- Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 19.12 (8/36/22))
- Seasons: 1998-2002
- Stats: 616 games, .263/.355/.458 = .812 OPS, 104 OPS+. 9.7 bWAR
- Best season: 1999 - 151 games, .289/.374/.557 = .931 OPS, 131 OPS+, 4.9 bWAR
“Life is not for wimps. You’ve got to fight every day. When you go about your job, whatever it may be, you’ve got to go at it with a zeal to be the best. I want to be the best. I strive to be the best.”
— Jay Bell
Those big moments started at the very beginning of Jay Bell’s career: he homered off future Hall of Famer, Bert Blyleven, on the very first pitch he saw in the majors, as a 20-year-old for the Indians [fun fact: losing pitcher that game was future team-mate, Greg Swindell]. This was in 1986, at which point the Diamondbacks weren’t even a vague thought in the head of Jerry Colangelo. But over the next 11 years, Bell played 1,375 games, in Pittsburgh and Kansas City as well as Cleveland, becoming an All-Star in 1993 for the Pirates. That year, he batted .310 and piled up 6.2 bWAR, also winning a Gold Glove - a turnaround from his first year as a pro, where he made 59 errors!
That was at shortstop, and it’s often forgotten this is where he played his first year in Arizona, starting 135 times there for the D-backs in their inaugural season. He had become the team’s first player signed, the 32-year-old free-agent agreeing to a five-year contract in November 1997 worth $34 million, just before the expansion draft. That price made Jay the highest-paid middle infielder in the major leagues at that point. While Bell was coming off an excellent year (.291 with 21 HR), it was a deal which drew some ire: Sports Illustrated reported another general manager called it “insane,” and one owner said it was ”absolutely irresponsible.”
Bell was a little awkward around the topic. He said, “I’m not going to apologize about the salary. But to be a focal point--it’s not the most comfortable thing. I’m not in the game to gain fame. I’m in the game to play to the best of my ability.” Jerry Colangelo was more upbeat: “The signing of Jay Bell is the result of our commitment to put a competitive product on the field. He’s a terrific guy in addition to a terrific athlete. If you’re building a team that will probably have a lot of young players, a Jay Bell could be a tremendous influence.” In a dig at the then (again!) dismantling Marlins, he added, “Whatever we do is not going to be something that has to be torn down and sold.”
Bell’s signing immediately paid dividends, as he led all Arizona position players in bWAR during that first campaign, being worth a hair below four wins. Toward the end of that 1998 season, he swapped positions with Tony Batista, who had been playing second-base, because Bell no longer had the necessary mobility for shortstop. That set the stage for 1999, where Jay exploded, batting .289, with 112 RBI and 38 home-runs. To that point in baseball history, only Davey Johnson, Rogers Hornsby and Ryne Sandberg had hit more HR among second-basemen [Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Brian Dozier have since followed suit].
One proved particularly memorable, perhaps the most remarkable single moment in any D-backs regular season game. There was a Shamrock Farms/KNIX promotion where the winner got tickets to a game and a shot at winning a million dollars. All they had to do was predict both the inning and the D-back who would hit a grand-slam that day. For the last game before the All-Star break (in which Matt Mantei also made his AZ debut), that fan was Gylene Hoyle of Chandler, but the odds were very much against her. Arizona had hit only two grand-slams at Bank One Ballpark to that point in the year, so even seeing one was unlikely, never mind from a specific player and inning.
“When he got into the box with the bases loaded, I just cringed. When it got to 3-and-2 my stomach was just in knots. When I saw the ball in the air and knew it was going out, everyone around me was just ecstatic.”
— Gylene Hoyle
Everyone at the park - including Jay - knew what was at stake, when the fates aligned to bring Bell up with the bases loaded in the sixth, as chosen by Hoyle. Which may explain why he was up there hacking: according to team-mate Matt Williams, Bell swung at three balls! He escaped a foul which just crept over the screen behind home, before depositing a full-count pitch from Jimmy Haynes, 373 feet into the left-field bleachers. Said Bell, “I had a 20-year career and without a doubt this was my #1 most enjoyable experience in baseball... This was special because I was able to do something that changed somebody’s life. There is no better feeling.”
Bell regressed somewhat in 2000, his home-runs being almost cut in half, to “just” twenty, and his career was then on the downward curve. He was an important part of the World Series team, playing at both second and third-bases, and hit .351 in April. But over the next three months, Bell hit only .229, and his playing time down the stretch was lost to Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey and Tony Womack. Bell had only 15 PA during the post-season, getting two hits and scoring three runs. All of the latter came in the World Series, and of course, none more memorable than the winning score in Game 7, leading to the iconic image below, of him leaping into Williams’s arms.
The first time I actually saw myself as something, as an athlete, was probably after Game 7, and I’ll tell you why. As we’re down on the field celebrating, my wife and my kids and my mom and my dad and my brother, and I had some friends who came down on the field also—I looked and they were weeping. And I had not really paid attention to how important what I was doing was to everybody else.
— Jay Bell
2002 was the last year of Bell’s contract, but was derailed by a calf injury that kept him out until the second half of July. He barely hit when he returned, batting .163. Overall, the contract perhaps has relevance today, showing why offering long-term deals to guys over 30 is a bad idea. After putting up 8.8 bWAR in the first two seasons, the final three years of Bell’s deal, in which he earned over $23 million, were worth just 0.9 bWAR. He finished his career in 2003 with the Mets and tried to hit a home-run in his final at-bat: “I knew it was my last at-bat. And Braden [Looper] did too... He tried to lay one in there for me, and that was a cool moment in time, too.” He ended up flying out.
However, Bell is still very much in the game, as a manager and coach. That included two years here as bench coach under Bob Melvin, before quitting to spend more time with his family. He wonders, “I look back and I think, Man, could I have been the manager in Arizona after Bob left, and the answer is maybe. Who knows?” He remained a spring training advisor and coach for the next three years, and was also the hitting coach at Double-A Mobile in 2012. Bell interviewed for the manager’s position here in 2014, the job eventually going to Chip Hale, and is currently a manager in the Yankees’ farm system, running the High-A Tampa Yankees.
The trick is to figure out how to love the game when it doesn’t love you back. And it’s not going to love you a lot of times. There are going to be a lot of times where you’re going to fail in this game and it’s going to be humbling. It’s going to be a humbling game because, statistically, it is set up for failure. And you try and figure out how to love it even then.
— Jay Bell