BY MATT LaWELL
MOBILE, Alabama | Before Jay Bell coached his first game in the minor leagues earlier this month, he called some old friends, all of them rookie coaches at some point during their decades in the game, all of them good baseball men. The Diamondbacks had hired Bell to work as a hitting coach for the Mobile BayBears and Bell, whose passion is not hitting, wanted to gain perspective about how to handle young hitters.
So he talked with Chris Cron, a veteran coach after a short career in the Majors and now the manager of the Erie SeaWolves. And he talked with Andy Stankiewicz, a middle infielder who turned to scouting and coaching and managing who is now the minor league field coordinator for the Seattle Mariners. He talked with Turner Ward, too, the manager of the BayBears, another veteran face in an Alabama dugout filled with prospects and young men years removed from high school or college.
“They say it’s a difficult job,” Bell says.
“The fields, the look of the fields, has not changed at all. The desire of the players to make it to the next level and the level after that, they’re still extremely passionate about it. They’re still trying to figure it out.” — Mobile hitting coach Jay Bell
After 19 games pushed into a little less than three weeks, how difficult has it been?
“It’s fun,” Bell says. “It’s fun to go out and work with these guys.”
This will be Bell’s first full season in the minor leagues since 1986, more than half a lifetime ago. He was 20 years old then, the starting shortstop for the Waterbury Indians out in Connecticut. He batted .277 that season, hit seven homers and 28 doubles, scored 86 runs and drove in 74, committed 45 errors. He was a work in progress.
“Very little has changed” about the minors since then, he says. “The fields, the look of the fields, has not changed at all — you get the billboards and all that kind of stuff — but the quality of the fields has changed. They’re much better. The stadiums are much better. Clubhouses, oddly, are much better. The desire of the players to make it to the next level and the level after that, they’re still extremely passionate about it, they’re still trying to figure it out.”
Bell managed to figure it out. He bounced between the minors and the Majors the next three seasons until he came up for good with the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates. He played 14 more seasons, landed on a pair of all-star teams, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award, scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series. He worked with the Diamondbacks for a few more seasons after his retirement, then walked away. His sons were getting older, just about to the age where baseball ruled their worlds as it once did his.
That was six years ago.
The Diamondbacks brought Bell back into the fold in November. He says he still has an itch to manage. This is a good first step toward reaching that ultimate goal.
“Do I have dreams?” Bell asks. “Yeah, absolutely. I’ve dreamed about being a big league manager for almost 20 years now, ever since I was just getting to the big leagues and didn’t think I was good enough to compete there. Part of me still wants to manage.
“At the same time, I’m very happy with what I’m doing now.”
Time for minor league trivia. Mobile was the last Southern League team to be no-hit, when former Montgomery Biscuit and current Tampa Bay Ray Matt Moore stymied the BayBears on June 16, 2011. Of the 10 teams in the league today, which has been no-hit more than any other? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Granted, Mobile has plenty of new faces on the field and in the dugout, and Monday night was just one game in a season of 140, but the BayBears looked nothing like the 2011 Southern League champions on their way to a 7-0 loss to the Jacksonville Suns. Chase Anderson shut out the Suns over seven innings, scattering four singles, walking one, striking out 10 and leaving late in a scoreless tie. Then the Mobile bullpen gave up seven runs in the eighth and limped to the loss. Mobile managed three singles and four walks at the plate, only to leave all seven on base and bat 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position.
Only three cities have produced more Hall of Famers than the five Mobile has helped raise over the decades, and all of those cities are far larger in terms of size and sheer population. Hank Aaron (inducted in 1982) is a Mobilian, of course, as are Satchel Paige (1971), Willie McCovey (1986), Billy Williams (1987) and Ozzie Smith (2002). Not bad for a city that counted about 413,000 people during the last Census. The three cities with more Hall of Famers? New York (11), Chicago (9) and the San Francisco and Oakland Bay Area (6), which is technically two cities.
Want the answer? The Chattanooga Lookouts have been no-hit nine times over the last 47 years, though only four of those performances were solo no-hitters that lasted at least nine innings (Huntsville’s David Welch in 2008, Huntsville’s Tanyon Sturtze in 1993, Orlando’s Johnny Ard in 1990 and Charlotte’s Bob Milacki who, in 1987, no-hit the Lookouts for the first 13 innings of a 2-1 win in 14 innings).
And in random statistical news, the game started just one minute later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter flied out to center and the Biloxi High School choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1 minute, 30.4 seconds. Also, we ate no hot dogs (six straight days without a frank) but did have a couple pulled pork sandwiches.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.