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It Pays to Be Nice When the expansion Diamondbacks threw $34 million at shortstop Jay Bell, they knew just what they were getting-- the antithesis of a Baseball Jerk

March 02, 1998
March 02, 1998

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March 2, 1998

College Basketball [bonus Piece]

It Pays to Be Nice When the expansion Diamondbacks threw $34 million at shortstop Jay Bell, they knew just what they were getting-- the antithesis of a Baseball Jerk

Friday the 13th, but there's no dread in the air. Not here, not
now, not with that gargantuan baseball stadium cracking the
Phoenix skyline like Wrigley Field on steroids and with spring
training just days away. No, the aura surrounding Jerry
Colangelo is all sweet anticipation today. He walks into his
favorite restaurant, and people keep coming over to shake his
hand. A saxophone plays Somewhere over the Rainbow. Colangelo,
long the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns and now the
managing general partner of the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks,
talks about his newest team's assets, how it will be one of
baseball's cash cows. "We're going to be one of the haves, not
one of the have-nots," he says, dipping his bread into olive
oil. Being one of the haves, of course, is everything in
baseball now. Why shouldn't he feel good?

This is an article from the March 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

Then someone goes and spoils it all. Someone mentions a modern
ballpark tradition, the Baseball Jerk--a fan-hating,
media-baiting player who bullies strangers, throws firecrackers
at kids and carries himself with a mystifying arrogance. He is
Dave Kingman and Jim Rice and Vince Coleman and Albert Belle,
and last year he was Florida Marlins pitcher Kevin Brown (since
traded to the San Diego Padres), who greeted reporters with an
unprovoked and profane snarl the day before the World Series,
setting the tone for one of the most joyless winning clubhouses
in years.

Colangelo is dining this afternoon with acting commissioner Bud
Selig, and he taps his companion on the arm. "I want you to hear
this," Colangelo says, but Selig shrugs and says he already
knows. "That's not going to happen here," Colangelo says, with a
look of fury. "When I address the team next week, I will tell
them that."

No need. When the Diamondbacks made friendly, polite, simon-pure
shortstop Jay Bell their first veteran acquisition in November
with a stunning five-year, $34 million deal--and then proceeded
to sign third baseman Matt Williams and righthanders Willie
Blair and Andy Benes to inflated contracts--critics took it only
as a sign that this new club, quickly dubbed the Diamondbucks,
was the latest in that line of overspenders willing and able to
upset the game's financial balance. One general manager called
the Bell deal "absolutely insane," and one owner called it
"absolutely irresponsible."

But all that whining was focused on just half the picture.
What's important to Colangelo is the unmistakable message the
Bell deal was meant to send: No jerks allowed. "I don't need any
advice on how to spend our money," Colangelo says. "I know what
I'm doing. But if I'm going to overpay, I'm going to do it with
players of character--not with characters."

"Jay Bell represents the kind of player we want in our
organization," says Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr.
"Someone the fans, when they get to know him, will like. It
sounds corny, but if you have that relationship with the fans,
they will support you when the product on the field is not what
you want it to be."

"He's a guy who will do anything for you, will always be there
to listen to you," says Pirates outfielder Al Martin, who became
a regular in Pittsburgh in 1993. "He's going to be great with
the young guys. My rookie year he would always take me out once
every road trip to see how I was doing and if I was all right."

As the Suns' owner, Colangelo has become well known for his
intolerance of bad actors. In 1987, on his watch as general
manager, the Phoenix franchise became embroiled in a nasty,
indictment-filled drug scandal, a devastating episode that not
only persuaded owner Dick Bloch to sell the team to his G.M.,
but also schooled Colangelo in the corrosion that can occur when
even a whiff of impropriety settles on a player. "We literally
backed up the truck and started over," he says.

In '94, when the names of various Suns began cropping up in
sex-, crime- or drug-related incidents, Colangelo didn't
hesitate to unload again; soon Oliver Miller, Cedric Ceballos,
Jerrod Mustaf and Richard Dumas were gone. He moved even faster
last season after forward Robert Horry flung a towel in the face
of Suns coach Danny Ainge; four days later Horry was dealt in a
quick-fix swap that, oddly enough, brought back Ceballos, who
was unloaded again last week in exchange for the Dallas
Mavericks' Dennis Scott.

"Same thing with Charles Barkley, when he started doing his
thing," Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter says of the
terminally outspoken former Sun now playing in Houston. "Jerry
doesn't play--he backs it up." Showalter is convinced that
nothing, not even the lure of a World Series, will get Colangelo
to green-light a deal for a known malcontent.

That philosophy can test fans' patience--the Suns have never won
an NBA title--but at a time when store-bought champions get sold
off during the victory parade, it can also be seductive.
"Everything is for the long haul," Colangelo says. "This is not
build and sell and get out. If you can get people to believe
that, they're going to come along for the ride." His critics say
it's easy to take such a stance (and to overspend on salaries)
when 34,000 season tickets and a new stadium make you,
instantly, one of the top five revenue producers in the sport.
But Colangelo and his partners have staked some $300 million on
the notion, including, most notoriously, $6.8 million a year on
the 32-year-old Bell.

