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Mudville: November 30, 2022 12:45 pm PDT
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Heath Bell Part II

“I didn’t realize I was sprinting.”

The power of believing in yourself can only take you so far.

In professional sports, you have to believe in yourself, even if you’re the only one who does. Even so, if your team doesn’t believe in you, your options are going to be limited.

In fact, all it takes is one influential person to not believe in you and it doesn’t matter what you think or do, the doors just won’t open for you.

 

Heath Bell spent nine years in the Mets organization, yet it took a change of scenery to his hometown Padres for those doors to open.

Bell joins us this week for Part Two of a two-part Spitballin’.

Although he never got a full chance to prove himself with the Mets, Bell never stopped believing in himself. So when Bud Black and the Padres traded for him in November of 2006, it was time for a fresh start.

The Padres let Bell be himself, and frankly, it is a crime that anyone would insist Bell be anything but himself.

Bell successfully took over the closer role in San Diego from Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman and saved 132 games in three All-Star seasons as the Padres closer.

He always believed in himself and it just took an organization to reciprocate that belief.

Lace ‘em up and sprint out of the bullpen as we go Spitballin’ with Heath Bell.

Thanks for joining us again this week, Mr. Bell. It was great hearing about your climb to the Majors as an undrafted free agent last week. What were the Mets plans for you when you first came to the Majors?

When I was in New York, Sandy Alderson came to me and said I would have a great career as a callup guy. He said guys make a good living being down in the minors and then getting called up to fill in. I told him I wanted to be in the Majors all year. He said, “Well, guys make a good career doing that. They stick around for four or five years mostly in the minors and fill that role.” I thought, “Well, that’s a bummer.”

Do you have any idea why they never really gave you a chance?

In 2005 I was there for most of the year. Willie Randolph was the manager and Rick Peterson was the pitching coach. Guy Conti was the bullpen coach and he was my pitching coach in the minors. We had a good relationship. Guy Conti pulled me aside one day and said, “I might get fired for saying this, but do you know why you got sent down? Your last six games, you didn’t strike anyone out.” I was like, “OK, but I didn’t give up any runs either and only like two hits.” He told me that Rick Peterson said that my stuff wasn’t sharp enough because I wasn’t striking guys out, so he suggested they send me down. I was like, “You’re sending me down because I did my job, but it wasn’t flashy enough?” I was putting up zeroes and getting the holds, but he wasn’t happy with the way I was doing it.

“You’re gonna ask me to close games in the Big Leagues?” He said, “Yes, is there a problem? You have over 100 saves in the minor leagues.” I said, “There’s no problem, but the Mets would never allow me to do that.”

Being a Mets fan and knowing what the bullpen was like back then, they could have used anyone who was able to get people out in any way possible. In 2005, you pitched in 42 games but then you pitched just 22 games the next year. What were those final two years in New York like?

In 2006, I did something that I probably shouldn’t have. Willie Randolph had become the manager in 2005 and there were a couple open spots in the bullpen. It was me, Aaron Heilman and another guy and two of us were going to fill those spots. I didn’t give up a run that Spring Training. Willie sat me down and said, “Kid, you made the team, but you have options, so you’re going to AAA until we need you.” I was dumbfounded. I went to AAA and the second day of the season I got called back up. The next year I had a great Spring Training. I struck out like 16 guys. I sat down in Willie’s office and like 60 seconds of silence went by. He was just looking at papers and looking at me and there was nothing said. I finally said, “Same shit, different year? Wait for you in AAA until you need me?” He just looked at me and said, “Yeah.”

Looking back at your stats in 2006, you had 37 innings in the Majors and 35 in AAA. Was it difficult splitting time like that?

Mid-season, Willie called me in and I hadn’t pitched in like a week. Rick Peterson was there too.  He said they were going to send me out. I had like a high-2.00 ERA. I said, “Can I ask you a question? Why am I going down? I haven’t given up a run in a few outings. Are you getting a hitter or something?” Rick Peterson said, “Your stuff isn’t breaking as much.” I said, “You could tell that from the dugout but the hitters can’t?” Willie said, “We’re not gonna have this argument; you’re going down and someone else is coming up.”

I spent a month down there and just about everyone in the bullpen got called up and they all sucked. Then they finally called me up. I pitched in one outing then they sat me for 28 straight days. It was becoming a joke. I was going to go two paychecks without even pitching. Even Pedro Martinez was like, “Dude, you’re getting paid more than I do and you’re not doing anything!”

