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 Hells Bells comes the mostly unfamiliar Breaking Benjamin song Blow Me Away -- the first and most obvious sign that after more than a decade of Hall of Fame-caliber excellence in the ninth inning, it is a new era in San Diego.
Hells Bells is out. Heath Bell is in.
Strange as it might still be to the Padres and their fans -- general manager Kevin Towers called it "awkward" -- Trevor Hoffman is no longer doing what he did better and more often than any pitcher in baseball since 1993: closing out ballgames. After failing to come to terms with San Diego on a new contract this winter, Hoffman has moved on to Milwaukee. In his place is Heath Bell, a 31-year-old former Mets castoff who entered the season with two career saves, something which looked more like a typo than a cause for optimism. Off the field, Bell is Hoffman's complete opposite in personality and style, but through the first month of the season, he has matched his predecessor's stellar standards on it. Bell leads the majors with eight saves (on eight opportunities) and boasts a perfect 0.00 ERA. (Hoffman missed almost all of April while recovering from injury but also has a 0.00 ERA and three saves in as many chances.)
"I told him no one's going to follow Hoffman just like no one can follow [Mariano] Rivera, no one followed [Bruce] Sutter," said Padres manager Bud Black. "You have to make your own footprints. He has not tried to live up to Trevor's standards."
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 Sports Illustrated with the headline "The Secret of San Diego" (in his tenth season as a closer there), "[Bell] is more animated than Trevor ever was," Towers said. Bell brings a dominant personality and a penchant for making news, highlighted by his recent criticism of ESPN, which Bell said "only cares about promoting the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets."
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 Jared. Bell purchased one shortly after the end of last season for the oldest of his three children, Jasmyne, but when he created his character, the game told him, "You're obese." Bell spent the first couple of weeks trying to get his video game self thinner and thinner, and eventually wound up working himself into shape, losing 25 pounds.
"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 David Eckstein had scored a 310 on the Wii hula hoop game, Bell said he "literally did nothing else for four days until I got a 311 and took a picture of it on my phone and showed it to him."
While swiveling his hips one night, Bell drew the attention of his seven-year-old daughter, Jordyn. After seeing her father shaking his considerable rump back and forth, Jordyn asked, "Daddy sweat?" Jordyn was born with Down syndrome. When Bell first learned of this, a specialist told him that 1 in 800 children are born with the chromosomal disorder. The comment angered Bell, who responded by asking, "Are you telling me I won the f---ing lottery?"
"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 Nick Hundley went up to him after the inning and said, "What's up Trevor?"
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 Luke Gregerson -- who sounded almost amazed when telling Bell that his instructions on how to approach certain hitters actually worked in a game -- he demands that his fellow relievers run harder during pregame wind sprints and organizes group dinners. And if that weren't enough to have them follow Bell's lead, there may be one other reason: "I have the key to the bullpen bathroom."
"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 Blow Me Away -- a song featured in, appropriately enough, a video game (Halo 2) -- starts playing. During his minor league days, there was one song every aspiring closer wanted to use: Hell's Bells. But Brian Chicklo, a trainer for the Mets Triple-A affiliate, suggested Blow Me Away. Bell knew right away it was his song, and has since sent Chicklo a video of highlights with the song as background music in a gesture of gratitude.
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."