“What are you laughing at?” I said, “I’m in the Big Leagues!”
One of the most confounding dynamics in sport is the non-prospect who develops into a superstar.
With the amount of time spent on scouting and player development and the sheer number of eyes on players as they progress in their baseball lives, you’d figure every future All-Star would be well identified before the age of 20.
Alas, there are plenty who fall through the cracks.
Heath Bell is one of those players and he joins us for a special two-part interview. This week, we’ll examine his road to the Major Leagues and next week, we’ll discuss his development into a three-time All-Star closer and heir apparent to Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman.
Like all young kids, Bell dreamed of becoming a Major League Baseball Player one day. In his heart, he always knew he would make it, even if he was the only one thinking that until he donned a Mets uniform for the first time on August 24, 2004.
Bell came to the Mets as an undrafted free agent in 1998 and after a slow and, at times, frustrating climb through their system, he finally got the call six years later. It wasn’t that Bell didn’t have success in the minor leagues and in his first few callups with the Mets. Quite the contrary.
There was at least one very visible and influential Pitching Coach standing in his way, who happened to be very wrong about him. Bell wasn’t the only player he was wrong on either.
But that’s a story for Part 2 next week.
Today we’re here for an inspirational story of someone who followed his dreams and believed in himself unconditionally from the time he was a kid.
That perseverance, along with some advice from his sister, set Bell on an unlikely path to stardom.
Everyone in life is told they aren’t qualified for something. If you need the motivation to overcome the doubters, the best thing you can do is join us as we go Spitballin’ with Heath Bell.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bell. I spent years of my Mets fandom angered that they let you get away, and we’ll get to that soon. But I like to get started with these going back to being a kid. What was baseball like for you growing up?
I started playing when I was four or five. I loved going to games. My dad would take me to California Angels and San Diego Padres games. He really was a big sports guy. My dad always told the story when he was alive that I said to him when I was six or seven, “Dad, I’m gonna be out there one day and have 50,000 people cheer me or boo me.” He said, “Why would they boo you?” I said, “Because I’d be playing for the other team and doing really well.” I always wanted to be a baseball player from when I was young.
What teams or players did you root for growing up in Southern California?
I grew up a Padres and Angels fan because I was always at the games. I was also a Cubs fan because in Little League they named the teams after the Major League teams and for five straight years, I was on the Cubs. And of course, when I was growing up they didn’t have lights at Wrigley Field, so the games were always on TV during the day. If you were a West Coast kid like me, those games with Harry Caray came on at 10:00AM. You’d wake up, watch cartoons and watch the ballgame. Then when I was a little older, I liked the Red Sox because of Roger Clemens. My dad’s favorite player was Nolan Ryan, so I liked him too.
He gave me some BS line about not seeing the potential in me. In the nicest way possible, he said, “We know you throw strikes, but you’re fat and we don’t see a future in you.”
Was there a time when you thought you had a shot at a career in professional baseball?
I always said I was going to be a baseball player. People would tell me that only 1% of the players make it, so I always thought, “Why can’t I be that 1%?” In junior high on career day, I said I wanted to be a baseball player. They would tell me, “That’s nice. You need a fallback. What do you really want to do?” In high school I would have teachers say, “You’re not even on varsity, how can that be your goal?” I knew I could still do it. I just always thought, “Why can’t I be that 1%?” I never made an All-Star team in Little League, but that was still always my thought. I wasn’t very good when I was younger, but I worked hard and became better every year. If there was a reality show that filmed me growing up, all you’d see is me playing baseball. That’s all I did, and I never grew out of it. It’s something I just knew in my heart. I never thought I’d be a star or celebrity, but I always believe I was going to make it to the Majors.
Great perspective there. Ultimately, you got into pro ball with the Mets as an undrafted free agent. What were the circumstances there?
I got drafted in 1997 by the Rays as a draft and follow but they didn’t offer me anything except a Tampa Bay Rays hat. Earlier than that, the Phillies called me up when I was in junior college and said they were thinking of drafting me in the 21st round. I asked how much they would offer, and they said $1,000. I said to the scout that I was the first in my family to finish a year of college, so it was very important to my dad that I become the first in my family with a degree, so I wasn’t going to sign for $1,000. I called the Rays the next year right before the draft and asked if they wanted to sign me but they said, “No.”
The Mets, Rockies and A’s called me and said they were interested in drafting me and asked what it would take. I had my AA degree, so I was good. I said I didn’t care, I would just sign and be ready to start my professional career, even though I had a full ride to Cal State Fullerton in the table. They all said, “Great!”
