REQUIEM FOR A FIREBALLERARIZONA BIDS FAREWELL TO SOFTBALL PITCHING GREAT JERRY LEE WELLS

It was perfect softball weather last Friday morning, when Jerry Lee Wells took the mound for the last time.

Hundreds of Arizonans who had idolized him were looking on at the house that Wells built, Ken Lindley Field on Gurley Street in Prescott. This time, however, they were there to say goodbye to the state's greatest fast-pitch-softball pitcher, who died suddenly last week at the age of 54.

A silver casket that held Wells' body sat in a familiar place--the pitcher's circle on the magnificent, sunken diamond where Wells had performed so brilliantly for more than 30 years. His beloved country music played softly over the loudspeakers.

During the 1960s and early 70s, when Arizona reached its fast-pitch zenith, Wells was the heart and soul of the sport. That was when the state regularly placed two or three teams in the world's Top 10.

In a game always dominated by an overpowering pitcher, Wells was, in those long-gone glory days, peerless, his r‚sum‚ unparalleled: International Softball Congress Hall of Fame, thrice the world's Most Valuable Pitcher (more than anyone else, ever), a world champion.

Like baseball's Nolan Ryan, there was nothing fancy about Wells' approach to pitching. A batter knew Wells was going to throw the ball as hard as he could from a mere 46 feet away (the same distance as a Little League mound). A ferocious competitor, Wells would collect the sign from his catcher and spring into action.

Wells' pitches started and ended quickly. He would lift those famous arms over his head and, in a smooth, windmill-like motion, explode toward the anxious hitter, releasing the ball at his right hip. A moment later, the white flash would explode into his catcher's glove--Like a cannon going off. Pow!" Wells' longtime friend A.C. Williams reminded the mourners.

As he got older and the explosions became fewer, Wells became a craftsman on the mound. As recently as 1983, he baffled the defending world champions from Decatur, Illinois, in a game under the lights at Lindley Field.

He was in his element in his adopted hometown of Prescott. Awe had turned to adoration for fans and players--even for opposing players--as the years passed. Wells' personality was largely responsible for that. He was a friendly bear of a man with a photographic memory for faces and batting weaknesses. But unlike many of the nation's best pitchers, Jerry Lee Wells never made much money throwing the ball.

Instead, he earned a hard living as a roofer. He and his schoolteacher wife, Anita, weren't rich, by any means. But they raised their four children to appreciate some of life's finer things--good friends, good times and a good ball game (their two boys, Jerry Jr. and Jim Bob, are fine fast-pitch players in their own right).

At Lindley Field last Friday, a friend of Wells' named Tommy Tucker stood in front of the casket and paused before speaking. "Jerry seemed bigger than life to me as a kid," he said. "We knew we were watching the greatest pitcher any of us had ever seen. And then he would talk to us afterwards like he was just a regular guy."

Prescott Mayor Daiton Rutkowski recalled playing pool with Wells a few weeks ago. Rutkowski, too, had loved the man.

"Legends are made these days by PR men," Rutkowski said. "This legend was made right down here, and all over the state and nation. It's real hard for me to say goodbye to him."
After a few more speeches and prayers, everyone gathered around the casket to share some more memories and a few tears. Dennis Ferguson, a big-time hitter who had his share of successes and failures against Wells over the years, walked up to the casket for a moment.

"Pappy," he said, looking into the perfect Prescott sky, "if you had to go, it couldn't be much better than this. This is where you were your best, you old son of a gun.

 
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