The visitor waited outside the south gate of Casa Bell. Like anyone else who passes by the enormous new home of Toronto Blue Jay outfielder George Bell, the visitor could not help but gawk at this white stucco palace, gleaming in the early-morning Caribbean sun. He called out to Carmelo, a thin, middle-aged man in a Blue Jay cap who was watering the lawn, but Carmelo shook his head. "George not up," said Carmelo. The visitor would have to wait. Carmelo couldn't open the gate for anyone without Bell's permission.
The streets of San Pedro de Macoris, a port city of 90,000 on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, were yawning awake at slightly past eight. Vendors on bicycles with wooden trays pedaled to work, children walked along the streets, car horns beeped at pesky motor scooters. From outside the gate of Casa Bell, which rises out of a ramshackle, dirt-street neighborhood, the visitor could see the stained-glass windows, the fountains, the moat, the peacocks roaming the manicured lawns, the satellite dish. After 10 minutes or so, voices could be heard, and soon Carmelo walked briskly toward the wrought iron gate and beamed the remote control device to open it.
On the back porch, dressed in jeans and sandals, coffee cup in hand, George Bell emerged.
"I'm getting old," he said, stretching his sleepy limbs. "So now I work out in the mornings and run a few miles every afternoon. The life of an old man." He laughed.
February 12, 1990
Bell turned 30 on Oct. 21, two weeks after Toronto was beaten by Oakland for the American League pennant to end another tempestuous season for Bell and the Blue Jays. After beginning the year with high hopes, the Jays staggered to a 12-24 start, which led to the firing of manager Jimy Williams. Thus ended a long and ugly feud between Williams and Bell that boiled over in the '88 season when Bell suggested that Toronto was not big enough for both of them. Through it all, Bell, who has never been accused of being a diplomat, fell afoul of the Blue Jay faithful and at one point last season issued a challenge to Canadian fans to "kiss my Dominican ass."
The Williams episode only added to Bell"s reputation as a sometimes sullen, sometimes hotheaded, often irritating personality. During his six seasons as a regular in Toronto, his run-ins with umpires, reporters and teammates have done little to dispel the notion that Bell is a malcontent with as he himself puts it, "a malo temper." And so when the Blue Jays floundered and Williams was fired, Bell was considered a prime culprit.
Still, the Blue Jays went on to win their division as Bell caught fire in a near-MVP season. When he returned home to the Dominican Republic for the winter, he had these '89 stats to help celebrate his 30th birthday: .297, 18 homers, 104 RBIs. Three weeks later he moved into his new house in San Pedro and there, with his wife, Marie, and four young sons, he settled into his laid-back life as a Dominican squire, loving father, grateful son, local hero, benevolent friend to children and generous purveyor of great charity. Huh? George Bell?
Bell finishes his morning coffee and goes inside to change. A few minutes later, he throws a large Blue Jay duffel bag out of an upstairs window onto the back lawn. Then another bag comes flying out and another. Poppy, a man Bell describes as "a childhood friend, companion and handyman," carries the three bags onto the porch and begins emptying the contents, a potpourri of athletic equipment. Carmelo and a fellow named Aria—a solidly built man with a revolver tucked in his belt, whom Bell calls "my chauffeur and bodyguard"—join Poppy to help sort the equipment. Meanwhile three of Bell's children, along with two maids and another handyman, gather around to watch.
There are 52 shoes, some new, some with Bell's number, 11, inscribed in Magic Marker, others with 10 and 12 and 30, all of which Poppy tries to pair off. There are a few dozen wristbands, a box of new American League baseballs, four dozen batting gloves, three dozen rolls of adhesive tape, two helmets and one mesh uniform top. When the sorting process is complete, Bell reappears in sweat pants, rubber jersey and Blue Jay cap, carrying three bats and his glove. He picks out a pair of shoes, stuffs 10 new balls into a sanitary stocking, puts his selected equipment into one of the duffels, carries it to the driveway and slings it into the trunk of his Mercedes. Bell motions to his eldest son, Christopher, 9, who climbs into the car. Says George to his visitor, "We're going to a ballpark my daddy helped build 20 years ago." He pushes the remote gate-opener on the sun visor and pulls into the street.
