Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 16: Catching Up With Jay Bell
Steve Eby | On 19, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 16 days
The #16 jersey number has been worn by a lot of underwhelming Cleveland Indians (Tomo Ohka, Jason Donald), some that had success but mostly with a different number (Jhonny Peralta, Shin-Soo Choo) and a couple of guys who had a lot of Major League success but mainly somewhere other than Cleveland (Hal Newhouser, Dwight Gooden, Juan Gonzalez).
Add infielder Jay Bell to the latter part of the list.
Bell was a big-time shortstop prospect with the Indians in the middle part of the 1980’s after a trade from Minnesota that sent future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven back to the Twin Cities in August 1985. Bell had been a first round pick with the Twins (eighth overall) the year prior and the trade was a surprise to the young player.
“I had the opportunity to be drafted by a team that I was and am still really fond of,” Bell said of the Twins. “I learned a lot in the year-plus that I was there and I thought that I was going to be a Twin forever.”
The trade to Cleveland, however, brought some new optimism to Bell and the rebuilding Indians.
“When I had the opportunity to get traded to Cleveland, it was a situation where there were some very young players who were highly-touted and they were expected to do some big things.”
Many of those highly-touted prospects did not pan out as expected on the shores of Lake Erie, but Bell at least started his Major League career out with a bang. A September call-up in 1986, Bell got his first Major League start against his former team and the pitcher that he was traded for on September 29. Facing a star pitcher like Blyleven could have been too much for the young middle infielder, but instead Bell rocked Blyleven over the wall for a home run on the first Major League pitch he ever saw. Looking back, Bell still can’t believe how his career started out and he credits a former Indian great for giving him some great advice.
“I think ‘surreal’ is probably the right word for it,” Bell said of the home run. “Mike Hargrove was my manager in instructional ball when I got called to the Big Leagues. I flew out of Tampa to go to Minneapolis and he shared with me the approach that I needed to take against Bert Blyleven. He said, ‘You can’t hit his curveball. There’s not one chance that you can do it.’ He told me to sit on his fastball and try to hit that, and that I’d likely get one on the first pitch. He said, ‘Get ready for it and hit it’. I had the opportunity to get up there in the third inning and sure enough I got a fastball belt-high. I was able to hit it and it just happened to go over the fence. I owe it to Bert for giving up a whole lot of home runs that year, but especially to Grover for preparing me for that.”
The first home run of his Major League career turned out to be one of Bell’s lone highlights during his short stint in Cleveland. He bounced back and forth between the minor and Major Leagues for a couple of seasons before Bell was dealt to Pittsburgh during Spring Training of 1989.
“What ended up happening was that I probably underachieved for what they were expecting from me as a young player, so they felt like they could probably do better with somebody else,” Bell recalled. “So they shipped me off to Pittsburgh.”
Just 23 at the time of his second trade, Bell could feel as though the Indians gave up on him too quickly. He could feel hurt or resentful toward the organization that didn’t give the future star a chance…but he doesn’t.
“Not for one second,” Bell said. “I learned a ton here and had a great deal of respect for the organization and what they were trying to do…and what they eventually got to. I learned more about the game as an Indian than I did from anywhere else.”
It was the people in the Indians’ organization that hold such a dear place in Bell’s heart.
“I learned so much. Pat Corrales was here at the time, Bobby Bonds was the hitting coach and then Charlie Manuel came in. He meant a lot to me. Doc Edwards ended up managing and he meant a lot to me. There were so many people from this organization that meant a great deal to me.”
One coach, in particular, really helped to kick-start the young Bell’s career.
“Johnny Goryl meant the world to me,” Bell said. “He taught me how to be a great defender. He taught me how to handle myself at the Major League level. He meant more to me as a coach and mentor than anybody else. I called Johnny ‘The Guy who Created the Car’. I was a subpar defender—or at least was untaught—and he was the guy who taught me how to be a good defender. I was refined in Pittsburgh and went further, but Johnny Goryl was the guy who really developed me into the guy I eventually became.”
The “subpar” defender quickly developed into one of the game’s best during his time in the Steel City as Bell’s coming out party occurred with a fantastic 1991 season, but was topped by an All-Star/Silver Slugger/Gold Glove campaign in 1993. Of all the accolades, Bell lists the Gold Glove as his most treasured from that year.
“It was satisfying from the standpoint that I knew how far that I had come as a defender,” Bell recalled. “I knew how much work it took and how much time and effort. I think every infielder takes pride in their defense and to win a Gold Glove is terrific.”
