SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Heath Bell wanted to make a positive first impression Saturday in his initial appearance with the Diamondbacks, and he did just that. But forgive him if his mind was occasionally elsewhere.
Bell’s father underwent open-heart surgery Tuesday in Texas. Like the Marine he was, Jim Bell told his son to remain in Arizona and continue his spring work. And like the Marine Heath wanted to be, he said, “yes, sir” and carried on, however reluctantly.
“My dad said, ‘You can’t do anything for me by being here, so you might as well stay there,'” Bell said after pitching a scoreless inning in the D-backs’ 11-2 loss to the Rockies in the first game of the exhibition season Saturday at Salt River Fields.
Bell reported that his father is doing OK but remained in a Texas hospital after a minor mishap two days ago. The elder Bell, his son’s hero and a big baseball fan, has been battling cancer for three years.
“He’s a tough man. He’s a tough Marine. He’s not going to give up yet,” Bell said.
Bell brings a similar approach into his first season with the D-backs after being obtained in a three-team trade that also landed Cliff Pennington after a forgettable year in Miami.
And even after three straight 40-save seasons for San Diego from 2009-11, Bell admitted to some of the natural anxiety that goes with joining a new team before making his D-backs debut.
“Oh, yeah. After a year you suck, definitely a lot of nerves. Coming into an organization, I want to show them I’m completely fine. Every great athlete has a bad year and they bounced right back. I feel like I’m going to bounce right back. I just need to keep working hard,” Bell said.
Bell gave up singles to the first two batters he faced before getting Wilin Rosario to ground into a double play started by shortstop Willie Bloomquist, then striking out Tyler Colvin to end the third inning.
“I’ve watched him get out of a lot of messes,” manager Kirk Gibson said of Bell’s ability to get the double-play grounder. “It took us a long time when I was here to get (to) him. He knows how to get out of trouble. The thing that you look at is, he executed the pitch when he needed to execute the pitch. That’s encouraging.”
Said Bell: “It was really nice to go out and pitch and show the Diamondbacks what I could do.”
“It was fun going out there, pitching again; I love pitching. As I kid I loved pitching. I’d rather throw B.P. (batting practice) than hit B.P. I just love going out there, getting on the mound and trying to take control of the game. Been working on keeping the ball down. I feel like I executed my pitches the way I needed to. This is a stepping stone. Next time it will be a little bit better.”
Part of Jim Bell was on the mound Saturday. If not for his father’s advice, Bell would not be on a mound today. He could be in the Marines. Bell was drafted in the 69th round out of Tustin (Calif.) High and not drafted entirely after good two-year career at Rancho Santiago Community College, where he was a freshman All-American in 1997. He was tired of the run-around and was not sure that a scholarship at Cal Fullerton was the answer.
Jim Bell encouraged Heath to stay in school rather than enlist in the Marines out of high school, and the two talked again over lunch after Heath finished at Rancho Santiago. Heath again thought about joining the Marines, but his dad convinced him to continue on the college path because he would be the first in his family to graduate from college.
Before Bell could enroll at Fullerton, but after he would have enlisted, baseball finally noticed. The Mets called and offered Bell a free-agent contract, and Bell signed on June 16, 1998. One hundred fifty-one saves and three All-Star appearances later, Bell joined the D-backs.
“The rest is kind of history,” he said.
Bell got a little out of rhythm last year, he said, and the fact that the Marlins shuffled him in and out of the closer’s role probably did not help. A reunion with Kevin Towers, who identified Bell and brought him to San Diego in 2007, could be a stabilizing factor, too.
When Bell pitched in Arizona in late August, the D-backs saw the same power arm, with his fastball in the low 90s. He is slotted to begin the season as the seventh-inning setup man, with David Hernandez and J.J. Putz to follow. Bell could be used later if the situation arises or if Putz gets taxed.
“I’m just trying to pitch the way I know how to pitch. I’m not going to talk about last year, but I just got away from little things,” Bell said.
“This year I have really been focusing on taking the bull by the horns rather than relying on people. Because if I go out there and rely on myself and I fail, then I have nobody to blame but myself. But if I rely on somebody else, I have somebody to blame.”