Without ever having met Mike Bell, who died on Friday at the age of 46 from kidney cancer, the story of his baseball life says a lot.
Bell was born into a baseball family in 1974. HIs grandfather, Gus, had played in the major leagues until 10 years earlier, and his dad, Buddy, was then Cleveland’s third baseman. By the time he was ready to join the family business, Mike’s older brother David had already progressed in just three years from being a seventh-round pick to a fast progression through the Cleveland system, which had him in Double-A as a 20-year-old.
Mike was a first-round pick out of Archbishop Moeller HS in Cincinnati, but he had a lot more of a grind ahead of him upon turning pro. While Buddy became a major leaguer at the age of 20, Gus at 21, and David at 22, Mike stalled out in the Rangers system.
Texas, four years after drafting him, traded Mike to the Angels for Matt Perisho, then left him unprotected in the expansion draft three weeks later. The Diamondbacks picked Bell, but they went on to trade him to the Mets for Joe Lisio before their inaugural spring training. Mike played two seasons as a Mets farmhand, and then reached the crossroads that so many minor leaguers do: free agency six years after being drafted, without having made it to the majors.
It’s fair to look at Bell’s situation, see that his father was a longtime major league player and then manager, and that his brother was a major leaguer too, and surmise that Mike’s choice to continue in the minors and keep pursuing his dream was easier than it would be for a lot of other people. But that doesn’t take away from what Mike did, which was to hit 22 homers for Triple-A Louisville in 2000 and earn himself an opportunity to make his major league debut that year.
In 19 games, Mike went 6-for-27 with two homers. The Reds, who had another third-generation major league third baseman in Aaron Boone, let Mike hit free agency again after the season. He went to the Rockies for two years, the Diamondbacks in 2003, the White Sox in 2004, and the Cardinals in 2005… but never again appeared in the majors, calling it quits after a career that included 82 home runs in Triple-A.
As a baseball lifer, Bell kept on working in the minor leagues, spending 10 years in player development with the Diamondbacks. He got back to the majors last year as the Twins’ bench coach, but fell ill this winter and was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
The Twins announced that they would play Friday night’s Grapefruit League game at the request of the Bell family, which does feel appropriate to honor the memory of a man whose entire life truly was in baseball. Bell’s jerseys hung in the dugout for Minnesota’s Grapefruit League game against Atlanta.