Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 4: Catching Up With David Bell
Steve Eby | On 31, 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 – 4 days
Former infielder David Bell may have only worn the Indians #4 jersey for two games, but the first one, at least, was a very memorable one.
A top prospect in the Tribe system through the early 90’s, the middle infielder was the son of former Tribe All-Star and bench coach Buddy Bell. When he made his Major League debut in May of 1995, his dad was in the dugout as manager Mike Hargrove’s right-hand-man.
“Being in the dugout that day was the best and the worst thing because I was nervous as hell,” the elder Bell said. “It being at the Big League level made it that much worse.”
The younger Bell was an injury replacement and was brought on as a pinch-hitter for Jim Thome in an 11-3 laugher against the Detroit Tigers in his debut. He flew out in his only at bat and had one more pinch-hit appearance a few days later before being sent back to AAA. As it turned out, Bell would get dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ken Hill later that summer, ending his Big League relationship with his father at just two games.
“We had a good relationship, so it made it as normal as it could be to have your dad on the coaching staff when you make it to the Big Leagues,” Bell recalled. “It was a great memory that I wish would have lasted longer. It was a lot of fun. It was something that was real special to both of us.”
What made the moment more special was that it happened in Cleveland – the same place that his dad made his professional debut two decades prior.
“We lived here for seven years,” Bell said. “I did grow up a Tribe fan…whoever he was with. With Cleveland being his first team and my first team, there’s a lot of special memories and special friends here. It feels like home, in a way.”
Bell credits being in the clubhouse as a kid for some of his preparedness as a Big League player and prospect.
“I was a lot more prepared than I would have been if I hadn’t been around the game as much as I was,” Bell said. “I didn’t really realize that as a kid because it was all I knew, but once I started playing – especially in the Minor Leagues when you’re around young kids who have no idea what’s going on – I realized that I had a bit of an advantage…knowing what to expect, the lifestyle and how to approach the game every day. Going into at 17 years old, I felt like I’d been there before. That was a big advantage.”
In addition to having a Big League father, Bell’s grandfather, Gus Bell, was also a 15-year Major Leaguer and a four-time All-Star.
“It’s not always an advantage,” Bell warned. “People expect more out of you in a way.”
After being traded mid-season, Bell found his first real Major League shot with St. Louis. He played 39 games during August and September of ’95 and then played a reserve role in both 1996 and ’97. When things weren’t really working out, the Cardinals released Bell in 1998 and his old team was ready to give him another shot.
“I was released from the Cardinals and if the Indians hadn’t picked me up, I don’t know where my career would have gone,” Bell recalled. “It was a great opportunity. I was just glad to get off to a good start.”
Bell got off to about as exciting of a start as he could have. With one out in the first inning of a game against Seattle’s ace Randy Johnson, Bell launched a fly ball deep down the left field line that took a strange bounce hard back toward the infield. Bell just kept running until he touched home plate for Jacobs Field’s first inside-the-park home run.
“At the time, I didn’t know it was the first. It was off of Randy Johnson, so I was just glad to make solid contact,” Bell remembered. “I thought it was just a fly ball to left and I saw Glenallen Hill, who I think thought he was going to catch it. I saw it hit off the wall and saw him sprinting in, so I just knew I had to keep running. When it was over I thought it was just a great way to get started.”
Bell’s historic start was just the beginning to his first taste of Big League success. The Indians were in the middle of the franchise’s most successful run in history, but had had a rotating door at second base ever since the trade of Carlos Baerga two years earlier. Bell filled the void well for the majority of the ’98 season as he batted .262 with ten home runs and 41 RBI for the division champs, but the club surprised everyone when they dealt Bell to Seattle at the end of August for veteran second baseman Joey Cora.
“It was weird because I thought things had gone well here,” Bell said. “It was a good team and I was getting an opportunity. After you get traded, you realize that it’s probably a good thing because you realize that somebody wants you. As it turned out, I probably got a much bigger opportunity in Seattle than I might have gotten here once everybody got healthy, so it was probably the biggest point in my career – going to Seattle. Actually, it was like going to a completely different world over there compared to being here where I grew up and came up through the organization. It was kind of a new beginning and a new start. I grew to love Seattle, so looking back, I’m glad it happened.”
Bell’s best stretch of Big League success happened with the Mariners, who rebuilt successfully on the fly after losing franchise legends Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson during the late 90’s. Bell was a big part of the Mariners’ turnaround and became a steady cog in the Ichiro Suzuki-led M’s of 2001 that tied a Major League record with 116 victories. Reflecting now, Bell finds it difficult to compare the ’01 M’s with the slugging powerhouses that were the ’95 and ’98 Indians.
“They were so different. The teams I was on in Cleveland were just loaded with offense,” Bell said. “I remember so many games where they would come from behind. They were never out of a game. They played long, exciting games.
“Our team in Seattle was built around pitching and defense. A lot of guys, when you look back on that team, there weren’t a lot of guys that had great careers. It just kind of all came together. We played really short games in a big ballpark. A lot of low-scoring games and was just a real good team. In Cleveland there were a lot of big personalities. Both were very close teams, guys that loved to be around each other and had real good chemistry.”
Bell’s career high-point wouldn’t come for another year, however, as he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for the 2002 season and his new club made a run at the World Series crown before losing in seven games to the Anaheim Angels.
“Playing in the World Series – nothing compares to that,” Bell said. “It was the best experience of my career. Whenever I think back on my playing days, which isn’t very often, I always think about playing in the World Series. It’s just the best…the ultimate for a player. I just go back revisit that memory now as a coach.”
On his Giants team was the all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds, who is known widely as a volatile figure. Bell, however, has nothing but respect for current king of sluggers.
“Barry was a great teammate,” Bell said confidently. “Unless you played with him and were a teammate of his, you really don’t know Barry. I feel fortunate to have gotten to play with him and to realize that he had a lot of respect for his teammates that went about it the right way and he didn’t have a whole lot of time for you if you didn’t. I really enjoyed playing with him.”
Bell left San Francisco after 2002 and signed a big contract with the Philadelphia Phillies that kept him in the City of Brotherly Love into 2006. He was eventually traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and ultimately ended his playing career at the end of the ’06 season. Since then, Bell has gotten right back into baseball is currently a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“What have I been up to besides coaching?” Bell chortled. “That’s pretty much it. It takes up all of your time. After I was done playing I was out of the game for two years and then the Reds hired me. I managed two years in AA and one year in AAA. I went to the Cubs for one year and then was the Assistant Hitting Coach (in St. Louis) in 2014 and the Bench Coach currently.”
Bell uses his big league expertise learned as a player, son and grandson as a guide in helping the current Big League players get the most out of their talent.
“The biggest part is just being able to relate,” Bell said of coaching. “I was not a great player by any means. It was a struggle for the most part, a grind. There were a lot of ups and downs and you learn a lot from the down times and being able to communicate and relating to the experiences of what these players are going through is rewarding. In a lot of ways, it’s way more rewarding than playing. Of course I miss playing, but to be able to stay in the game – and hopefully in a way you can a lot more than a player – is something that I never knew how much I would enjoy it. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to do it.”
Photo: Getty Images