Bell’s Long Career Was Short With Cleveland
By Craig Gifford
In the late 1980s, the Cleveland Indians found what they had hoped to be their shortstop of the future in Jay Bell. Instead, Bell never fulfilled his promise on the shores of Lake Erie. Instead, he became an all-star with the Pittsburgh Pirates and an important part of their success in the early 1990s.
Bell was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins with the eighty overall pick of the 1984 amateur draft. Perhaps due to the youth when selected, Bell never had much of chance with the Twins, being dealt to the Tribe a year later in a trade-deadline acquisition. A contender in 1985, the Twins needed pitching and got it in the form of all-star hurler Bert Blyleven. The Indians received Bell and several other minor players for their ace pitcher. The move did not propel the Twins to the postseason that year. However, Blyleven was a key component to the 1987 World Series championship squad. A good deal for the Twins.
Meanwhile, Cleveland had hoped Bell could be to the infield what Joe Carter and Cory Snyder were to the outfielder – an all-star quality hitter. The hope was Bell, now 20, would come into his own within a couple years and help spark Cleveland to a better age of baseball. As we all know now, a trade for a shotstop would eventually do that, though his name was Omar Vizquel and that was about a decade later.
Bell never really got going with Cleveland. From 1986-1988, he was up and down between the minors and the Indians. In all, Bell played 116 games and batted a paltry .223 with Cleveland. Clearly, by age 22, he still was nowhere near the promise he showed as high school athlete. The Indians decided not to wait any longer for the shortstop to grow into his own. On March 25, 1989, the Indians shipped Bell off to the Pirates. Bell had slipped so far that all Cleveland received in return was a utility infielder/outfielder in Denny Gonzalez, who played a grand total of 8 games with the Tribe.
The 1989 season was another like past years – a yo-yo between Triple-A and Pittsburgh. However, Bell finally became a regular with the Bucs in 1990. He was a solid player for the Pirates as they won three straight NL East Division crowns, starting in 1990. Those years, he batted between .254-.270. More importantly, he became a nice top-of-the-order hitter and table setter for the Pittsburgh’s big boppers Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla.
In 1993, at the age of 27, Bell had his true breakout. After 10 years in professional ball, some may have thought it to be about time. However, as young as it was that he was drafted, it could be forgotten that 27 is around the time most players hit their prime years. That season, Bell earned the first of his two all-star nods. He batted .310 and won a gold glove. The unfortunate thing for Bell was, instead of improving on the breakout season, Bell regressed again. He remained a decent player with Pittsburgh over the next three years, but never batted more than .276.
Seeing Bell would seemingly never be a full-time star and getting ready to start a major rebuilding project, the Pirates traded Bell to Kansas City on December 13, 1996. Bell had strong free agent season with the Royals in 1997. He mashed 21 homers, by far exceeding his previous career-high of 13. He also batted, .291 and drove home 92 runs. It was the beginning of a four-year stretch of good power and batting that finally fitted his lofty expectations from 1984.
Bell signed a lucrative deal with Arizona after 1997 campaign. in 1998, he hit another 20 homers. Then, in 1999, he came out of nowhere with a 38 long balls and 112 RBI. The great season earned Bell his second all-star appearance. Bell spent three more seasons with the Diamondbacks, never coming anywhere near those numbers again. 1999 was much akin to his 1993 year in which he played at a high level that he could not again match.
The 2001 campaign would prove to be Bell’s last as an everyday player. It was a memorable one as he helped a Diamondbacks team, that had existed all of five seasons, defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Bell played a minor role with the Dbacks in 2002. He spent 2003 with the Mets, proving that at age 37 he had hit the wall. His .181 batting average that year in 72 games proved to be enough to make Bell retire.
The one-time Indian never became the star he was initially projected to be. He had only two great seasons. What can not be discounted, however, is that Bell was seen as a useful starter for the better part of his 18 years in the game – five of those spent with playoff teams. Bell’s longevity in the game was a testament to his ability to be a quality player. However, he was far from a great player. His final numbers ended at 1,963 hits and overall .265 batting average. He also collected 195 homers over his career. Those are all nice numbers, but all well short of Cooperstown.
As far as his brief time with Cleveland, it is possible the Indians pulled the plug on Bell too soon. Trading Bell at a young age, he really never had a good chance to blossom with the Tribe. A change of scenery to Pittsburgh may have been helpful to him, but it is certainly possible he could have developed in Cleveland by the time he was 25. All-in-all, it worked out as Vizquel ended becoming an all-star shortstop for the memorable 1990s Indians, while Bell spent the 1990s as an average player on less successful teams than what Cleveland had at the time.