Heath can sense the Bell-tale trade signs
Padres closer knows days in San Diego may be nearing end
SAN DIEGO -- The deadline creeps closer each day and, aside from those ninth innings when Heath Bell can lose himself in the singular focus of closing games for the Padres, it's about all he's thinking about these days.
Since March, not a day has passed when Bell, who has more saves than anyone in the game since 2009, hasn't contemplated this deadline and what it means for himself, his wife of 10 years, Nicole, and their four children.
"I'm ready for it to be over," Bell said this week.
If you think the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, which will almost certainly see the Padres deal their closer and his $7.5 million salary, is what has Bell on pins and needles, then, well, you don't know him very well.
It's an extensive backyard remodeling project at their North County home that has Bell sweating most these days. The job, which started in March, was to be completed by the All-Star break, though the 33-year-old Bell is fearful it won't be.
"He obsesses over everything," Nicole Bell said, rolling her eyes.
Walking the ninth-inning tightrope in a one-run game? That's no problem for Bell. But waiting on the backyard is driving him stir-crazy.
"I'm really excited about it," Bell said.
His professional future might well be in limbo, but Bell has never felt better about his lot in life, the career he's carved for himself after toiling away in the Mets' organization, his family, his home and now that revamped backyard that includes a kitchen and a new pool.
"We moved some plants, too," Bell added.
Bell can't say what uniform he'll be wearing by the end of July -- the Rangers, Cardinals, Yankees, Twins and Phillies are among the teams that might look to add a closer or even a late-inning reliever -- but he knows where home will always be.
"This is where I was born, and we've got a lot of family here," said Bell, who was born in nearby Oceanside, Calif., before the family moved to Orange County when he was young. "This is where I want to raise my kids and my grandkids.
"San Diego is home for me."
Professionally, though, Bell's days with the Padres appear numbered. The Padres' second-year general manager, Jed Hoyer, hasn't publicly said he's shopping Bell, although he's admitted to fielding calls from teams.
Bell, a two-time All-Star, is the highest-paid player on the roster and will be a free agent for the first time at the end of the season. He has 23 saves in 24 opportunities this season and 57 saves in his past 58 opportunities, dating back to May 29, 2010.
"He's the true definition of a closer," Hoyer said. "When he comes in the game, with a 91 percent save percentage [since 2009], you can pack your computer up and go home. That gives comfort to his teammates, the front office and the fans."
Yet keeping Bell doesn't make financial sense for the Padres, who started the season with a payroll of around $43 million. The team isn't interested in again having their highest-paid player be a reliever, who recently went a week between appearances.
"Am I at peace with this? Partly yes and partly no," Bell said. "Guys have to make their decisions that are best for the organization. If that means trading me, I get it. I love San Diego. I love the organization. But sometimes you have to go in a different direction.
"I've had a lot of people come up and say to me that, 'Oh, maybe you'll get a chance to go play for a contending team and maybe you'll win a World Series.' Well, I wanted to win one here."
Pitching in the playoffs, closing games or even securing a big payday weren't things on Bell's radar on Nov. 15, 2006, when the Mets dealt him and relief pitcher Royce Ring to the Padres for outfielder Ben Johnson and reliever Jon Adkins.
"I remember the day we found out about the trade ... we were jumping up and down. We were dancing, because we were so happy," Nicole Bell said.
"Guys have to make their decisions that are best for the organization. If that means trading me, I
get it. I love San Diego. I love the organization. But sometimes you have to go in a different
|-- Padres closer Heath Bell|
It wasn't just a move back to their native Southern California that had Bell and his wife so happy. The trade meant that Bell would get a clean slate with a new team.
"I needed a fresh start, because it wasn't happening for me there," Bell said. "I had a lot of heartaches early on, and there was a time where I wasn't sure I would ever make it to the big leagues. Once I got there, I wasn't sure if I was going to stay there.
"I would make it, then they would ship me back to the Minor Leagues. I would get called up again and then shipped back again."
