Bell gets mixed response in return to San Diego

SAN DIEGO — When Heath Bell entered the game in the eighth inning Saturday night, San Diego fans let him know exactly what they thought of his five mostly remarkable seasons here.

Catcalls, combined with a smattering of appreciation.

Three 40-save years does not buy much any more.

Bell knew it was coming. He got the same thing last year, when he returned to Petco Park after signing a free-agent deal with the Marlins following seasons of 42, 47 and 43 saves with the Padres. That run began in 2009, when he took over as closer from Hall of Famer-in-waiting Trevor Hoffman.

Not that it bothered him Saturday. Bell got Jedd Gyorko to ground into an inning-ending double play after entering with the bases loaded and one out in an 8-1 game and finishing with a 1-2-3 ninth.

A poor reception comes with the territory for alien invaders, but some fans here seem to  believe that Bell deserted the Padres. The truth is nothing like that.

Bell signed a three-year, $27 million contract with Miami in the winter of 2011 only after the Padres made him a lukewarm, below-market — some might consider relatively insulting — offer of two years at $11 million. This after Bell made $7.5 million in 2011, settling rather than taking the team to arbitration.

It was reported at the time that Bell had been offered three years and $21 million to stay in San Diego, and that appears to be the source of much of the animosity.

“I was never offered that. My wife gets those questions all the time. ‘Why’d you leave?’ Well, we never got offered that. There is new ownership now, so you can’t really say anything,” Bell said.

Bell was a perfect fit in San Diego, and he and his wife and four children still make their home here. He was a popular as he was effective. He had a line of well-wishers at his locker on his first day back Friday afternoon, with clubhouse attendants, Petco Park personnel and others taking time to check in. When Bell was here, he included those people in the pizza parties and barbecue dinners at his house. He had hoped to finish his career with the Padres, but he has had to re-evaluate.

“I loved my time here. Great city. Coaches were great. Pitching coach really molded me into who I am today. (Manager) Bud Black, same thing,” Bell said.

“Now, I am hoping to finish my career as a Diamondback, past this contract that I have now. When I have some place I really like, especially like the Diamondbacks, I want to stay here for a long time. I don’t want to play two more years. I want to play past that.”

Bell’s contract runs through 2014, and the D-backs hold an option for 2015. One of Kevin Towers’ great finds, Bell was acquired by the Padres from the Mets before the 2007 season and served as Hoffman’s setup man for two years before taking over as closer. Pitching coach Darren Balsley and the Padres’ be-who-you-are mentality helped enormously, he said.

“He just let me pitch the way I wanted to pitch. In New York they didn’t like my short stride. They didn’t like my herky-jerky-ness. They thought I was not flexible enough and that I was too big. I came here and they just said, ‘Keep the ball down and get people out. That’s all we care about.’ I was, ‘OK, cool,’” Bell said.

“They helped me along, kind of like Nags (D-backs pitching coach Charles Nagy). When I have a bad outing, he just says maybe you are just rushing a little bit, or you missed your spot. You get that confidence feedback. And the next day you go out deal and dominate.”

Being back in town is “kind of like seeing your brothers,” Bell said.

“I said hi to everybody. Hopefully I go out and get them out now,” he said.

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