Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: former major-league infielder Jay Bell, who scored the winning run in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
After batting better than .500 his senior year at Pensacola's J. M. Tate High School, Jay Bell was the No. 8 overall draft pick by Minnesota in 1984. In 1985, the Twins traded Bell and three other minor leaguers to Cleveland for future Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven. And on Sept. 29, 1986, Bell homered on the very first pitch he saw as a major leaguer, a pitch thrown by Bert Blyleven.
Bell played in the majors until 2003, with the Indians, Pirates, Royals, Diamondbacks, and Mets. He won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards in 1993 and made the National League All-Star team that year and in 1999. That was the year Bell hit 38 home runs for the Diamondbacks, which not only led the team but surpassed his previous career high by 17 homers. One of those 38 home runs came off the A's Jimmy Haynes with the bases loaded and won $1 million for a pre-selected fan who had picked Bell to hit a grand slam in the sixth inning. And on Nov. 4, 2001, after having failed in a sacrifice bunt attempt, Bell scored the winning run off a Luis Gonzalez bloop single in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 to beat the Yankees and gain his only World Series ring.
In his final major-league at-bat, Bell flied to left against Florida's Braden Looper on Sept. 28, 2003. After a year off, Bell served as bench coach for the Diamondbacks for two seasons before quitting to spend more time with his wife, Laura, and their three children. He is now the hitting coach for the Mobile Bay Bears, the Diamondbacks' Double-A affiliate, just about 60 miles west of where he grew up.
* * *
I wanted to play in the big leagues. There was no question about it. I started watching baseball back in '78, the Dodgers and the Yankees in the World Series. I remember watching that series from the floor of my great-grandmother's house in Argyle, Florida. And I fell in love with it.
Hated Reggie Jackson, so because of Reggie Jackson, I hated the Yankees. Not that I don't respect them and appreciate what they've done over the course of baseball history. And Joe Girardi's a good friend of mine and I pull for him.
I was anti-Reggie because, watching the game, it was a line drive to Bill Russell, thrown back across the diamond to get a double play. Reggie was caught off first base and did the hip move. The ball careened off his hip, and the umpires didn't get the call right, and I thought that was weak. I thought it was a weak play.
The guy that I tried to emulate was Steve Garvey. He was on the other side of the field. The Dodgers were always clean-cut. The perception was that Garvey was Mr. America. And that's who I wanted to emulate. My batting stance was similar to his. I had a lot of the hand movement because of him, on the bat. I didn't know why he did what he did, but later on, I figured it out. I tried to pattern my batting stance after him.
So it was a thrill for me to meet him. We got to play spring training against one another when I was with Cleveland and he was with San Diego. And one of the neatest memories that I've had was years ago at the Gold Glove Award dinner. Steve happened to be there and asked me for my autograph. And I'm like, It shouldn't be happening like this. I should be asking for yours. But he was great.
Don Sutton was another factor in why I liked the Dodgers so much, because he went to the same high school that I went to. So it was just kind of a natural thing to pull for the Dodgers. Growing up in the panhandle of Florida, the closest team was Atlanta, and, of course, Atlanta didn't play real well back then.
Certainly whenever you hear some of the stories ... I mean, I'm assuming they're true. I don't know from the standpoint of being a firsthand witness, but I know, I know they're true. And that's the sad thing. I wouldn't say that I idolized Steve. I pulled for him. I liked him a lot. He was my favorite player. I appreciated him as a player. I appreciated his image. Was disappointed, whenever I found out that that image wasn't totally accurate.
I did have guys over the course of my career who were great examples of how to balance a good image and still play the game and still have to deal with the temptations, the opportunities out there. I had guys like Andre Thornton and Chris Bando and Don Gordon and Brett Butler. Those guys, whenever I got to the big leagues, they showed me how to maintain that character through that process. Listen: If you allow yourself to be put in situations to fail, you're going to fail. And that was one of the things I learned real early. You just try to avoid them as best you can.
I remember Charles Barkley said something to the effect of, I'm not a role model. I'm a basketball player. You should be teaching your own kids. Don't look at me. And I disagree. I mean, if we're going to get paid the kind of money that we get paid, and we're going to be put up on a pedestal, then we have an accountability, we have a responsibility to show the world who we are. And we should be held accountable. And to be honest with you, I think coaches and managers need to be held to a greater standard than even the players, because those are the guys the players are watching. They should be trying to emulate the coaches.