After making his Major League debut on Aug. 24, 2004, Bell landed on the carousel that saw him bounce between the Mets' then-Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk and New York nine times in two seasons. Bell had a 4.92 ERA with the Mets, but he impressed then-Padres general manager Kevin Towers with his performance with Norfolk.
"He would go eight days without pitching when he was with the Mets, and they used him in different roles," Towers said. "But I saw a power arm, a power curve and a guy who was posting great numbers closing in Norfolk."
Towers and then-Mets general manager Omar Minaya actually agreed to a deal in July 2006, though Minaya said he couldn't consummate the deal until after the season. When the season ended, the teams made a four-player deal that didn't seem so one-sided at the time.
It does now, though.
"It may not be a sexy trade," Minaya said following the trade. "You have to remember, the little ones are what count sometimes. Those are the ones."
Minaya was right, though not in the way he intended. Adkins pitched one inning for the Mets. Johnson didn't last much longer, hitting .185 over nine games in New York. Both never appeared in a Mets uniform again.
Bell's start with his new team got off to a much better start -- and it only got better over time.
"I remember he came to Spring Training [in 2007] and we had [Scott] Linebrink and, of course [Trevor] Hoffman," said Towers. "But here comes Bell, throwing strikes, throwing 95, 96 mph.
"He was a little different in the makeup department, but you know what? I kind of liked that. He had this confidence and swagger to him. I think he viewed it as an opportunity, like this was a clean slate for him."
Bell shined almost immediately for the Padres, making it easy for Towers to trade Linebrink away in July 2007 and allowing Bell to become the main eighth-inning specialist and setup man for Hoffman, the Major League career saves leader.
In two seasons with Hoffman as a teammate, Bell gleaned plenty from him, and not just things relating to the game itself.
"We spend so much time at the field. During the season, you're spending more time with your teammates than your family," Bell said. "One of the things that I learned from him [Hoffman] was to embrace everyone in the clubhouse.
"You might go out and throw one inning, but they [position players] are out there playing nine innings. You might get the save, but there was someone else who got a big hit. Don't gloat about yourself, gloat about others. He was just an amazing guy to be around."
When Hoffman signed with Milwaukee in 2009, Bell stepped out from the anonymity of the setup guy to become closer. He flourished, making his first All-Star team and saving 42 out of 48 games.
Last season, Bell saved 47 out of 50 games and appeared in his second All-Star Game, one played in Anaheim and a long fly ball away from where Bell was raised in Tustin, Calif. The 47 saves were second most in franchise history, ranking only behind the 53 saves Hoffman had in 1998.
"The thing that's impressed me is the consistency and the desire to keep improving and to never get content," said Padres manager Bud Black. "From the time he got here in '07, I truly think that he was on a mission to prove he was a bona fide Major League pitcher.
"He has grown as a player and, more importantly, he's grown as a man. That's a tribute to him."
That doesn't mean Bell has completely grown up, though.
Nicole Bell actually likes to say that she has five children at home: daughters Jasmyne (12 years old) and Jordyn (9) and sons Reece (7) and Rhett (21 months). Then there's her biggest kid, Heath, who still boasts an affinity for Toys "R" Us and Big Wheels.
"He's a big kid," Towers said.
But he's a big kid who has certainly done more than develop into one of the most respectable closers in the game. He's matured as well and is now one of the leaders in the clubhouse, the last holdover from Black's first team in 2007.
"He's 100 percent in everyone's corner all the time," said Padres reliever Mike Adams, a teammate since 2008 and the likely heir apparent when the team opts to trade Bell. "His leadership has grown here. He's grown as a player and a man.
"He'll be missed."
Bell hasn't gone anywhere yet, though. He's still here saving games for the Padres. He's still standing in front of his locker, answering questions about big wins or blown saves -- a nod to Hoffman on one of those nights when the ninth inning got away from him.
He's not ready to go, but when the time comes, Bell knows he'll know how to handle it.
"With everything that's going on, the trade talks, it looks like I will be headed to a new team where I'll be the new guy again, where I'll be starting over," Bell said. "It's going to be like a new adventure."
Bell then stops, leans in and then smiles.
"Or who knows, maybe I'll just re-sign with the Padres as a free agent," he said.