TORONTO – Vernon Wells was preparing for Monday's game against the Red Sox when teammate Aaron Hill, reclining at the next locker, made reference to the news of the day: Ryan Howard's new contract with the Phillies.
Five years, $125 million.
Wells, his self-effacing wit in midseason form, couldn't resist.
"The good thing about these contracts is mine keeps creeping down the list," the Toronto center fielder quipped. "Pretty soon, I'll be way down the list. I'll sneak under the radar."
Wells laughed. His swing is back. So, too, is his sense of humor.
The 31-year-old has been one of baseball's best stories this year. He's hitting .333. He has swatted seven home runs, tied for second in the American League. He also entered Tuesday with a league-best 18 runs scored.
And he's doing it without much fanfare, which doesn't bother him. Wells is an easygoing iconoclast, a contradiction with a smile. To critics, it's always about the money. To him, it's not.
(For the record, Howard will earn more than Wells in annual salary. Wells' deal is worth more in total dollars. But who's counting?)
"They asked me at the press conference if I'm worth this amount of money," Wells said, recalling the day in December 2006 when he signed a seven-year, $126 million extension.
"No, I don't feel I'm worth this amount of money. It's what the market is. I don't think anybody in this game is worth the amount of money they make. But it's entertainment. It comes with having some success.
"I've never looked at the money, ever since Day 1. I never paid attention to it. It's part of the game. To continue to play as we did when we were seven, eight years old -- that's the fun part."
And Wells is having fun this year. That wasn't the case in 2009.
He batted .260 last season with the worst power numbers of his Blue Jays career: 15 home runs and 66 RBIs. His jersey number should have changed from "10" to "$126 million." That's what fans saw on his back when they booed him at Rogers Centre.
If only they had known the full story: Wells was playing hurt and not making excuses.
His left wrist -- the one he fractured in 2008 -- was frayed and sore. Torn cartilage. The whip was gone from his bat.
"He was hurting," said Toronto catcher Jose Molina, who was then with the Yankees. "He couldn't perform at the level he can. That sucks.
"People don't think we play through pain. We do. He played like that last year, and it cost him a lot. And I'm not talking about money. I'm talking about that people didn't respect what he did."
Out of necessity, Wells became a guess hitter. That never works. The wobbly at-bats made him look old, finished and (of course) overpaid.
Then he started thinking. Way too much. Ask how many bad habits he developed, and he tells you, "Too many to explain." His hands. His timing. His stance.
How did he hit only .205 with runners in scoring position, after driving in 100-plus runs three times in his career?
Easy. One injury and an overwrought mind.
What was the low point?
"Um," Wells replied, pausing to think, "pretty much from May to September."
Afterward, the wrist required surgery. But the mind needed time, too.
When I asked Wells what injury required the offseason rehabilitation, he flashed a wry smile.
"My head," he said.
And after the mental nap at his Dallas-area home -- "I needed like a two-month vacation," he said -- it was time to take care of his swing. To address that, Wells has worked closely with first-year hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. Wells took a "countless amount of swings" with Murphy during spring training and credits him for the early-season success.
Wells is back to having multi-hit games on a regular basis. He had one on Monday night, doubling twice against Boston ace Josh Beckett. Each hit came on a curveball, a sign that Wells is recognizing pitches better than he did last year.
"He's on time," manager Cito Gaston said. "Last year, he was a little bit late. It could have been because he was not getting his hands moving, or because his hands were hurting him. He never complained last year."
Now, he's gliding again in center field. (Don't forget: He won Gold Gloves in '04, '05 and '06.) He's moving well on the bases, too. On Monday, he scored easily on a medium-depth sacrifice fly.
Of course, Wells isn't going to win the American League East by himself. He roped an RBI double down the left field line in Tuesday's first inning ... for the team's only run.
The Blue Jays, playing before sparse crowds, aren't a very good team. But their cleanup man is proving that, when healthy, he's still an excellent player.
"He's a superstar -- and he's playing like it," Molina said. "A lot of people thought he was done. He's not."
Baseball analysts won't declare that Wells' contract has become a bargain for the Blue Jays. He's due $98.5 million through 2014, and the wrist fix-up wasn't his first visit to the infirmary. Since signing the contract, he has had left shoulder surgery and spent time on the disabled list due to a strained left hamstring.
Playing 90 games on artificial turf -- 81 at Rogers Centre, nine at Tropicana Field -- won't help him age gracefully.
But now he has a chance. To hear applause. To make another All-Star team. To help Adam Lind develop into one of the game's premier run producers. To be respected again, both in Toronto and among U.S. fans who rarely see him play.
And to be known for something other than the numbers 1-2-6.
Back on the subject of The Contract ... It does include an out clause after the 2011 season. After that, whether Wells sticks around Toronto will be up to him.
"I have no plans on going anywhere," he said, when asked about the decision that looms at the end of next season. "My goals are to win here, to go through the grind of each of these seasons.
"We're all going through this together. I'd love to see it through."
He didn't mention the money. He's already made enough of it. At the risk of sounding naïve, it sounds like he just wants to play, productively and pain free.
Hold the cynicism, at least for a little while. Let him enjoy this.