Fun-loving closer Bell off to perfect start as Hoffman's replacement
When the ninth inning arrives, the bullpen door swings open and the first strains of a pumping rock song begin to play over the PETCO Park loudspeakers, the best closer in the National League emerges from the bullpen.
It is almost as much a part of life in San Diego as flip flops or fish tacos and it has been this way for over 15 years. But now, instead of seeing the trim man with the devastating changeup and the most saves in baseball history, the man heading toward the mound is a stocky -- though not quite as stocky as he was last year -- closing neophyte who just started learning a changeup this spring. And instead of the doomsday tolling of AC/DC's
Strange as it might still be to the Padres and their fans -- general manager
"I told him no one's going to follow Hoffman just like no one can follow [
Bell has done that anyway, establishing himself as an elite closer while enhancing his reputation as a funny and friendly fireman, making him one of the most unique players in baseball. While Hoffman was a man so reserved and overlooked he once landed on the cover of
True or not, those comments spoke to Bell's willingness to be heard. The words also offered a serious side to a man who has referred to himself as "a big kid." This is the same guy who named his fantasy football team "Toys 'R Us," who almost bought a snowmaker so he could blanket his south Florida neighborhood with fake flakes at Christmas time ("It was a little pricey," he said) and who said if his wife let him design their home, "there'd be a slide going down the stairs."
Then of course, there is the Wii Fit, which may yet become to Bell what Subway is to
"If I hadn't done it for five or seven days, it would say, 'Where have you been, you haven't been on in a few days?' " Bell said. "Before you know it, I was losing weight. I was still working out [aside from the Wii], but otherwise I didn't really do anything different from years past."
Bell was so successful that he bought a Wii Fit for a friend of his to help him get in shape, albeit with a catch. "If he doesn't lose 45 pounds by September, I'm going to come take the tires off his car," he said.
The game has also helped stoke Bell's competitive fire. When he arrived at spring training and found out teammate
While swiveling his hips one night, Bell drew the attention of his seven-year-old daughter,
"But I did win the lottery," Bell says now. "She's just like the best kid ever and the happiest kid. She just wants to give you a big hug and has no worries about anything. All my expectations went out the window when I found out she had Downs. I'll come home one year and she's using a fork and I'm thrilled about that. When she wants juice she'll say, 'Juice.' I'll say, 'No, how do you say it?' 'I want juice, please.' She wants to be that big girl who goes out there for herself."
Aside from a two-day return trip during the World Baseball Classic, Bell has not been home to Florida since leaving for spring training in early February, and he won't be back until the Padres play in Miami at the end of August. In the meantime, his family and his numerous toys ("remote control helicopters, airplanes, little tanks that shoot BBs, electric scooters, a mini chopper motorcycle, s blowup Jet Ski you can put in the pool ...") will have to wait until he is done toying with opposing hitters this season.
Despite not closing since his minor league days (he had 16 saves at Triple-A in 2004 and 12 in '06), Bell has allowed only six base runners all year long, while striking out nine. He still relies mostly on his hard fastball, which, according to Black, has regained the velocity he lost last season, an increase thought to be attributable to his weight loss. He's also become more comfortable with his changeup, throwing it so often during one spring training game that Padres catcher
Bell may not have a change like Hoffman's and he may never have a career like Hoffman's, but for now, he's assumed his position and his stature in San Diego's bullpen. Bell not only dispenses pitching advice to youngsters like
"He's high-energy," says Black. "He pitches with a great deal of emotion, but he's very playful and open off the field. That's the beauty of Heath."
The jokes stop and all thoughts of Wii and the possible Christmas decorations are forgotten the minute
With the crunching guitar filling the San Diego night, Bell runs for the mound a little faster these days, spurred on by the extra adrenaline coursing through his slimmer body, and by the time he is handed the ball, the lyrics that made him choose that song in the first place can be heard over the din of a roaring crowd. Bell chose it for its appropriateness for the task at hand, but it also speaks to his ability to lighten up a clubhouse, a bullpen, or the faces of his children.
"I'll be the one to save us all."