* * *
I went into rookie ball that year after hitting .505 my senior year of high school and being the eighth pick overall. At the end of rookie ball, I looked at my statistics and I hit .220. I thought that I was the best of the best. And I quickly realized that I was just one of them. I was in a much bigger pool than I thought. There was a humbling in a hurry. This game does do that to you.
And Bert tipped his hat to me as I walked off the field, going to the dugout, and I thought that was just the coolest, most professional thing that I'd ever seen.
The next year I made 53 errors in 102 games. The next year the errors started going down and the game started getting a little bit more manageable. But then in '87 I got called up and hit .216. And then the next year I hit .218. And at that point, I'm thinking, Man, I may not make it in this game, but maybe I'll be a good coach.
And, of course, I ended up having the opportunity to spend another 15 seasons playing, but that was kind of unexpected too. Then you go through my last couple of years and I was on the DL for the first time in my career. After having worked out extremely hard in the off-season, I was in the best shape of my career, and at 36 or 37, I went on the DL for the first time. And my last year in New York, which was one of my most enjoyable years, I end up hitting .180 or something like that.
So there were humbling moments, but it was also a good point because it was a transition into the post-career stuff. And so it was good. I loved playing, loved everything about it, but I loved finishing playing, too.
* * *
It is a crushing blow the first time [you're traded]. Because the first time you think, you self-reflect. And you think back, What could I have done differently? How come they're trading me? How come they gave up on me so quickly?
The thing about it is, it's not that at all. The reason that you're getting traded, most of the time, is the fact that the other team had a need, and they wanted a particular player from another organization. And because that was the case, then they go through and they say, Well, I want this player and I want this player and I want this player. And so in this particular case Bert [Blyleven] was well sought after. He earned the ability to have four players traded for him. And it worked out great for Minnesota. He did well over there. He was a part of their '87 team.
Anyway, it was a crushing blow. You sit there and you really evaluate what you've done. And like I said, I made 53 errors that year in A ball. There were times where I had a lot of self-doubt. I did not trust that I was the player that I thought that I was. And that was another crushing blow, too. I was not sure about my abilities and was not sure that I was wanted.
* * *
As a baseball player you tend to be self-consumed. It's just how the game is set up. What players don't understand is how important the front office is to the player. A lot of times, we think it's all about us. Everybody's there for us, and we tend to get catered to.
Shoot, I remember my first day in the big leagues. I look around. You've got nice, brand-new uniforms all hung up. Everything is perfect. You've got all the food that you want in the clubhouse. People are coming up to you saying, "Hey, what can I do for you?" The nature of the business is to take care of the players. You try to do your best to be humble, but at the same time it's still set up to be selfish. It's a selfish game.
And they talk about being team players and all that kind of stuff, which, that's what you want, but really it's all about you. It starts with you and so you tend to be a little self-consumed. And so that's why it's difficult sometimes to try and talk to young players and say, "Listen, it's not all about you." You've got to try and create the team concept, and yet it's still set that way. Which is not bad. It's not a bad thing. It's just how it is.
* * *
I would go to spring training and I'd ask Garry Templeton stuff about playing shortstop and I'd ask Steve Garvey stuff, and during the season I'd ask Jesse Barfield about hitting and George Brett about hitting and Frank White about defense and [Alan] Trammell about defense and Cal Ripken about defense. And then I went to the National League and asked Ozzie [Smith] stuff. And I'd ask these players that I had a lot of respect for, that I felt like could teach me. What was amazing about it was that those guys were willing to share their knowledge with me. They enjoyed it. They enjoyed talking about the game.
In 1996, that was my last year in Pittsburgh, I was hitting about .220 mid-August. I was awful. And man, I just didn't know what to do. I had talked to Laura about quitting playing, because I thought I was done, as far as my abilities to succeed at that level. I was thinking about, I can still join the military at 29. My dad was in the Air Force and that's all I ever wanted to do. I'd tell people all the time that all I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes in the military. And I remember grounding out to short one day and turning around, running through the dugout there in Pittsburgh, going down to the bathroom, looking in the mirror and telling myself, God, I can't do this anymore. I need to figure something out.