Though Bell is coming off a career year--.291 average, 21 home
runs, 92 RBIs--a good half-dozen others are more qualified to be
the game's highest-paid middle infielder. Common wisdom has it
that Arizona could've landed Bell for less. Noted spendthrift
George Steinbrenner called Colangelo "a neophyte" and a
"renegade," and admitted that, yes, he'd been called similar
things. "But what they said about me came after I signed Reggie
Jackson and Catfish Hunter...the two best players at their
positions and future Hall of Famers," Steinbrenner told The
Tampa Tribune. "[Bell] isn't the best shortstop in the game."

Bell was just as "bewildered," he says, when he heard the
contract figures on Nov. 17. But when he flew to Phoenix the
next day and sat in on the team's expansion draft, Bell couldn't
believe how much emphasis the organization placed on each
player's background, reputation and work ethic. Yes, first
baseman Travis Lee will get his major league shot this spring
because there is no more coveted prospect in the game. "But when
we were signing Travis Lee, I was watching how well he
interacted with his brother and sister and parents," Showalter
says. "That said a lot to me."

With Bell, though, Showalter needed no such research.
Showalter's father, William, taught Bell's father, Ron, high
school science in Pensacola, Fla., and Ron sold Buck his first
house. Then one spring day in the early '80s, Showalter, then a
Yankees farmhand, was in the radio booth doing guest commentary
for his alma mater, Century High, when he saw a freshman from
Tate High line a breaking ball into leftfield for the first hit
of his baseball career. "I'm sure it won't be his last,"
Showalter told the tiny radio audience, and not just because he
knew the close and supportive Bell family. He also liked the way
Bell carried himself, confident and serious and ready to learn.
"And he's still the same type of person he was," Showalter says.

During his 12 years as a major leaguer, Bell has usually been
described in antiquated terms--credit to the game, good citizen,
squeaky clean. He has spoken often of wanting to coach Little
League when he retires. He doesn't criticize other players in
the press. He is a devout Christian, married to his high school
girlfriend. He hates how money pollutes every conversation; it
stung him, as a National League player representative during the
1994 strike, every time he heard the phrase "greedy ballplayer."

"I'm not going to apologize about the salary," Bell says. "But
to be a focal point--it's not the most comfortable thing. I'm
not in the game to gain fame. I'm in the game to play to the
best of my ability and to enjoy the best of my ability. After
the game is over, because of the platform I have, I've been
given the right by a lot of people to talk about things I
believe in."

Yet all his humility, all his talk about "enjoying" the game,
tends to muffle what Bell has done. He was never a natural at
his position. During his first full year in pro ball, in 1985,
he made 59 errors, and for the next two seasons he was the worst
shortstop in every league he played in. Even after locking up
the starting job with Pittsburgh, he still led National League
shortstops in errors in '91, with 24. But a winter on the pocked
infields of Puerto Rico taught Bell how to concentrate, and the
faith of then Pirates manager Jim Leyland fed his confidence. By
'93 he had won a Gold Glove--and then he worked even harder and
got better still. He has overcome his limited range to become
one of the game's most dependable fielders; his 10 errors and
.985 fielding percentage last year with the Kansas City Royals
matched American League Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel of the
Cleveland Indians.

Forget the graciousness and choirboy looks; no one does all that
without wanting it badly--and Bell knows that. "Life is not for
wimps," he says. "You've got to fight every day. When you go
about your job, whatever it may be, you've got to go at it with
a zeal to be the best. I want to be the best. I strive to be the
best. I want to field more ground balls than any other
shortstop. I would love to break the career record for total
chances. It drives me."

This is what hurts him: He is still regarded by both fans and
baseball people as a second-tier talent--no Barry Larkin or Alex
Rodriguez. "It matters more than I should allow it to," Bell
says. "The fleshly side of me says, I'd like to be recognized.
Why don't they see? Just look at the numbers. I fielded some 700
chances, and some book said the only reason I fielded that many
is because we had ground-ball pitchers. You can't win."

In Bell, Colangelo has gotten more than just a steady producer,
more than an answer to the Baseball Jerk. He's gotten a superior
veteran who still hungers to prove himself, one who knows that
five good years will make everyone forget that extraordinary
contract with the extraordinary money. Then he can fade back
into the game--just good, old-fashioned Jay Bell again--and
people will talk instead about the quaint fact that his manager
saw him get the first serious hit of his baseball life. "Odds
are he'll see my last hit too," Bell says. "That's what I think
is extraordinary."

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL F. GERO/SABA [Jay Bell]COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER Relia-Bell Despite his limited range, Bell has worked so hard at his fielding that he's now the statistical equal of the heralded Vizquel. [Jay Bell fielding baseball]
This is what hurts Bell: He is still regarded as a second-tier
talent--no Barry Larkin.