It was the bottom of the first, and the Toronto Blue Jays had two men on and one out. Over the public-address system at Grant Field in Dunedin, Fla., came the announcement: "Batting fourth, George Bell, the designated hitter." But Bell, last year's American League MVP, didn't move from his seat in the Toronto bullpen, 300 feet down the leftfield line. He just stared blankly out at the field.
Boston Red Sox catcher John Marzano looked around, waiting for something to happen, for somebody to do something. So did home plate umpire Richie Garcia. The Blue Jays' hitting coach, Cito Gaston, had told manager Jimy Williams beforehand that Bell didn't intend to be the Toronto DH in that afternoon's exhibition game. Williams, however, ignored the warning because, as he said later, "George didn't tell me, and I'm still the manager."
Finally, Williams told Willie Upshaw to hit for Bell, then popped out of the dugout and briskly walked up the left-field line. Within seconds Bell got up and followed him into the clubhouse. Later that afternoon the Blue Jays fined Bell $1,000 and suspended him for the rest of the day.
Bell's rebellion, which erupted on St. Patrick's Day, had been developing since Feb. 17 when he signed a two-year, $4 million contract. In January, Williams and executive vice-president Pat Gillick had informed Bell that their offer was contingent on his agreeing to be a designated hitter. That would allow them to move centerfielder Lloyd Moseby to left and give rookies Sil Campusano and Rob Ducey a shot at center.
March 28, 1988
"George has had knee trouble, and we didn't want to risk further injuries on the artificial turf," says Williams. "We were 2-8 without him in the lineup, so we need his bat in there every day. He agreed to being a DH before signing the contract. This wasn't just my decision. It was a decision made by the coaches and the organization."
Although many observers still consider Bell, Moseby and Jesse Barfield to be the best outfield in baseball, Williams, his coaches and Gillick agree that the threesome have lost their edge defensively. "Bell and Barfield can't run the way they used to—look at their stolen bases [down from a combined 43 in 1985 to eight last season]," says one coach. "George can't move the same, and they run on him. Worse, the league went from first to third on Moseby all season. Our outfield defense hurt us badly."
One man who doesn't buy that assessment is Moseby. When he was told before spring training that he would have to switch positions, he said, "I'd rather play on Mars than play leftfield. I'm the best centerfielder in the game." But after Toronto added an extra year to his contract, Moseby reported to camp and moved to left without further ado.
Bell wasn't so understanding. "Me and Jimy, we fight," he said when he arrived at camp. "We'll see who lasts longer, me or him. What is Jimy? He's only the manager." But Williams, who had had a run-in with Bell last September when he removed the slugger for a pinch runner, didn't back down. Bell was a DH during the first two weeks of the exhibition schedule and hit .417. Everything appeared serene.
That is, until Bell made what one coach called "his premeditated move." When the dust finally settled, Williams told reporters, "George is going to have to accept a few things." He also said that he was committed to playing one of the rookies in center. Bell made the trip to Plant City for a game with the Cincinnati Reds the next day and played left because DHs aren't used in National League parks during the Grapefruit League season.
As he left that game, Bell, who comes from the Dominican Republic, told some Latin radio announcers, "They can give me all the fines they want, I will not play designated hitter." Everyone expected another confrontation on Sunday when the Blue Jays returned to their home park for a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But there wasn't one, and Bell had an RBI single in four at bats as the DH. After the game he said that he had played because he didn't want to risk receiving a 30-day suspension.
"George is the MVP, and he's got no place to play," says Moseby. "He's hurt. He's confused. I don't know what's going on. We won 96 games. We couldn't be that bad. They could take one of the kids and move us all around—four guys for three positions—and have George, Jesse and me take turns DHing. But, no. It had to be me in left, George with no position. George works as hard as anyone on this team, and he has great pride. Now he's backed into a corner."
But Bell has backed the Blue Jays into a corner as well. "The problem is that George saw management back down to Damaso Garcia two years ago," says one player. When Williams took over as manager after the 1985 season, one of his first moves was to shift Garcia, who had had a low on-base percentage (.302) for a leadoff hitter the previous season, to the ninth spot in the batting order. Garcia pouted and in his first exhibition game refused to swing at a pitch. He continued to sulk until May, when Williams moved him back into the No. 1 spot. This time, however, the Blue Jays are unlikely to be so conciliatory. "We can't give in," says Gillick. "Players don't run the club."
Bell hasn't received much support from his teammates, except for Moseby. "If George doesn't want to do what he's paid $2 million to do, he can go back to the Dominican Republic," says one player. "This stinks. Most of the players are very upset."
Still, when Bell made his remarks about Williams, not one player stood up and disagreed with him. By contrast, when Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics showed up late for spring training because of conflicting appearances at baseball card shows, he was reprimanded by several veterans. In the Athletics clubhouse he was greeted by a poster that read: "Welcome to Jose Canseco Autograph Day. Appearing for the first time: Jose Canseco. Evening lecture: Concepts of team play. Guest speaker: Jose (Card Show) Canseco."
The Blue Jays lack that sort of strong leadership. Upshaw, who has improved his hitting after having off-season knee surgery, is respected by his teammates. But Williams plans to phase the veteran first baseman out of the lineup to make room for Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff. As a result, Upshaw was in no position to pull his teammates together when Bell decided to challenge management. He does have strong feelings on the subject, though. "We've got a lot of bad stuff simmering underneath the surface here," he says. "If we don't deal with it, it will tear the team apart. This is a bad situation. I've never seen anything like it in my life."
The Blue Jays may well be the team to beat in the American League East. They won the division in 1985, challenged Boston in '86 and led by 3½ games going into the last seven games of '87 before falling to the Detroit Tigers. But consider this fact: For the final week of the last three seasons, Toronto's record is 2-20.
And that was before Bell refused to be a DH.