And the one thing that either I thought about or God gave me—I don't know what it was; I mean, I don't want to sound like God was audibly speaking to me—but one of the things God taught me was, You need to be less self-consumed. You need to consider others higher than yourself.
That's really what it comes down to. And being a Christ-like example. That's what I want to be. What I learned was that, if I could just look at other guys and just kind of build up other guys who were struggling, or continue to build up a guy who was really doing great, I wouldn't think about myself and I would enjoy the game, good or bad. And it took a lot of pressure off me.
Now, during that period of time, too, I ended up kind of revamping my swing. The guy who was probably the best offensive player at the time was Cecil Fielder, and he kind of rocked forward and got that weight going back, and then got a lot of weight transfer.
The last six weeks of the season I went from .220 to .250. And that .250 felt like .400.
* * *
The home run was fantastic. I mean, the first home run. Get called up from instructional ball. I don't know if anybody's ever been called up from instructional ball to make their major-league debut. And so I'm in Sarasota, Florida, playing instructional ball and get called up.
Mike Hargrove was my manager down there and Grover drives me to Tampa to fly to Minneapolis. And Grover had played with Bert and they had a relationship, so he's just giving me advice as we're driving up there. "Jay," he says, "make sure you swing at the first pitch you see. He's going to throw you a fastball. And you can't hit his curveball anyway, so get on the fastball and hit it."
So I get up to Minneapolis, and I was hitting in the nine hole and Bert had two-and-two-thirds perfect going, and he throws me a fastball first pitch, and I swing at it, and it barely clears the fence over there in left-center field, and I'm running around the bases thinking, This is the coolest thing in the world. I still have video of it. And Knucksie's [Phil Niekro] there, and Steve Carlton is there, and you've got Ken Schrom and Pat Tabler and Brook Jacoby, all these guys, and I'm thinking, Man, that is so cool to be able to do this.
The next at-bat, I'm thinking, Well, I hit the fastball. He's got to throw me the curveball now. And he goes fastball away, fastball away, fastball away, strike three, and I walk back to the dugout. The next at-bat I ended up working about a 10-pitch at-bat. He threw me everything, and finally struck me out on a 3-2 changeup. And Bert tipped his hat to me as I walked off the field, going to the dugout, and I thought that was just the coolest, most professional thing that I'd ever seen.
* * *
During our pre-game stretch, we came out at 6:45 or whatever it was, getting ready for a 7:05 game. And [the fan] is standing on the dugout, and they mentioned it was the sixth inning, and she picks me, and I'm like, Man, you've got Gonzo [Luis Gonzalez]. You've got Matt [Williams]. You've got [Steve] Finley. You've got all these home run hitters, guys who are much more capable than I was of hitting home runs. And she chose me, and the reason she chose me was something about how I was her sister's favorite player.
And I'm kind of doing the math in my head, and I said, Normally I don't come up in the sixth inning. Normally the fifth is whenever I hit—the first, the third, and the fifth, and then probably the eighth or so. But this one happened. One thing led to another, and we just had a long rally, and then I come up in that situation.
What was unique about it is we had first and second with one out. Omar Daal is the pitcher we had going then, and he bunted guys to second and third. Tony Womack, who never walks, walked on four straight, and then I ended up walking up to home plate. It was probably the second most nervous that I've ever been. The first—the first was in the '92 playoffs, with two outs and the based loaded in the bottom of the ninth against the Braves.
But, man, I'm walking up there, and I take the first three pitches. The count's 2 and 1. I step back in the box, and the next pitch is another ball, and I get into the box for the 3-1 pitch and my knees are shaking. And so I end up stepping out of the box and telling myself I've got to swing the bat.
I get back in the box. The next pitch is about chin high. I swing the bat and foul it straight back. And the next pitch, 3-2, another chin-high fastball, foul it straight back. And then the next pitch I end up hitting for the home run. It was just cool. Everything about it was awesome. Not only did it help us win that particular game, but it ended up changing somebody else's life.
* * *
And then, of course, 2001 was fantastic. And the way everything happened, to have screwed up the bunt and to have run down to first base thinking that I just screwed up the World Series ... and the next thing I know I'm scoring the winning run. That was a thrill. It's what we all strive for our entire career.
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. Really, I just never really paid that much attention. It wasn't that important to me, growing up. Professional sports wasn't that important, so I didn't see that aspect until that moment.