Heath Bell #21 of the San Diego Padres in action against the New York Mets at Citi Field on August 8, 2011. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

What was your relationship like with your teammates through all of this?

Everybody on the team was great to me. Billy Wagner was really great. He went to Willie Randolph and said I could be a setup guy. Willie said to him, “Billy, I know what Heath can do. I know him a lot longer than you. I know what he can and cannot do and he cannot be a setup man.” Billy finally said to me, “I’m going to get you traded.”

So I sat for those 28 straight days and then pitched in two games at the very end of the season. I pitched two innings each game and gave up like four runs each game, so my ERA really jumped.  Just looking at my ERA, it looked like I had a bad year. I just didn’t have the innings though, so it was just those two bad games, but it really made my ERA jump.

It seems like all you really needed was a chance and an organization to believe in you. I am guessing you saw that difference between the Padres and Mets?

The Mets they didn’t like the way I looked in a uniform. One year, Rick Peterson came to me and asked if I wanted to have a career in the Big Leagues. I said I did and he said, “I’m not going to ask you how hard you worked in the offseason, I’m just gonna look at you in Spring Training and see if you really want this.” That offseason, I lived about five miles away from the Port St. Lucie and rollerbladed to the facility every day. I trained with the strength trainer there. I did that the whole offseason, rollerblading there and back. I was eating oatmeal three times a day and some granola bars. I was starving myself.

I dropped like 40 pounds and came into Spring Training and everyone was like, “Damn! You’re in great shape man!” They asked me what I did and I told them I rode rollerblades and worked out. That got around and a week later, Rick Peterson came over and chewed my ass out. Another coach came over to me and said, “You know why he’s really mad? His nine-year-old son fell and broke his arm riding roller blades.” I used to play roller hockey and always made sure to wear my elbow pads and hand guards. I had been doing this for eight years. I knew what I was doing. When I was with the Mets, they cared about what I looked like in the uniform and what I did off the field. When I got to San Diego, all they cared about was me getting people out.

Heath Bell #21 of the San Diego Padres is shown before a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park on July 27, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

It’s pretty amazing that you were almost 30 by the time you really had an organization believe in you and you still developed into an All-Star. Were there times when you didn’t think it was going to happen for you?

In 2007, my wife had talked to me about giving up baseball. She said I should quit baseball. She said I was the throw-in in the trade and that the Padres really wanted Royce Ring, who was a first-rounder. I said to give me one more chance and if I don’t make it this year, I’d be done. So, I was determined to go to Spring Training and dominate. I did really well there. Darrel Akerfelds was our pitching coach. He told me I made the team and was going to be a sixth inning guy.

He said there were gonna be days when Trevor Hoffman wasn’t available and Scott Linebrink would be the ninth inning guy and I would move up. There might even be sometimes when the three horses were going to be down and they were gonna use me to close games. I looked at him and said, “You’re gonna ask me to close games in the Big Leagues?” He said, “Yes, is there a problem? You have over 100 saves in the minor leagues.” I said, “There’s no problem, but the Mets would never allow me to do that.” The worst part about it is that I do look back on [my success] and think, “Why couldn’t I do that for the Mets?” Maybe the stars weren’t aligned. For so long, I wanted to be successful for the Mets.

How difficult was it taking over for a Hall of Fame closer in Trevor Hoffman?

The ironic part was that when I got called up to the Mets for the first time, my first game was against the Padres. When I got traded to the Padres, my first save in the Big League came against the Mets. Trevor Hoffman had blown a save, which didn’t happen too often. I came in and had to get Jose Reyes, my old roommate – and another guy who was my teammate, David Wright. I ended up getting up two saves that year. The next year, there was writing on the wall that I would take over for Trevor, but he never gave me the opportunity. Then in 2009, the Padres didn’t resign Trevor, so I got the chance. Everybody asked me how I would fill Trevor’s shoes. I said, “Well, he’s a size 14 and I’m a size 13. I can’t fill his shoes, so I am gonna try to be me.” For so long with the Mets, I was trying to be Johnny Franco. It didn’t happen with the Mets, but for me it was a dream come true getting to close.

Heath Bell #21 of the San Diego Padres shows a baseball grip to Dierks Bentlety in the dugout prior to the game against the Florida Marlins at Petco Park on August 20, 2011 in San Diego, California. The San Diego Padres won 14-1. (Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

What was it like to finally come out of the bullpen as a Major League closer after working towards that goal for so long?

