Slugger George Bell rubs some people the wrong way, but he wields an eloquent bat
September 06, 1987

Oh sure, George Bell can be a crab. The Toronto slugger, who is the driving force behind his team's push to the top of the American League East, has, on occasion, been a bat-thrower, a pitcher-kicker, an umpire-baiter, a fantaunter and, perhaps to his ultimate detriment, a media-dodger. But it may come as a surprise to those who would put him in the antisocial league with, say, J.D. Salinger or Sean Penn, that he also harbors an almost schoolboyish lust for awards and trophies. Bell himself admits he didn't really start to take baseball all that seriously until, as a youngster growing up in the Dominican Republic, he began accumulating scrolls and trinkets and statuettes for his play. "I like to win trophies," he says with disarming candor.

And it may well be true that his periodic bouts of misanthropy are the result not so much of any ingrained ill will as they are a simple reaction to rejection. Consider that, despite some superlative seasons. Bell hasn't even won his own team's Player of the Year award yet. And he hadn't made the All-Star team until a Toronto media blitz pushed him past the likes of Bo Jackson (the football player!) in the voting for this year's American League team. No, whatever you may think of him, George Bell just hasn't gotten his due as a great player.

But all of that should change quickly enough, because Bell has, as they say, put up just about the best numbers of any hitter in the American League this season. Last Thursday he had a five-RBI day that included a grand slam in a 9-4 win over Oakland. He had another big afternoon Sunday with two home runs and four RBIs in a 13-3 victory. That left him leading the league in home runs with 41 and in RBIs with 113, and he was second (.626) behind Boston's Dwight Evans in slugging percentage. He was third in runs scored with 93, eighth in hits with 151 and was hitting .309. The Baseball Writers Association of America voters need not be reminded that those are MVP figures. Actually, Bell's 1986 totals—.309, 31 homers, 108 RBIs—were almost as good. The fact is, he has gotten better in each of his four seasons as a major league regular, increasing his home run totals from 26 to 28 to 31 to the present 41 and his RBIs from 87 to 95 to 108 to 113 and counting. At 27, he has yet to reach his peak, and he is already properly regarded, by fellow players at least, as one of the game's best all-around per-formers—he had 17 outfield assists in '86 and 21 stolen bases in '85.

Angels manager Gene Mauch calls Bell "the most intimidating hitter in the league." "He comes off the bus swinging," Dodger scout Mel Didier once said of him. "You throw a ball two feet outside and he might just step out and hammer the pitch." In fact, if Bell has a weakness at the plate, it is impatience. He walked an average of only 36 times in his first three full seasons, and he's on a comparable pace this year. He has, however, reduced his strikeouts from a high of 90 in '85 to 63 so far this year. He is that most unpredictable and annoying of batsmen, a contact hitter who will swing at anything and the sooner the better. In successive games in Oakland on Aug. 18 and 19, he hit home runs (one a game-winner) on first pitches.

Bell is respected but scarcely loved by his opponents. Detroit pitcher Walt Terrell has called him "a hot dog." Terrell's illustrious moundmate, Jack Morris, has said, "I respect Bell for his ability as a player, but, like the fans, I question his antics.... Sometimes you have to accept people the way they are." Bill Buckner, now with the Angels, is much more emphatic. Bell, he once said, "is the dirtiest player in baseball." Buckner's low opinion was formed, or at least reinforced, by the contretemps Bell had with Boston pitcher Bruce Kison in Toronto on June 23, 1985. When Kison, then a Buckner teammate, nailed Bell with an inside pitch, the Blue Jay outfielder did not merely rush the mound in the usual halfhearted manner but also stepped smartly out and caught Kison with a karate kick. The assault earned Bell a two-game suspension and the lasting enmity of the Red Sox.