The first day of the draft came, and nothing. I didn’t think I would get drafted there anyway. The next day nothing, the third day nothing. Then I was depressed. My sister told me I should call them up and ask them why they didn’t draft me. I called Bob Minor with the Mets because I had the best conversation with him. He gave me some BS line about not seeing the potential in me. In the nicest way possible, he said, “We know you throw strikes, but you’re fat and we don’t see a future in you.”
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 3: Heath Bell #21 of the San Diego Padres pitches during the game against the Colorado Rockies at Petco Park on September 3, 2011 in San Diego, California. The Colorado Rockies won 5-4. (Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
Looks like Bob Minor is the first in a long line of people on the pro level who was wrong about you. But then you signed with the Mets anyway. What changed?
I chose to go play in Alaska that summer over the Cape Cod League. I wanted to go see the country and when was I ever gonna have the chance to see Alaska? About two or three weeks later, Bob Minor called me back and said they didn’t sign enough guys and the Mets didn’t have enough players on their rookie ball team. He asked me to come play and offered me $500. I said, “What time do you wake up tomorrow? I am pitching in a game tonight and I don’t want it over my head, so I’ll let you know tomorrow.” He said he woke up at 8:00AM. He asked if I wanted to talk to my parents, I told him, “No, I’m going to call you at 8:00AM tomorrow and say yes, but I don’t want to do that until I pitch this game.”
I literally called him at 8:00AM the next morning and he was still asleep, but answered and was like, “Hello?” I said, “This is Heath Bell and I want to sign. You told me you woke up at 8:00AM.” He said, “Yea, but not literally!”
From Alaska, I flew right to Kingsport, Tennessee to play rookie ball for the Mets for $500. We had 11 non-drafted free agents on that team because a lot of people didn’t sign. It was the first year they had shortened the draft and some teams got caught with their pants down as far as filling rosters. I signed my contract 20 minutes before I pitched. I had a split finger back then and was pitching to a Dominican catcher, who hadn’t seen it before. I struck out the first four guys I faced but didn’t get an out because he couldn’t block the split finger.
What was your experience like coming up through the Mets system?
I was in the minors for seven years. I was married with kids at the time. I had tried to go to Japan the two years prior, but the Mets kept having different GMs, so they wouldn’t sell me to Japan. I had like a million dollar offer from there. I wasn’t on the 40-man and wasn’t making any money, so I would go to Venezuela to play Winter Ball to make $10,000 a month so I could survive during the season. My wife worked and I barely ever saw my kids. I was sitting there one day in Norfolk, Virginia saying I couldn’t wait to become a free agent. I would see coaches I knew from the Mets when they moved to other teams and they would tell me they were trying to trade for me, but the Mets wouldn’t give me up because they had an undrafted free agent throwing 94-100. New GMs and Farm Directors kept wanting to see what I had. I always got passed up for a callup by someone who was drafted in the fifth round or higher. I just was always on the suspect list instead of the prospect list.
PHOENIX, AZ: Relief pitcher Heath Bell #21 of the Miami Marlins pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the MLB game at Chase Field on August 21, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
That had to be frustrating. How close did you come to giving it up?
A couple weeks before the season’s end, I was telling people I would sign with another team. Bobby Valentine never wanted young pitching. He wanted veteran pitchers and wanted to trade young pitching for veterans. Then we had Art Howe as a manager and he was cool, but it was frustrating. I had been in AAA for a few years and we weren’t going to the playoffs one year, but the AA team was. Their closer got hurt so they moved me to AA. I was like, “I’m getting demoted?”
The coach down there and my coach in AAA told me just to go down and do the best you can. Don’t complain because the organization will see how you’re handling it. They want to win in the minor leagues, so go down there and do your best. I faced 26 batters down there, struck out about 15 and nobody reached base, but we missed the playoffs by a game. I pitched my heart out and did everything I could to help them make the playoffs, but they called an outfielder up instead, plus two pitchers that were a first and third rounder. I thought, “This organization just doesn’t like me.”
What was it like to finally get the call?
