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Yankees Magazine: The Odds Of Winning

Few are better equipped to teach young players how to embrace the uncertainty of baseball than Thunder manager Jay Bell
Yankees Magazine

Jay Bell actually got the news a few weeks before his son Brantley, and you can understand why that might have been a hair frustrating for the young Minor League prospect. The Cincinnati Reds were sending the then-22-year-old Brantley to represent the organization at the Arizona Fall League, where he would be a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. That team -- a collection of prospects from the Reds, Angels, Giants, Mets and Yankees -- would be managed by the elder Bell, who was finishing up his first year at the helm of the Yankees' High-A Tampa squad. For a young prospect, getting sent to Arizona can be a huge reward, but Jay Bell didn't want to be the one to tell his son the news.

"I was like, 'Man, why didn't you tell me when you found out!?'" Brantley says, feigning irritation at his father in the Scottsdale dugout. "But he wanted to give my coaches an opportunity to tell the players because I think that's his favorite part about the job."

Jay Bell actually got the news a few weeks before his son Brantley, and you can understand why that might have been a hair frustrating for the young Minor League prospect. The Cincinnati Reds were sending the then-22-year-old Brantley to represent the organization at the Arizona Fall League, where he would be a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. That team -- a collection of prospects from the Reds, Angels, Giants, Mets and Yankees -- would be managed by the elder Bell, who was finishing up his first year at the helm of the Yankees' High-A Tampa squad. For a young prospect, getting sent to Arizona can be a huge reward, but Jay Bell didn't want to be the one to tell his son the news.

"I was like, 'Man, why didn't you tell me when you found out!?'" Brantley says, feigning irritation at his father in the Scottsdale dugout. "But he wanted to give my coaches an opportunity to tell the players because I think that's his favorite part about the job."

There's little that anyone could tell Jay Bell about professional baseball that the 18-year veteran didn't learn himself. And perhaps there's an irony in the realization that years of toil and accumulated experience are no match for the capricious randomness of a life in baseball, where the odds are never in your favor. "Spend enough time in this game," he says, "and you're going to succeed in every situation, but you're also going to fail in every situation. It's figuring out how to deal with that and using it for your benefit."

After being named Florida State League Manager of the Year in 2017, his first season running a team, Bell will move up to the Yankees' Double-A Trenton Thunder squad this year, where he will lead players just two steps from the Big Leagues. With each rung he climbs up the organizational ladder, the odds that his charges will someday find success in The Show improve. But they're still longer than you might think for players who have already reached pro ball. Bell's players, whether in Tampa, Arizona or Trenton, are just beginning; their journeys are barely underway.

And perhaps that's why Bell wanted to make sure that Brantley's own coaches -- who so often bear witness as young prospects realize later than anyone else that their dreams are dead -- got to pass on some good news. Brantley Bell is no sure thing; the odds are against him because the odds are against everybody.

The best lesson, then, that the elder Bell can teach his players (and his son) is that they always need to be ready. Heartbreak and humiliation may be the default in this impossible life playing an impossible game, but magic can pop up from time to time, the perfect meeting of man and moment. And Jay Bell has plenty of stories to share.

***

"You know how it is," Bell jokes over dinner in Scottsdale, a few hours after his Scorpions team won, 6-5, over the Surprise Saguaros. "They put the best hitter in the ninth hole."

More than three decades later, Bell remembers nearly everything about Sept. 29, 1986, the day of his first Big League at-bat. A year after the Twins had traded him to the Indians as part of a package for Bert Blyleven, Bell would, ironically, face the future Hall of Famer for his first taste of the Majors. Bell recalls a piece of advice he got from Mike Hargrove, one of his coaches at the time, during the drive to the airport for the flight to the rest of his life. "Jay," Hargrove told him, "you need to make sure that you swing early, get ready to hit, because he's going to challenge you with a fastball. Don't sit there and wait for that curveball -- you can't hit it anyway; it's the best one in the game."

With two outs in the third, Bell stepped in to face Blyleven, who had yet to allow a base runner. "Sure enough, he threw me the first-pitch fastball," Bell recalls, "and I hit it for a home run."

