, etched in glass on the French doors on a balcony above the pool, is Wells, pitching to Ruth, and the glass in the doors of his home office have been carved to replicate the lockers of Ruth and Wells, side by side.

This is not a frivolous move by the Sox. Wells won a modest 12 games last season for the Padres, but he showed up in camp weighing 30 pounds less than he'd weighed the year before with the Yankees and made all of his starts, except for the time off because of the barstool accident. He walked just 20 batters in 195 2/3 innings, and was fourth in the National League in opponents' on-base average (.285). In win shares, the barometer invented by Bill James to measure a player's importance to a team, Wells ranks 10th lifetime among active pitchers, just behind a couple of guys named Martinez and Schilling.

There is no reason not to believe that Wells may have one good year left in him. He gives the Sox a lefthander in the rotation, something they didn't have last season, and he has always been tough on the Yankees -- 16-8, 2.94.

What's one more idiot if he can get people out?

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