Even more terrific for Bell is that his Gold Glove snapped a historic run by one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game. Cardinals’ Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith won the National League’s Gold Glove every season from 1980 to 1992, but Bell stopped that run of 13 straight when he took home the hardware in ’93.
“To break that streak was even more enjoyable,” Bell remarked.
Bell’s Silver Slugger Award in ’93 was courtesy of his work as an overall hitter, not a typical home run-hitting slugger. Bell hit an impressive .310 that season with nine home runs and 51 RBI. He lashed 32 doubles and nine triples and also swiped a career-high 16 bases on his way to the award. His time as a prototypical slugger, however, was not far off.
Bell never hit more than 16 home runs or 71 RBI during his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, but he hit 21 and drove in 91 during his lone season in Kansas City in 1997. He signed as a free agent with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the ’98 season and his bat was a thunderous threat thereafter.
“It goes back a couple of years. Early in my career, Jim Leyland had me bunting a lot, so I got to see a lot of pitches in my career that didn’t cost me at bats. I think that that was really beneficial,” Bell recalled. “As I got older, I got mentally and physically stronger. I got the opportunity to play in Arizona and there were a lot of factors. One was the year before when I had the chance to spend the entire year with Chili Davis. Chili taught me a new approach at the plate about looking higher in the zone and looking for fastballs to hit to center field. I’d get on those and then if they hung a breaking ball, I was able to get around on those much better than I had before throughout my career.”
Bell slugged another 20 bombs during his first season in the desert, but he exploded in 1999 with a career high 38 home runs and 112 RBI as he made his second All-Star Game. Despite having a career year in the height of the steroid era, Bell only credits a bit of luck and his teammates with his offensive explosion.
“I hit 20 home runs in both ’97 and ’98, but then in ’99 there were more factors. Tony Womack was there stealing 60 bases a year, so pitchers were trying to slide-step and would make more mistakes than they had in the past and then I had Luis Gonzalez, Matt Williams, Steve Finley, Mark Grace and Reggie Sanders behind me. They had to pick someone to pitch to and I happened to be the guy that they were pitching to that particular year.”
Bell stayed on the Diamondbacks through the 2002 season and was a key part of one of the most exciting World Series championships in history. The Diamondbacks won a thrilling 2001 World Series in seven games against the New York Yankees and Bell scored the series-clinching run as Gonzalez looped a ninth inning single off of Mariano Rivera with Bell on third base.
“It was certainly a special time. We had a good group of guys and it all started in ’98,” Bell said. “Jerry Colangelo’s vision was to create a World Champion. We had some core guys and it started with Travis Fryman, who we got in the Expansion Draft and we ended up trading him to Cleveland for Matt Williams. Williams ended up being instrumental to the success that we had with the Diamondbacks. In ’99 we ended up being pretty good and then we brought Steve Finley and Randy Johnson in, so we had some guys that ended up being important to the 2001 success. In 2000, we had a pretty good year, but in 2001 Curt Schilling got there and suddenly we had a team full of veteran guys. We were a team full of character guys that knew how to play and how much it meant to the city and organization to play a particular brand of baseball. We had a good chance to win every single day.”
Johnson and Schilling were co-MVP’s of the 2001 Series and Bell, like everyone, realized how special it was to play behind two of the era’s best.
“With those two guys in particular, you knew they were going to put the team in a good chance to win every single game. When you have two aces on your staff, it makes it extremely enjoyable to go out there and play.”
After leaving Arizona in 2002, Bell spent the ’03 season playing for the New York Mets. Bell struggled through a half season with the Mets and then retired from playing at the season’s end.
Since retiring, Bell returned to baseball on and off and has worked in several aspects of the game.
“I have done quite a few different things,” Bell said. “After I got through playing, I took a year off and then got right into coaching. I coached for Arizona for a couple of years and, at that point, I realized that I was neglecting the family that had been following me around for the better part of my life – my wife – so I decided to take a couple years off. I still coached Little League and Pop Warner Football, coached at the high school and watched my kids grow up.”
Once his children grew up and started lives of their own, Bell got back into the professional game early in this decade.
“I finally sent one of them off to college, got her married and then finally had another opportunity to get back to coaching in pro-ball once again,” Bell said. “I started back with the Diamondbacks and was the hitting coach in Double-A. I then got the Major League Hitting Coach job in Pittsburgh and when Bryan Price got the job in Cincy, he asked me to come along with him to be his bench coach.”
Bell was released from his position with the Reds following the 2015 season. His son, Brantley Bell, was an eleventh round selection by Cincinnati in the 2015 draft and begins his first full season of pro ball in 2016.
Photo: Getty Images