Bell can even try the forbearance of his own teammates and employers. Earlier this season he responded to word that he was in the lineup as a DH, not a leftfielder, by flinging his bat during batting practice. After a pregame conference involving Bell, manager Jimy Williams and executive vice-president Pat Gillick, it was decided that Bell should play in left that day after all. But on subsequent occasions he accepted the—to him—loathsome DH assignment without further complaint.

An even stickier issue was raised following the 1984 season when the Toronto baseball writers elected Dave Collins, who had hit .308 in 128 games and had stolen 60 bases, the Jays' Player of the Year, over Bell, who had played in 159, batted .292 and hit 26 homers. When a Toronto newsman called him in the Dominican Republic for a response, Bell wasted few words congratulating his teammate, electing instead to denounce what he regarded as the writers' obvious prejudice against him. Bell insists now that the caller caught him off guard and that, though he was indeed disappointed (and still is), he meant no slight toward Collins. Toronto hitting instructor Cito Gaston agrees that "George would never say or do anything to hurt a teammate." And yet Bell maintains to this day that Collins—a white American, as opposed to himself, a black foreigner—got the award primarily because "he talked to those guys I the writers] and I didn't." If he hadn't spent much time chatting up the Toronto press before the Collins episode, he was positively mute the next season.

He did, however, say just enough to get himself in even more hot water. During the '85 playoffs with Kansas City, Bell, no friend of the Men in Blue, felt somehow compelled to protest that the Blue Jays were getting jobbed on close calls because the umpires were prejudiced against them for 1) representing Canada and 2) having so many Dominicans (four) on their roster. Bell says now that these remarks were made entirely in jest in a conversation with center-fielder Lloyd Moseby that was inadvertently overheard by reporters. But the damage was done, and Bell, burned again in the public prints, felt even more cause to shut himself off from the media.

He is not, however, a completely silent star. Surprisingly enough, he's far too convivial for that, so while he discourages formal interviews with baleful stares and muttered imprecations, he will, virtually at the same time, carry on amiable enough dialogues with newsmen unarmed with notebooks and tape recorders. Often, in the course of one of these informal discussions, he will have to catch himself in the act of uttering something that will sound suspiciously like a quote. "Hey, man," he will snap after one of these slipups, "you know I don't talk to the media." And, in even less guarded moments, he has been known to buy a reporter a drink in the hotel bar.

His teammates and others who know Bell best believe him to be one of the most misunderstood men in the game today, a sentiment with which Bell himself would most heartily concur. Alfredo Griffin, the superb Oakland shortstop, who has known Bell from their youthful days together in the Dominican Republic—Bell is from San Pedro de Macoris. Griffin from nearby—is a staunch defender. "People are always asking me about George," he says. "Even umpires. Just the other day, Reggie [Jackson] was asking me what kind of a guy he is. Well, I know he looks like a mean person. But he's not. He's a nice person, a wonderful guy. He has come so far from the days when he was known as just a prospect. He knows what it takes to become more than a prospect. He knows what it is to work hard."

"We like George a lot," says Blue Jay rightfielder Jesse Barfield, who has beaten out Bell the past two years for the team's Player of the Year award. "He helps instill confidence in us all, both in word and deed. He's such a competitor that when things don't go his way, he will show it. What's so bad about that? He may get ticked off from time to time, but he's a delightful guy to be around. We on this team understand him. We just say, 'That's George.' "

"Deep down inside, he's just a great guy, a very funny man," says Moseby. He, Barfield and Bell are an outfield that, offensively and defensively, may be the best in the game. "George takes baseball so seriously that he leaves the smiles in the clubhouse. He's not looking for popularity. He gets booed in a lot of ballparks, but that's just a sign of respect." Moseby laughs. "I guess you could call George the silent mystery wonder. I think he really wants to tell his story, but he's gone this far without doing it, so he might just as well keep himself a mystery."