We were in Charlotte, North Carolina and we had a 10:00AM game. After the game, my hotel phone rang, and it was the trainer who said he was trying to get a hold of me. He said, “You’re getting called up!” We used to play pranks all the time and since I was in AAA for a while, they always tried to get me but couldn’t. I was like, “This is bullshit, no I’m not.” He told me to come downstairs because the coaches were waiting for me. I came downstairs expecting people to be laughing when the elevator opened, but when I got there, the only ones I saw were Howard Johnson and the other coaches at the lobby bar. They waved me over and said, “Hey, congrats, you’re going up! It’s well-deserved and you should have been called up earlier.”
SAN DIEGO, CA: Heath Bell #21 shares a gumball with Mark Merila #71 of the San Diego Padres prior to the game against the New York Mets at Petco Park on August 16, 2011 in San Diego, California. The San Diego Padres won 6-1. (Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
What were some of the thoughts going through your head when you realized it wasn’t a joke?
I called my wife who lived in Florida with our kids and my parents who were still out in California. They couldn’t get a flight until Monday. I was all excited to be with the New York Mets. I had been dreaming of this for seven years. I was like, “I’m gonna take John Franco’s job!” Johnny inspired me so much because he and Mike Stanton used to come down and talk to the minor league guys and it was always memorable. I just tried to go about my business.
What was it like to make your debut against the Padres, the team you had rooted for as a kid?
Kris Benson had got the start and pitched about six innings. I got called in to pitch the seventh and eighth and we won by four. The first guy I faced was David Wells and I struck him out on three straight pitches. Then I faced Brian Giles and got him on the best changeup I ever threw in my life. I was out there pitching to Mike Piazza, it was surreal. I pitched two innings, struck out four and gave up one hit to Phil Nevin. One of the guys was like, “Hey, have you been up in the Majors before?” I said, “No, this is my first time up.” He asked why I didn’t throw the ball out from my first strikeout to save it. I said I didn’t want to act like a rookie, I wanted it to seem like I had been here before. But for the first couple weeks, nobody realized that was my first time up. John Franco didn’t realize for like two weeks.
That makes sense since I am sure you were around them so much. What was your experience with the Mets like those first days?
My parents and wife missed the game because the flights hadn’t landed, but I got to see them after the game. So, Monday I had pitched in my game and then Tuesday I met my family, and we were all excited. Then I went out for the game and was even more excited. I went out for batting practice and was taking it all in and someone said that Art Howe wanted to talk to me. I went into his office, and he said, “Kid you looked great and pitched great, but we just picked someone up off waivers and we’re sending you down.” He said he knew my family was in town and told me I could stay around with them for a few days before going to Norfolk. I said I appreciated it, but I was fine to go back tomorrow and meet up with the team. He said I had to be out of my locker in five minutes because we were only allowed 25 guys in the locker room before a game.
The Mets had given me some per diem, so my wife and I went out for some dinner with my mom and dad, and I told them what my plans were. My mom said they were in New York for a week and asked why I wouldn’t stay. I said that I wanted to show the Mets I was serious so they would bring me back sooner rather than later. My dad was like, “Atta boy.”
SAN DIEGO, CA: Heath Bell #21 of the San Diego Padres pitches during a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park on September 16, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Looking back at those years, you were back and forth between AAA and the Majors a bunch.
Yes, I was. I flew to Norfolk that Wednesday, and they all stayed behind to see New York. I met up with my team AAA and was telling them how awesome it was, even if it was just one day. We went through warmups and batting practice and the coach called me in the office to tell me I was going back up. Turned out the guy they signed was hurt. I tried to make some phone calls, but my parents and wife were all on flights. When I finally told them I got called up, they couldn’t turn around to come back because we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. This time, I stayed up through the end of the year.
The funny part was, my mom and dad never got to see me play in person that year. My wife was able to come up and see me the last series of the year. I was staying at the Ramada across from Shea Stadium and one day we were walking across the lot to the hotel. I just busted out laughing and my wife was like, “What are you laughing at?” I said, “I’m in the Big Leagues!” I had the biggest grin. Mike, the clubbie looks at me and was like, “You’ve been here for two months!” I had never let myself take it in because when I got there, I only looked at the field and wouldn’t look at the stands or anything it. I just told myself not to do anything different than I was doing at AAA. Just stay focused and get outs. I just told myself the dimensions were all the same as the minors. I never said to myself, “I’m in the Big Leagues!” But for whatever reason, at that moment, I was like, “Wow, I’m in the Big Leagues.”
That’s an amazing roller coaster ride and your whole experience getting your start in pro ball and then climbing to the Majors is an awesome lesson in perseverance. When we continue, we’ll get into those first few years with the Mets and how you became an All-Star closer.