Bell's determination leads to Hall ballot
Gold Glover's career took off with Pittsburgh, Arizona
Jay Bell never thought he would play 18 seasons in the big leagues.
"I made the Indians out of Spring Training in 1988 and I finished with a career high to that point of .218," Bell said. "I remember thinking at that point that I didn't know if I was going to be a good Major League player, but potentially I could be a good coach."
Instead, he finds himself on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time.
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent) standing as the top three returning vote-getters.
Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 AL MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).
Coverage of the election results can be seen live on MLB.com on Jan. 12.
Born on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Bell was an All-State performer at Tate High School in Gonzalez, Fla., and was the Twins' No. 1 pick (eighth overall) in the 1984 June Draft.
In his second pro season, he made 53 errors for Class A Visalia and followed that up by leading the league with 45 in 1986 and 30 in 1987.
Not exactly the kind of start that usually portends a long Major League career, not to mention one that includes a Rawlings Gold Glove Award. Then again, not every young player has the determination that Bell had.
"I didn't want to be that type of player," Bell said. "I wasn't willing to be. I wanted to be the guy that when there are two on and two outs, the manager and the pitcher want the ball hit to me. I wanted to be the guy that was counted on to make the play. I worked at it, and each year, it got a little better."
Bell saw himself more in the mold of a Cal Ripken Jr., a player not blessed with great range, but with the ability to read how his pitcher was throwing on a particular day and one who studied hitters' tendencies and positioned himself accordingly.
His efforts were rewarded in 1993 with the Pirates when he captured the National League's Gold Glove Award at short, which snapped Ozzie Smith's string of 13 straight.
"That was special," Bell said.
It was the belief that some of his teammates had in him that kept Bell going during his early struggles when the front offices of the Twins and Indians were not bullish on his future.
Bell was traded by the Twins to the Indians in 1985 in a deal that sent Bert Blyleven to Minnesota. In an odd coincidence, Bell faced Blyleven in his first Major League plate appearance on Sept. 29, 1986, and hit the first pitch he saw for a home run.
The Indians traded him to the Pirates in 1989 and it was in Pittsburgh that Bell's career took off. Teaming with Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, the now 42-year-old was a key contributor on the Pittsburgh teams in the early 1990s that regularly won the National League East.
It was Bell's winning background as well as his approach to the game that prompted then D-backs owner Jerry Colangelo to sign Bell to a five-year contract just prior to the 1997 Expansion Draft.
In 1999, having moved to second base, Bell turned in the finest season of his career as he hit .289 with 38 homers and 112 RBIs for a team that won 100 games and the NL West title in just its second season.
Teamed with Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, Bell helped lead the D-backs to two more division titles and a World Series victory over the Yankees in 2001.
"I really believe the reason that I have my name on the ballot is because I was a good support player," the ever-modest Bell said. "I wasn't 'the guy.' I was thrust in that position a couple of times in my career, but I was at my best when I had great players around me. I'm in the position I'm in today because of those guys and what they did for me."
It seemed fitting that the first player signed by the franchise would be the one to score the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7. Bell trotted home from third when Gonzalez's floater landed just over the head of shortstop Derek Jeter.
"That was certainly a nice capper to my career," said Bell, who played one more season in Arizona before finishing his career in 2003 with the Mets. "I have no regrets about my career. I'm very, very pleased with the way everything turned out."
Bell, who was active in the community throughout his career, will remember one moment above all the others in his career. It came on July 11 in the final game before the 1999 All-Star Game. Bell hit a sixth-inning grand slam that won $1 million for Gylene Hoyle of Chandler, Ariz., who correctly predicted the player and the inning for the grand slam prior to the game as part of a club promotion.
"That was a huge, huge deal for her," said Bell, who pumped his fist in the air as he rounded the bases. "It was a fun moment."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.