If he had turned left, Bell would have passed, in the space of three blocks, the homes of fellow major leaguers Alfredo Griffin and Joaquin Andujar, as well as a sign for Andujar Blocks, Joaquin's concrete block company, which Bell used in constructing his house—and his new office building. Just down the street, visible from the front lawn of Casa Bell, is a seven-story building nearing completion. "When it's done," Bell says proudly, "it will be the tallest building in San Pedro."
On this day Bell turns right, then onto the narrow, crowded Avenue Mauricio Baez, and steers past small storefronts and shacks, beeping his horn and waving to friends. He pulls up in front of a tavern marked by a Bermudez Rum sign that reads COLONADO CHURITO. Here, in a two-room apartment in the back, lives his youngest brother, Juan—or Tito, as the 21-year-old Baltimore Oriole infielder prefers to be called—with his wife and their two children. George honks twice and Tito, a couple inches shorter than George and much narrower, appears in his Oriole uniform pants and cap and gets in the car. Another block down Avenue Mauricio Baez, George points to a two-story Georgian house. "My mother's probably cooking, as usual." he says. George bought the house for his parents five years ago; the elder Bells live there when they're not helping run the avocado and banana farm George owns, two hours from San Pedro.
"People in America think all Dominicans are uneducated and have nothing to eat," he says. "But we always had mucho food. My parents made sure we never wanted for anything. They made sure every one of the kids [four boys, one girl] graduated from high school." This, he knows, is an improbable feat in a country where roughly one in 15 is a high school grad. "In a lot of families here, there are arguments and people don't talk to one another for years. Never us. We've all been close. We're honest with one another, and we communicate, and it's because of my parents."
Bell drives out onto a road that cuts through sugarcane fields. Up ahead several teenagers walk along the road and move to the side as the car approaches. One kid, however, dawdles in the road, daring the Mercedes to run over him. George floors the accelerator, and then, at the last moment, slams on the brakes, screeching to a halt as the kid dives for the roadside. "That guy stood there like he was saying. 'I don't have to get out of the way for nobody,' " says Bell, giving a glimpse of the emotionality that plagues him in Toronto. "Nobody pulls that stuff on me."
Then just as suddenly, as if nothing had happened, he is merrily on his way again, explaining to the visitor, "This is where we grew up." He drives through dirt streets populated by pigs and dogs and lined with wooden shacks. He circles past the Santa Fe sugar factory and parks at the ball field behind it. Two horses graze in the grass near the fence behind home plate. On the third base side are piles of sugarcane, stacked and ready for the refinery. Seated in the stands behind home plate are maybe 30 people, some young kids, some mature men. In the outfield, nearly 30 young players in Astro uniforms are running wind sprints.
The Houston organization works out its Dominican minor leaguers at this park, beginning the first of January. George and Tito Bell join in, and before long Alfredo Griffin, the Dodger shortstop, and Rafael Ramirez, the Astro shortstop, drive up.
When batting practice begins, George situates himself near the plate and several times stops the kids at bat to offer tips. When the Astro kids leave, George, Ramirez and Griffin take Tito to shortstop to work with him on his throwing position after fielding ground balls. "Too many people have worked with my brother and messed him up," George says. "He needs to get straightened out by big leaguers who know what they"re doing."
George starts working out here every year in early January. "This year, I'm running and working a little harder than I ever have," he says. "But 30 isn't really old. And I think I'm coming off a pretty good year. I think I should have been the MVP—Robin Yount was the MVP of the losing teams. In fact. I think I've had six pretty good years." In Bell's last six years with the Blue Jays, his average season is .292, 29 HRs, 104 RBIs. No American Leaguer has hit more homers in that time (only Darryl Strawberry and Dale Murphy top him in the National League), and the only player in either league with more RBIs is Don Mat-tingly. And in those six years, Bell has missed only 32 games.
"But I don't know what my future is in Toronto," Bell says. "I always hear I might be traded. This is the last year of my contract [at $2 million per year], and I've heard that they won't sign me again. Who knows? I am what I am. I'm not going to change now. I have a lot of fun playing this game. I love it. Sure, I have a malo temper sometimes, but I will do anything to win for my team. If that's not enough for Toronto, fine. I've overcome a lot in my life. I'm not going to be scared now."
George Antonio Bell grew up in a five-room house near the sugar factory; his father. George Vinicio Bell, worked at various jobs, including engineer for the railroad. The name is George, not Jorge, as George A. explains, "because we're English." (A great-grandmother on the paternal side, George says, was from London.)