* * *
I was a good player most of my career. I was a really good player whenever I was surrounded by great players. And [in 1999] I had Tony Womack leading off in front of me. He was stealing 60, 70 bags or whatever it was, and putting a lot of pressure on pitchers. Behind me was Gonzo. Behind him was Matt Williams. Behind him was Steve Finley. We had a nice lineup, and coupled with the fact that we were the second-highest elevation in baseball, it was great. I had a great time that year.
But I'll tell you what: That last year, 2003, I enjoyed just as much as I did the '99 season. And it was from a different standpoint. I had Ty Wigginton as a rookie. Spent a lot of time with him. Joe McEwing was there as a utility guy. So was Tony Clark. And we had a blast together. And Tom Glavine was there as well, and Al Leiter. There were some guys there who were just a lot of fun. Even though we stank, it was a great experience.
I hate to make it sound like it was bliss the entire career. It wasn't. There were a lot of times it wasn't fun at all to play. But the last seven or eight years of my career were much more enjoyable than the first 12 or so.
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.
* * *
After the 1996 season was over, I got traded to Kansas City. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career, from an offensive standpoint. I spent a year with Chili Davis. Chili was on the team in Kansas City, and it was like being a rookie all over again for both of us. We'd stay at the ballpark until midnight, one o'clock, just talking about hitting. And it was a blast. And so we ended up discussing his philosophy, his theory on hitting, and his approach to hitting. And I liked it.
One of the things that he talked about was early in his career, when he was with San Francisco, he could run a little bit. And was a thin outfielder. Once he got a little bit older and started having some physical ailments and gained a little bit of weight, he made himself more of a power hitter. And it was more of an approach than it was anything else.
So we talked about this. And I ended up utilizing his approach. That year was the first year that I ended up hitting over 20 homers. And man, it was awesome. We had a really productive year. When I was in the three hole, he was hitting behind me and so a lot of protection there. So the production offensively started going up. And then I took it on into Arizona and had some real good years there.
It was an awesome year. It really was. But at the same time, yeah, I mean, I get it. It is the steroid era. There's no question about it. And some guys with character ended up getting on the list. You talk about Andy Pettitte. Andy Pettitte got on the list. And I absolutely love Andy Pettitte. He was having some physical problems, and I think that was part of the reason. I think he came off a physically plagued year or something like that. Matt Williams, his name came out and he had broken his ankle the year before, and that was part of what he felt like he had to do, from a rehab standpoint. At least that's what I understand.
Listen, I am happy that I hit my 38 homers. There have been a lot of players who have had career years, and it just happened to be that was mine. We've got one reporter in Arizona; he didn't come right out and say, Hey, he did it. But he basically said, This is the steroid era and look at Jay Bell's year and all this other stuff. I mean, Gonzo got thrown under the bus by a few people, too, and really all I can say is, I was a good player by my own right and a much better player around really good players. I see what people say, but I can't help that either.
* * *
Fortunately I never had any injuries until 2002. And I was prepared to start the season at third base because Matt was hurt at the time, and was going to have the opportunity to play. I had gone to API, Athletes' Performance Institute, and worked out with them twice a day for about six weeks and was probably in the best shape of my career. And next thing you know, I'm pulling a calf and thinking, Man, all right, that's going to be just a short period of time. It was three months. And when you don't play on a regular basis for three months, you just can't expect to compete with talented players. So that year was kind of a wash.
Was it a big dropoff? Probably not. Probably not in 2000, and then not the first half of 2001, but the second half of 2001 is when I stopped playing on a regular basis. That's when the stats really started going downhill. Nothing wrong with that. I don't have any problem with where I was at in my career. As a matter of fact, it was probably just a nice little transition for me to get out of the game. Or to get out from a playing aspect.
I had a really nice first half, and the second half I ended up not playing a whole bunch. Craig Counsell ended up playing a lot. Junior Spivey actually played second base for a month and was on fire for a while, and then whenever he faded away Craig Counsell and Tony Womack were doing great. Those guys were fantastic, and they deserved to play.
But really I think that that particular instance, that was kind of the start of me transitioning out. Even though it was a couple of years away, it was still a nice little transition. So it was good. I was not disappointed. I think part of it was, that was the first year of my career that I didn't have a home run. And I was like, Man, if I can't hit a home run anymore, I'm done.
