The Times West Virginian

April 27, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Former Pirate Jay Bell ready to be manager

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

PITTSBURGH — The day is going to come, and it won’t be too far off in the future, when some major league owner is going to name Jay Bell, the one-time Pittsburgh Pirates’ shortstop, as manager of his team, and, when he does, he won’t be sorry.

Few if any people have been prepared to manage the way Bell has, seeing baseball through a myriad of sets of eyes and through a myriad of circumstances.

He is the link between the two renaissances in modern Pirates’ history, taking over at shortstop when the team ended a decade without a divisional championship and went on a run in which it swept three consecutive NL East titles.

Then, a year ago, after becoming a part of a World Series championship team in Arizona to cap off his career, he returned to the Pirates as hitting coach and saw them snap a run of two decades of losing baseball.

The success was not coincidental, for Jay Bell was primed for it.

He had learned baseball from two of its best managers – Jim Leyland in his first stay with the Pirates and Clint Hurdle in his second stay – and had experienced a complete transformation in himself during an 18-year playing when he went from someone who was asked to lay down 39 sacrifice bunts in one year and 30 in the next to someone who would hit 38 home runs and drive in 112 runs on an Arizona team that would win 100 games.

Jay Bell, his hair now gray as he moves toward his 50th birthday, was sitting in front of a computer in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park here this Thursday past, now bench coach for the Cincinnati Reds, which is probably the last stop on his journey toward becoming a manager.

A year earlier he had been in the home clubhouse, working with Pirates’ hitters as hitting coach under Hurdle, having a big hand in that second Pirate turnaround.

On this day he would think about the two, not that there were some similarities, although the three-time division champions he played with in the early ’90s had “three superstars in the middle of the lineup.

They were named Andy Van Slyke, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, and they were the men who, in a home run happy era, turned the young, budding All-Star Jay Bell into a sacrificial lamb, so to speak.

He took it not as an affront to his ability but as a lesson to be learned and part of the education of a player.

“Early on, I was overmatched offensively. I was learning how to play the game,” Bell said, noting that he was just 24 and putting together a season in which he hit but .254 with 109 strikeouts. “In a lot of ways that opportunity allowed me to become a better hitter. I’d see a lot of pitches and face a lot of guys and I knew I wouldn’t lose the at-bat (by sacrificing, even in the first inning).

“When you had a Van Slyke, Bonds and Bonilla behind you, I think 67 percent of the time we scored when I sacrificed. It was good for me and good for the team,” he added.

Leyland had pulled out all the stops to get those three to the plate with a runner in scoring position, and with a pitching staff anchored by a Cy Young winner in Doug Drabek, with John Smiley emerging as a star, with Bob Walk and Zane Smith steadying influences and kids like Randy Tomlin and Tim Wakefield providing more than could be expected, Leyland had a wonderful team.

And Jay Bell saw his role there, but as he got older he became a better player, a better hitter, powerful enough to end his career with 195 career home runs, 38 of them in that 100-win Arizona season.

All of that he took in as a player, along with just forever picking Leyland’s mind on the bench.

“I would ask Jim questions in the middle of games, probably at not the most opportune times. He taught me how to manage a game as a player so I could guess along with the opposing manager. He gave me insight how to do that,” he said.

And last year, with Hurdle, he saw a different approach.

“One of things about Clint, if I ever have the opportunity to manager, I will take a lot of what Clint Hurdle does. He is a phenomenal motivator. He’s a terrific leader. He’s very thoughtful. He understands how to manage a game. There’s just tons of attributes he has that I would love to take,” Bell said.

Bell has learned that managing isn’t just running the game, but that it is creating an atmosphere, a winning atmosphere. If Hurdle, for example, changed anything in Pittsburgh it was that atmosphere from the losing that had hung so heavily over the clubhouse.

Bell played a long time, into his mid-30s, before finally experiencing a World Series and coming out of it with a victory. In the end, that is what drives players.

“If you could, you would hope for any player, doesn’t matter whether you like him or not, to have the opportunity to experience post-season first of all and go to a World Series second, especially winning it. It’s such a thrill. It’s something that’s talked about from the first day you step onto a major league field,” Bell said.

“You have guys like Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter who experience it early in their careers and don’t have to go through the pains of getting there (like he did). You look back at Cal Ripken; he got there in 1983 and never got back. Chipper got the one in his rookie season and he never got back to the World Series.

“I think in a lot of ways I appreciated it more as an older player, having had the opportunity of getting close a few times and then finally having the chance to go.”

And he can pass that feeling along to his players, let them know that in the end the individual things you accomplish are well and good, but only when they lead to championships do they take on their true meaning.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.