It was a solid beginning to a Major League journey, the type familiar from dreams and corny novels. Bell would hit 194 more home runs in his career, the large majority of them coming between his age-29 season of 1995 and his last season as a full-time player in 2001. But he remains self- deprecating and deflective about his own impact on the game, insisting that he always figured he would someday manage, mainly because he thought he would wash out of the league pretty quickly. And you can see that in the joy he exhibits while coaching this Scorpions' roster of players from other Major League organizations. Whether hitting fungoes during batting practice or smiling from the third-base coaching box, the enthusiasm is apparent. At dinner, Bell offers scouting reports of the Yankees representatives in Arizona, and he just can't help himself.

What do you think about Albert Abreu?

"He's been a joy to be around this year, and I think he's only going to get better."

Andrew Schwaab?

"Andrew Schwaab is already my favorite pitcher. … He's just a quality human being."

What about Kyle Holder?

"Kyle's one of my favorites."

What impresses you most about Estevan Florial?

"If you want to add a sixth tool -- being a quality teammate and a quality person, someone that's going to do everything including build up his teammates to have great organizational success -- he's a terrific example of that."

Video: Fall League manager Bell discusses Estevan Florial

He could keep going, too. Bell has the chops to break down a player in sabermetric terms to go with his lifetime of baseball intellect, but it's just not where his mind goes right at the start. He is significantly older than his low-Minors players, and he admits that he can't quite let go of his perhaps-antiquated preference that some of them comport themselves on the field more like he chose to back in the day. But those aren't the battles that consume him as he guides players up the organizational ladder. It's an impossible quest under any circumstances, so Bell can be forgiven for relying on some parental instincts, and not just in the case of Brantley.

"The players are pretty much like his own kids in a certain way," Brantley Bell says. "It's been great to see how they've enjoyed him, as well, because they have nothing but good things to say about it."

***

It didn't take long for Bell to prove himself as a manager last year in Tampa, where his team won the division title in both halves of the season. Over four years as a Major League bench coach, spanning one stint in Arizona and another in Cincinnati, Bell learned how to watch the game from the dugout, playing along with his managers.

Being a bench coach "was different from the manager because nobody was looking at me to make the final decision," Bell says. "But I had to go through the process of getting information and developing my own style so that if my manager got thrown out of the game, I would run the game properly, and if he had a question for me or asked me for my suggestion during the course of the game, I would give it to him and have a reason."

As a first-time manager in Tampa, he was handed a bounty of talent. Among MLB.com's ranking of the Yankees' top 30 prospects, seven played under Bell for at least some of last season, and three more got the chance during Arizona Fall League play. But he focuses on the soft measures of success. "I'll give you my life philosophy: relationships matter," he says. "I want to make sure that I give them everything that's been given to me over the years. I get to impact every one of those guys. It's fun for me to delegate my authorities and let my coaches do their thing, but talk about the relational aspects and the mental aspects of the game when it comes to getting out there and competing and figuring out how to beat your opponent."

Don't let the smile and good cheer fool you. Bell lives to compete, to revel in achievement. Yankees fans still have nightmares of him scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series on Luis Gonzalez's bloop single off Mariano Rivera. It was a joyful culmination, a realization of all the rewards that a life of hard work can offer, but there was more than a little twist of fortune involved in the outcome.

"I'm sitting there on the bench, looking at the lineup card to determine if I'm going to go into the game, and I'm thinking, 'Nope, nope, nope,'" Bell recalls, reflecting on a Diamondbacks postseason run in which he started just three games. "The one scenario I didn't think of was first or second with no outs."

At the time, Rivera was simply automatic; up until that night, in his first 51 postseason games, Rivera had allowed just seven total runs in 77 2⁄3 innings. He had blown exactly one save, way back in the 1997 American League Division Series against Cleveland. "We knew who we were facing, and we knew the last inning was daunting, but at the same time, we still felt pretty comfortable."

With David Dellucci on second base and Damian Miller on first, Bell knew exactly why Bob Brenly was calling his name. "I know what I'm doing; I'm bunting," he says. The ball hopped right to Rivera in front of the mound, and the pitcher fired it to third for an easy first out. "I'm thinking I screwed up the World Series because I was running down to first base." If Bell had succeeded in the sacrifice, or if Scott Brosius had doubled him off first after recording the putout at third, everything might have changed. Instead, the odd turn of fate had Bell in position to score the winning run three batters later, when Gonzalez's looper over shortstop ended the Series.