* * *
In the fall of 2002, I did not have a contract. Laura and I, every year, just the two of us go on an anniversary trip. We decided that we would go to Utah and go skiing up in Deer Valley. It was the first time in 19 years that I had not had a contract, and so we decided we'd go up and ski.
So I went skiing and came back and after the first of the year. I told her, "Listen, nobody's called. I don't have a contract. I'm going to learn to fly." Like I told you before, all I ever wanted to do growing up was be in the military. So I went and a friend of mine who was an ex-military guy found me a flight instructor, and I ended up flying. And got probably about eight or nine hours in, something like that, and I got a phone call from Scott Boras, my agent, and he said the Mets were interested in having me come to spring training to try and win the third-base job.
I talked to Laura about it and I told her, "Listen, I'm really not interested, and having a choice between flying and baseball, I would much prefer to fly." And she said, "Well, I'm not real comfortable with that right now, and I'd rather you go ahead and play one more year." She said, "I don't think your career is done." It was really, to be honest with you, it was really more her idea than it was mine. And it's a decision that was made that I do not regret in the least.
Laura saw every aspect. She saw from rookie ball on, so she saw the 20 years of playing. And so she understood. She understood. And she cared about my career as much as I did. So that was part of it. She was invested in the process as well.
I had a really nice spring training with the Mets, as a utility infielder. It's the hardest job in baseball. Where you're playing once a week or so and you're trying to compete. You look at the John Vander Wals and the Greg Colbrunns and the Manny Motas of the world, and you respect them as players. You respect them more than these everyday players because those guys have success as part-time players.
I don't know if I would've had a bitter taste in my mouth had I not played in New York that year. But again, I don't regret for a second the choice that was made. I loved it. I had a great time there.
That was one of the things: As an opposing player coming in there, a lot of times it was miserable. It was miserable to stay downtown and all that kind of stuff, but as a home guy, Man, I loved, I loved New York. I loved everything about it. Still hated the Yankees, but loved playing for the Mets. It was a blast. It was fun. It was a good final chapter of my career.
* * *
It was a 3-0 pitch, by the way, doggone it. I wanted to hit a homer. I wanted to do the first and last at-bat. So I knew. I knew it was my last at-bat. And Braden [Looper] did too. Braden knew it was my last at-bat, too. He tried to lay one in there for me, and that was a cool moment in time, too. We were in Miami. I got a standing O from the opposing dugout, so it was a cool moment. It really was. But I knew that was my last at-bat.
And I was ready. It was a nice little fly ball to left field. I was afraid that if I hit a homer I would've thought I could still play.
* * *
I've never missed playing at all. The only thing that I've missed from playing is taking ground balls. I've missed taking ground balls during BP, and that was it. I don't miss the competition. I've got that out on the golf course. I've got that flying planes, trying to think through scenarios and all that kind of stuff. But I have not missed playing at all.
The coaching standpoint? I've missed the big-league players. They're the best in the world. These Double-A guys, they're close to the best in the world. And coaching this caliber of player? Yeah, I had some withdrawals.
The coaching aspect at all, coaching Little League, coaching high school, it's the same. You're coaching for the love of the game. It's not about, necessarily, the level, but there's nothing greater than coaching professional players. It is fun to take pleasure in their abilities. It is a blast to watch good players compete. And that's why people love turning on the TV. And that's why you love going to Yankee Stadium or Shea or whatever it is when you go. It is cool to watch great players perform.
I'll tell you this: 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?
The bench coach job is awesome. It is a great job. You can be a little friendlier with the players and not deal with all the other crap that goes on with being a manager. So it's a great job.
But I'll tell you what: You work harder mentally than you ever did as a player. You're spending more time at the ballpark. You're still traveling just as much and all that kind of stuff. Being a coach is a tough job. We're going to spend at least 11 hours at the ballpark today, and probably more. And then when we come home we usually do our reports, so it's a long day. But it's fantastic. It's a lot of fun. Those two years were great. I loved it.
Being a coach, it's not about you. It's about everybody else but you.
I don't regret the fact that I'm not managing in the big leagues right now. It doesn't matter. Is that still a dream? Yeah. But I'm content with where I'm at. I'm content.
Rob Trucks's interviews and oral histories may currently be found at McSweeney's, Rhapsody and, of course, here at Deadspin. Leftovers may be found at his website tusktusktusk.com, or you my contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.