In his younger days. George V. was a baseball talent—"a better player than any of my boys," he says—and helped build the park near the sugar factory when he was playing for and managing the Santa Fe semipro team. His wife, Juana. raised the kids. "And cooked," says George the younger. "Boy, did she ever cook. Back then, everyone's lives revolved around the sugar factory. For eight months, everyone was happy because it was open. But for four months, it was shut down. People didn't have money for food. We always had enough, so in those four months my mom would cook and give food to people who needed it. She's an amazing lady."
The Bells' old house, along with the rest of this neighborhood, has deteriorated badly, but George sees this place with childhood eyes, especially the baseball. "We used to play ball games all day out here," he recalls. "For baseballs, we used socks wrapped around twigs that we'd soak, then squeeze. My daddy used to make those balls for us all the time. A lot of the kids in the neighborhood used the cardboard milk cartons for gloves, but because my daddy managed the team, I always had a real glove. My parents made sure we got our food and our education and had the equipment to play sports. That's what I call a good family upbringing."
The idea for the George Bell-Alfredo Griffin Celebrity Golf Classic was hatched back in 1984 when Griffin was still playing with Bell and the Blue Jays. "George used to say, 'When we start making good money, we have to help people back home,' " says Griffin. "He'd get very passionate about it. First the nuns in Consuelo [a section of San Pedro] helped us organize a Christmas fund, and we'd hand out food and presents. Then we were helping an orphanage in La Romana [30 miles from San Pedro], and to raise some funds, we started the golf tournament."
First played in 1987, the Classic is held every November at the plush Casa de Campo resort; proceeds go to the Bell-Griffin Foundation, which plans to build an orphanage in San Pedro that will house and school more than 200 children. The tournament is one of many charity operations in which Bell is involved. He and Griffin sponsor youth baseball, basketball and track teams. Before this past Christmas, Bell bought three steers and bushels of food products, then had his uncle give out 400 tickets to needy families who could redeem them for bags of food. During last season. Bell was told of a man in San Pedro who died because he had had a heart attack and the one ambulance in town was broken down. Bell, Griffin and Ramirez got together and bought a new ambulance in Miami and had it shipped to San Pedro.
But most of Bell's good works are directed toward children. "I love kids, anything to do with kids," he says. Bell buys boxes of baseball equipment to donate to San Pedro children. At the end of each season, he scours the Blue Jay dressing room for donations, this year prompting pitcher Jim Acker to say, "I'm getting out of here before George cleans out my locker and gives everything I own to the kids of San Pedro."
On the second day of the golf tournament in November, Bell and Griffin drove from Casa de Campo—where Bell owns a villa on the golf course—to the Casa del Nino orphanage and children's shelter nearby in La Romana and met with Sister Levanesa, who runs the orphanage. She was having trouble with milk deliveries. "I know who to call," Bell told her. "I'll have it fixed today."
The two men played with the children, checked on the nursery and inspected the nearly completed wing they have helped finance. Everywhere Bell and Griffin walked, a scrawny two-year-old boy followed them. "Angel, you've got your shoes on the wrong feet," Bell said, then got down on one knee and hugged the boy. "You're beautiful," he said.
"I don't have anyone on the Blue Jays I'd call a friend, a close friend anyway," Bell said later. "But a kid like Angel, he's my friend."
The visit to the orphanage was supposed to be for only a half hour, but nearly two hours after arriving, Griffin reminded Bell that they now had less than 30 minutes until tee-off at the Classic. "After all," Griffin told George, "this is our tournament."
As they arrived at the golf course. Bell turned to Griffin and said, "You know, we ought to try to organize all the Latin players and do something for the kids in Nicaragua and El Salvador."
Griffin laughed and waved Bell away. "Let's get this tournament straightened out first," he said.
The organizers of the Third Annual Bell-Griffin Celebrity Classic held a cocktail party for the participants the night before the first round. An hour into the two-hour party, half the sponsorship was missing: Griffin was there, but Bell wasn't. Someone called his villa. No answer. Someone called his house in San Pedro. No phones installed yet. Fifteen minutes before the end of the party, in strolled George.
"Clocks don't mean too much here," Bell explained. "In America, everyone worries what time it is. In the Dominican, we live life without the need of clocks. We know when it's light and when it's dark." Several years ago the Dominican government changed the country to eastern standard time instead of Atlantic time, an hour ahead. But hardly any clocks were changed. No one even noticed, and the next year the time was returned to its original standard.
