Heath Bell leaves New York behind
Padres reliever feels he didn't get fair shake in Flushing
Last winter, when Heath Bell looked over the San Diego Padres schedule and saw the team's first road trip started in New York, where the Mets would be opening their fancy new ballpark, he thought how great it would be for him to get the first save in Citi Field.
That would be payback, Bell thought, for a team that had bounced him back and forth between the Majors and the Minors before trading him to the Padres three seasons ago.
"I wanted to close in New York," he said. "I never got the chance."
He has that chance now with the Padres, having been appointed as the successor to all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who signed over the winter with Milwaukee. Bell converted his first three save chances at home and then nailed down the first one on opening night at Citi Field, just the way he hoped he would.
"I want to show that organization I could have done that over here," he said. "I felt like I never got a chance. I felt wronged in some ways."
Bell was always an extra arm with the Mets, summoned sometimes for a day or two and then shipped right back to Triple-A. He was recalled five times one summer, always equipped with a round-trip ticket. His situation became a subject of clubhouse kidding. Bell was the guy who knew the airline timetable between New York and Norfolk by heart.
During one quick turnaround, Mets closer Billy Wagner did a double take. "He said, `Didn't you just leave, or did you just get sick and not show up?' Bell said, chuckling at the memory. "It became a joke among the players."
The Mets viewed Bell as protection, a hard thrower who could be plugged in at a moment's notice.
"If there's a limit on being recalled, I maxed it out," he said. "Two or three times, I was recalled and never got activated. One time, I was up and not activated. I went to hang out at the ballpark with a bunch of friends and they had called up somebody else.
"It was frustrating, but that's the game. I was the only one who had options."
Finally, the yo-yo routine ended when the Mets sent Bell to San Diego in a four-player trade following the 2006 season. The Padres plugged him right into the bullpen as the bridge to Hoffman, and Bell responded with 57 holds over his first two seasons in San Diego, leading the team in games, innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA. He appeared in a staff-leading 74 games last year, and, in an otherwise lost season, the Padres were 45-29 in games in which he pitched.
When Hoffman took his 552 saves to the Brewers over the winter, Bell was the logical candidate to succeed him in the closer role.
"We never talked much about it," Bell said. "He just said, `Make sure you don't warm up too much. You don't want to leave all your bullets in the bullpen.'"
Bell is forever grateful that he escaped the pitching merry-go-round in New York.
"I got a great opportunity in San Diego to show Major League Baseball what I can do," he said. "I'm thankful they gave me a chance, and I'm happy that I established myself as a Major League baseball player."
There will always, however, be a place in his heart for the Mets. He pitched for seven years in the organization after signing as a non-drafted free agent in 1998.
"There's so much I'm thankful for," he said. "And yet, on the other hand, I feel like I never got the best chance to succeed with them."
That's not a problem for him anymore.
Hal Bock is a freelancer based in New York City.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.