After he touched the plate, Bell's teammates mobbed him, then the cluster made a collective sprint toward Gonzalez. Eventually, Bell caught sight of his family members, and the emotions overtook him. It was more than one run, one series, one season that occupied Bell in the moment. It was everything that came before it, including when he found himself on the other side of the coin. When Atlanta's Sid Bream came racing home to end the 1992 NL Championship Series, Bell -- then a member of the Pirates -- was watching from shortstop, his fortunes having changed in what felt like an instant. Even now, he can't talk about 2001 without harking back to his emotions after Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw; the moments are totally connected. He exalts in the winning run he scored, while also recognizing how hard New York fans -- particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks -- must have taken that night.

"I know in Pittsburgh, stories that I've heard about fans that were sitting there watching the game and all of a sudden, Sid Bream scores, and it's just sheer shock, turning off the TV and not knowing what to do."

Bell isn't apologizing, not for a second. But he understands. And maybe the pain of 1992 heightened the emotion of 2001. Or perhaps winning is winning and losing is losing, and neither brings any context to the party. It's just that each moment in the game is a gift. Nothing is guaranteed. And all he can do is remember the words of his mentors, and pass them along to the Minor Leaguers in his charge: Find joy. It's the only way to counter the game's precarious brutality.

***

It's just dumb luck, so much of it. A millimeter here or there and a championship stroke becomes a double-play ball. Jay Bell laid down a poor sacrifice bunt, and as a result of that, he was in position to score the winning run of the World Series. What can you do but laugh?

Or, if you're Gylene Hoyle, you can make a bit of money off the whole arrangement.

On July 11, 1999, KNIX, a Phoenix-area radio station, ran a promotion in which fans could call in to win tickets to see the Diamondbacks play. Hoyle had never been able to justify the expense of taking her kids to a game, so it was a pretty terrific prize. But then her name was drawn from all the winners, and she got a chance to win $1 million. All she had to do was pick a Diamondbacks player who would hit a grand slam in the game -- and the inning in which he would do it. It's a crazy contest, like Powerball on the baseball diamond. Standing on the dugout before the game, while the players warmed up on the field, Hoyle picked Bell and the sixth inning.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it sure didn't look that way in the fifth inning, when Bell made the first out and the Diamondbacks went down in order. "There's no chance that I'm going to hit in the sixth," he says. But the team rallied its next time up, and Bell found himself on deck with runners on second and third. Tony Womack walked on four pitches, and it was all in front of him. Hit a grand slam, change a woman's life. Bell worked the count full, "and all of a sudden I start shaking, my legs are shaking like crazy, so I call timeout and step out. I don't know the theology behind this, and don't know if God even cares, but I say, 'Lord, just help keep me calm in this situation. If I get the home run, great, I just want to be calm.'"

Bell laughs at the memory, of jumping around the field after breaking a 3-3 tie with a grand slam over the left-field wall, of returning to the dugout and hearing Steve Finley screaming, "You just won that lady a million dollars!" in a moment that was caught on camera. "It's the first time in my career that I showed any emotion at all running the bases," Bell recalls. He's absolutely insistent about one fact: It's his favorite baseball memory. A homer on his first pitch, a World Series-winning run, a lifetime in baseball; none of it compares to that at-bat when he made a family some money. It's a perfect moment.

The game is rarely that generous. The morning after Game 7 in 2001, Bell -- too hyped up and unable to sleep -- went to a local Krispy Kreme at around 5 a.m. to pick up doughnuts for the family. There was a TV reporter inside with a camera, and she asked Bell if he would agree to an interview. Of course, Bell agreed.

"The World Series last night, did you happen to attend the game?" Bell recalls her asking. "And I said, 'As a matter of fact, I did; it was one of the most wonderful games that I've ever seen. I had the best time watching it, and it's something I'll always remember.' So we finish the interview, and I go get my dozen doughnuts. I go get in the car, I start pulling away, and she comes sprinting out and gets on her hands and knees and begs me to stop because the guys behind the counter, they knew who I was, and so they told her after I left.

"This game will find a way to humble you, and that's why, for me, you need to make sure you remember where you came from and all that stuff. This game is fleeting no matter how long you get to play. It goes by so fast."

For Bell's Double-A players this year, the future is a total mystery. Maybe they'll lay down a picture-perfect sacrifice bunt and trot back to the dugout, or maybe they'll hit into a force out and end up scoring the winning run. There's so little they can control. They'll learn that, one way or another.

But there's magic out there. There truly is, and Jay Bell is proof of it. Stick around long enough and, eventually, you'll find a way to beat the odds.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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