On the tournament's opening day, Griffin was on the first tee at 10 a.m. His starting time was 1 p.m. He was there alone on the tee for a half hour until somebody clued him in. "It's hard for Dominicans to adjust to the rush of life in the States or Toronto," says Bell. "And when Americans are here, it drives them crazy. You make a reservation for a rental car? That means nothing. If someone asks for the car before you get there, it's given away."
For Bell, the cultural differences between his homeland and his workplace offer some explanation for his problems in the major leagues. Says Bell, "Americans think, then act; Dominicans act, then think. A lot of people think I'm just one crazy Dominican. There are a lot of times when I get mad, say or do something in anger, and when I get back to my room or wake up the next day, I regret it. Sure, I get embarrassed. Then a lot of times when I try to make it better, it comes out wrong and I make things worse. For instance, Americans say, 'I'm sorry, it won't happen again.' Dominicans say, 'I'm sorry, so what?' It's our way of saying the same thing, but it doesn't mean the same thing and I know now that it makes things much worse."
Bell has often been heard to yell "I'll kill you!" at writers, players or umpires. In the cultural context of the U.S. or Canada, that's a serious threat. "In the Dominican, it's just the same as 'I'll kick your butt,' " says Bell. "It's just a little macho thing, a shove. But I guess in America it means far worse."
"Americans usually don't understand the heated tenor of arguments with a lot of Latin people," says David Hendricks, one of three brothers in Hendricks Management, Bell's agents. "As mild-mannered and gentlemanly as Alfredo is, he and George will sometimes get started to the point where I really think one is going to stab the other. The next minute, they're sharing a beer and laughing."
"There are some things that people think are serious, and they're not," says Bell. "Writers hear me yelling in the clubhouse, and they think I'm whacko or something. But I love to agitate. That's fun for me. I love to get on [Toronto catcher] Pat Borders. One time last summer they thought we were having a big fight. I agitated him about being a redneck from Florida and we got into it—nose to nose. But there would never have been a fight. It's fun. I get on Kelly Gruber real bad. He gets mad. I get mad. We're just kidding."
But other emotions run deeper. "There are some things I am dead serious about, such as when I think a pitcher is trying to hit me in the head," says Bell. "That's trying to kill me. I don't take that from any pitcher. I hate pitchers." His distaste for the men on the mound can be traced to a 1982 beaning in AAA ball in Syracuse. Bell's jaw was broken below his right eye, and eight years later he still has a permanent black eye—and a permanent antagonism toward pitchers.
Second on his enemies list are umpires. Last year he was ejected three times and suspended twice after disputes with umps; his father finally called him in September and told him in no uncertain terms to cool it. "I sometimes feel real bad about some of the things I've said to umpires," says Bell. "But I know what's a strike and what isn't a strike, and if an umpire misses a call, why can't I tell him he's wrong?
"Jimy Williams got real mad when anyone told him he was wrong. When he announced that I was a fulltime DH, I told him he was wrong and he got mad. Then he started pulling me out for defense. I told him he was wrong. He got mad. I was brought up this way: If you think someone is wrong, you tell them to their face. Americans don't do that. They keep phony smiles, then talk behind their backs. I say it right out, and that's trouble. The coach in America is always right. But that's wrong. If a man believes another man is wrong and doesn't say so, he belittles himself. I'm not belittling myself to half-manhood."
"Understanding George's context is very important," says Bell's present manager, Cito Gaston. "I understand the difference between what he says in English and what he really means. George is very proud. Public challenges and humiliations are things he'll fight back against. But ask the players who play with him."
Pitcher Mike Flanagan says, "George plays as hard as anyone I've ever seen. Contrary to some opinions, George never has been the problem with this team." Former teammate Lloyd Moseby says, "George is the ultimate baseball warrior, and if he's on your side, you love him. You hate him if he's on the other side, but people hate Rickey Henderson, too." Third base coach John McLaren says, "George simply hates to lose. Sometimes you wonder what the heck he's doing and sometimes he may try too hard, but he plays to win. And he plays—bad knees, bad shoulder, whatever." Finally, from Griffin: "I've known George a long, long time. There's no greater friend, and there's no greater teammate. His heart is as big as Casa Bell."
"People tell me I'm complicated," says Bell. "I'm not. Sometimes people don't like me. But if I worried whether people liked me, I really would end up one crazy Dominican."