Sunday afternoon, on the way home to NY from a family function in the Philly area, my grown nephew John and I stopped in Camden, NJ to see an Atlantic League game between the hometown RiverSharks and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

Field level, behind the plate, day of game: $1,300 at Yankee Stadium; $13 at Campbell’s Stadium.
(And nice work with the cellphone camera, young John Autin!)

It was an entertaining back-and-forth contest, with fairly good play by both squads. Neither errors nor walks were numerous, and there were some very fine fielding plays, including a perfect throw by catcher Raul Padron to nail a stunned base-thief, and a sensational leaping grab of a Baltimore chop behind the mound by southpaw reliever Ricky Barrett (bio), who landed flat on his back but still slung the ball to first in time to thwart a rally. Each side parked one over the fence, including a monster blast by Casey Benjamin (bio).

The stadium and the setting were nicer than I’d expected, facing the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the few hundred fans who braved the 95-degree heat saw the home team win, 4-3, even though Pedro Feliz (the biggest former “star” in uniform) didn’t see action. And if you’ve ever wondered what became of Chin-Lung Hu (bio), the ex-Dodger SS who hit .176 in a couple hundred ABs, he was the starting DH for the Blue Crabs, going 2 for 4 with a double.

And what does this have to do with Kip Wells?

Two years ago, Kip Wells was clinging to the bottom of the pro baseball ladder — I picture him as Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, clutching in agony that Cloud City weathervane and mourning his useless limb. Wells was 33 years old and toiling in the Atlantic League, and not even pitching well there (although he was better than Sidney Ponson, of course). After some early big-league success — consecutive qualifying years as Pittsburgh’s de facto ace, with ERA+ of 118 or better — Wells had gone 25-55 with a 5.32 ERA over his next 6 seasons, twice leading the NL in losses (deservedly) and seeping slowly through the MLB safety net. In one 6-year span, Wells was property of 10 different MLB clubs. His 2010 signing with the Long Island Ducks was met with fan-board derision; and if he pitched anywhere in 2011, those stats haven’t found their way to B-R yet.

Miraculously this May, the Millennium Falcon swooped in and Leia grafted a new hand … er, the Padres signed Wells and sent him to AAA Tucson. And despite no apparent success there — 4.97 ERA in 7 starts, with a 1.74 WHIP (gulp!), more walks than Ks and darn few of the latter — San Diego called him back to the majors a week ago, to more derision. His first start, a loss to Houston, was inconclusive but not encouraging. But then came Sunday.

While my godson and I watched “lucky” fans clothed as sumo wrestlers and aerosol cans(?) cavorting on a backwater greensward where Wells had lately trudged, Kip himself was in Coors Field — where he’d allowed 29 runs in 20.2 career innings — improbably blanking the Rockies for 7 stanzas on just 83 pitches in a 2-0 win. His sac bunt helped produce the insurance run in the 7th, and with his last delivery in the bottom half he retired Eric Young for the first time in four career chances. It was the fourth scoreless start of 7+ IP in Coors this year, all by the visitors.

Wells is slated to start again this Friday in Petco Park, where he has allowed just 5 runs in 21 career innings. His last Petco outing was memorable: 4 scoreless frames to earn the win for Colorado in a 22-inning, 2-1 victory, the longest MLB game since 1984. He’ll face the Reds this time, for whom he earned his last two big-league wins in 2009 before his trek through the nether circuits.

There’s no logical reason to expect Wells to last long in the majors; he still doesn’t miss many bats, so if his location isn’t perfect, trouble lurks. But I wish him the best of luck. The Atlantic League is a fun place to watch a ballgame, but I doubt it’s much fun for an ex-big-leaguer to see his career end there.

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