"It's a given, I guess, that people on other teams won't like him," says Gaston. "But on this team we love him. The public doesn't really know him, and for that George must have his reasons. I think part of the problem is language. George speaks decent English now, but he's still learning, and I think he's still afraid of being misunderstood. But I tell you, he's a pleasure to work with. He has such a great desire to be a great player. I don't think I've ever seen George not go hard out there."

The Jays originally acquired Bell in the minor league draft of 1980 when the Phillies, who had signed him out of high school, left him unprotected on their roster. According to the rules of the draft, Toronto was required to keep him on the major league roster for the entire 1981 season, and Bell, who had already spent three years in the minors, thought he'd done well enough that year (.233 in 60 games) to stick in '82. But the Jays sent him down for more seasoning. So Bell, his wife, Marie, and their young son, Christopher, packed up and headed unhappily for Syracuse. Nothing there went right. In April he fell ill. "I thought it was a pulmonary condition," he says. "I knew I had a problem." It was mononucleosis, which wiped out the first month of the season for him. Then, in June, he tore up his left knee and returned to the disabled list. He had just gotten off it when a pitch from Lynn McGlothlen shattered his jaw. He lost 17 pounds while recuperating and nearly fell victim to yet another affliction—despair. "I'd never been so disappointed in my life," he says. "I was in bad shape, but finally I just told myself I had to hang tough. I decided I wouldn't give up like that. I just said, I'm going to come back." He played only 37 games and hit just .200 that '82 season, but by July of the next year he was in the big leagues to stay.

Bell got much of his determination from his father, who is also named George—"but George V., not George A. like me," George says. Bell's grandparents migrated to the Dominican Republic from the British West Indies island of Monserrat, which accounts for the Anglo-Saxon family name. The senior George Bell worked as an engineer on a sugar cane train out of San Pedro, and on the shorter trips he would take his eldest son along for the ride. "We'd go three or four hours," Bell recalls, "and all that time my father would talk to me, explain about life. He was trying to keep me straight."

All three of George's brothers have played professional baseball. Josè, 25, is now out of the game, but Rolando, 21, and Juan, 19, are in the Dodger chain, Rolando at Sarasota in the Gulf Coast League and Juan at Bakersfield in the California League. A sister, Maricala, 24, still lives in the Dominican Republic. George was always the star, the biggest and strongest of the family (he weighs 194 pounds now), who even as a boy could hit with power. The Phillies signed him for a $3,500 bonus when he was 18 and sent him to Helena, Mont., which is about as far removed from his origins climatically and culturally as one could place him. His accent was ridiculed, he was the wrong color and from the wrong country. His friends say he still bears the scars from those early minor league experiences and that these may account in large measure for his suspicious and standoffish nature today. In truth, it is a wonder that so many Latin players have made the adjustment to American life. George Bell is still working on it.

But until he puts on that game face of his—a grim and truculent mask—he's the life of the party in the clubhouse. He bounces from locker to locker, firing off the insults that are at the heart of locker-room humor. And he says in a conversation with, yes, a journalist, "Everybody matures sometime. I'm much more relaxed. I've got a wife and three kids, a good family. I've got my family back home in the Dominican. I can speak pretty good English, even though I don't like to talk. I'm making good money [a cool $1,175,000 for this season]. And we got a team that's going to win it."

Yes, and with all that, he is asked, how come he is not as famous as he should be, a regular winner of all those awards he would like to have?

"That's simple," he says. "Because you guys in the media think I'm a jerk."

On with the game face.

PHOTOV.J. LOVEROBell has the numbers to get his hands on an MVP trophy. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONBell watched helplessly as Tony Fernandez and Moseby had a jarring collision Saturday. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above.] PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONMoseby, shown stealing second against Chicago, is a Toronto outfield mainstay... PHOTOV.J. LOVERO...along with Bell and Barfield (left), Jays Player of the Year both in '85 and in '86.
PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONThe steadily improving Bell has seen quite a lot of third base this season—and home, too. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONBell had two more home runs Sunday and he got a highly proper welcome from Barfield.