Citi Field opened in 2009 and that was my first year as a closer. The Padres were the opponent in the first game. Guess who got the first save at Citi Field? The Padres won by one and I got the save. I asked the Mets if they wanted the ball and they said, “No.” Our leadoff batter that day, Jody Gerut, hit a home run in the top of the first too. So for Citi Field, a Padre got the first hit, run, RBI, win and save.

I actually have the ball from every save I ever had in the minor leagues and Big Leagues. The only one I don’t have is from Opening Day in 2009, the first save at Citi Field. The clubbie I talked about last week was a bat boy for the Mets in 2009. He’s a lawyer now and we’ve been friends over the years. He asked me for the ball because he’s a diehard Mets fan. I said, “OK, but if I ever want it back, you have to give it back to me. I’ll give it to you on loan.” He was like, “OK, that’s perfect!” So that ball from the first save at Citi Field is sitting on his desk. I have the balls from all of my saves in cases on display in my baseball room and there’s that one spot missing. People will ask if a case fell down or something. I say, “Nope. That’s for the first save at Citi Field and my friend has it because the Mets didn’t want it.”

That an absolutely incredible story. A couple more questions for you. First, I want to ask about your bullpen entrance and how you sprinted in towards the mound. How did that come about?

I always tried to run in firmly to get sweaty. When I was sweaty, I always felt like I was working hard and pitched better. The movie 300 came out in 2007 and it was a big deal. I had struck out 100 guys and Geoff Blum and Mike Thompson, our video guy, made a music video of 300 and me in the background. They asked if they could play it when I came into games. I said, “Sure!” When I came in from the bullpen, I always put my head down and jogged in firmly and then picked it up when I got to the infield dirt. My fear was that I would run off into foul territory and not realize it.

In 2009, my first year as a closer, we were playing the Dodgers in the opening series. Vin Scully said something like, “Goodbye Trevor Hoffman, hello Heath Bell!” That is where the sprint started. The doors open and I started to run in and the crowd just roared. It made me run faster. They inspired me to take off. Then I struck out the side, so everyone was like, “Dude you just sprinted in from the bullpen and struck everyone out!” Then two days later, the same thing happened and I did it again. I didn’t plan on doing it, it just happened. People started asking why I sprinted in and I was like, “I didn’t realize I was sprinting.” The crowd just had me so excited. It’s like when you’re running a race and at the finish line, everyone is cheering and you get this burst of energy and you run faster, even though you’re dying.

Closing pitcher Heath Bell #21 of the Miami Marlins points to his catcher after the second out of the bottom of the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 18, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Marlins defeated the Indians 3-2. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

It was awesome. Everyone loved watching you sprint in and just kick ass, unless they were Dodgers fans or your opponents. Did you have any memorable moments that came from your sprint?

My second All-Star Game was in Anaheim, where I used to watch the Angels play as a kid. I came in in the middle of an inning with a couple of guys on base. I warmed up and then the call came. The doors opened and the crowd went nuts. I was thinking, “I went to high school and college here! This is my hometown and they love me!” I threw my warmups and had all of that going through my head. Then I look over and Torii Hunter was in the on deck circle and he was an Angel. They weren’t going nuts for me, they were going nuts because Torii Hunter was coming in to pinch hit. But then I got him to ground out and we got out of it.

I have to ask you about the slide that accompanied your sprint entrance in the 2011 All-Star game.

With my slide at the All-Star Game, I was just trying to bring fun to the All-Star Game. That was the year Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia were coming off injuries and didn’t play. There was all that talk about players backing out of the game and how it was bad for the fans. I thought about not going because I was all about doing what was best for the Padres. I decided that I would go and try to bring fun back to the game, so I sprinted in and slid when I got to the mound.

This next question comes from Ashton Corley, whose dad Jack is a huge Padres fan. She wants to know if you regretted your sprint routine or if it became more difficult when you were older.

I only regret it now when people today ask me to do it because I don’t run as fast as I used to anymore.

This has been such an entertaining interview and I really appreciate you sharing your stories. Last question is just asking you to reflect on your career in baseball looking back eight years after your retirement.

I always dreamed about becoming a Major League Baseball player, but never dreamed I’d be an All-Star. The first time I was ever an All-Star in my whole life was in 2009 when I was a Major League All-Star. I feel like I’m the typical case of someone who worked really hard to become whatever I wanted to become. I was never good when I was younger. I wasn’t supposed to make it, but now I could pick up the phone and call Chipper Jones and he’d pick it up and say, “Hey Heater, how’s it going!” I would be like, “It’s so cool calling you.” I don’t do that, but I could and I still think it’s crazy that all these famous people know who I am. My wife would tell me that I was famous too and I would say, “But not like that!”

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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