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Bell embracing role as Pirates' hitting coach

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It wasn't one or the other with Jay Bell. It was one and then, after a few years, the other. It some ways, he went to extremes, leading the universe in sacrifice bunts as Jim Leyland's No. 2 hitter in 1990 and 1991, amidst the most recent years of on-field success for the Pirates, and hitting 38 home runs for the D-backs in 1999. Who woulda thunk it possible?

But baseball developed the phrase "a bunt and a bomb" for a reason. Managers appreciate players who can deliver both. Bell wasn't the inspiration for the phrase. He certainly served as the standard-bearer for a portion of the '90s, though. Indeed, the Pirates' new hitting coach is the only player in the long history of the game to have sacrificed at least 30 times in a season and also homered 30 times in a season, any season.

That, folks, is a genuine baseball distinction, not one of those silly, computer-driven facts -- the only man with 17 home runs, 11 doubles and six triples who has been hit by a pitch at least 18 times and never grounded into a double play. This one's legit and, more than that, meaningful. You might say it uniquely qualifies Bell to tutor players. He has earned degrees in Small Ball as well as as its older sibling Long Ball. Moreover, he batted .310 one year. He knows his way around the batter's box.

"You've got to be able to do both, you know," Bell said Thursday afternoon. He spoke those words as a directive, as fact. "We've got to be able to do what [manager] Clint [Hurdle] wants done."

It should be doable. But watch any team's batting practice. Other than pitchers and the random utility infielder, few players concentrate on bunting or even pay attention to it. "It's batting practice," Dave Parker said a long time ago, "not bunting practice." And who could argue with a batting champion with power? But even the Maris-Mantle Yankees of 1961 accumulated 57 sacrifice bunts.

More than that -- or less -- the 2012 Pirates batted .243 with a grotesquely low on-base percentage, .304, a slugging percentage, .395, five points lower than the league norm. And all that shortfall batting conspired to put their 2012 run total 10th in the National League. So, the task of their new hitting coach is rather daunting.

Not that Bell is unaware. Indeed, he embraces the challenge as much as he does his new position. He is among the decided few who have played and coached who favor the latter.

"It won't always be that way, but you can have more impact as a coach than as a player," he says. "I love working with players more than playing. ... When you're a player, known as a team player, there is a degree of selfishness you have to have. You have to take care of yourself, prepare yourself each day. But coaching is a selfless position. It's your job to help others."

Bell, 47 and now as gray as Leyland, is back at the big league level after a five-year sabbatical that he chose mostly for reasons of family. After an unremarkable final season with the Mets in 2003, he took a year off and then served as bench coach with Bob Melvin and the D-backs in 2005 and 2006. The leave of absence followed.

He thought he would move to the A's after Melvin had completed a year there. But Chip Hale was hired for the 2012 season. So Bell accepted a position, hitting coach, with the D-backs' Double-A affiliate in Mobile instead. A promotion to Triple-A was a possibility for this year, but while he prepared to join the New Zealand World Baseball Classic team in the fall -- he was to coach in the qualifying round and then who knew? -- he received a call from the the D-backs, asking whether he'd have interest in a big league job. He was Jay Bell on demand.

His roots in Pittsburgh are eight years deep. Returning to the site of such success was an attraction, to be sure. The Pirates came away from a 3 1/2-hour interview in an airport quite impressed. In less than a week, they had an old friend and a new hitting coach on their staff.

"We'd developed a relationship when he still was playing," Hurdle said. "We talked a lot about our passion for the game, and our faith. I knew he was sincere. When we thought about bringing him here, we talked to him about it. When he took the job in Mobile, it was clear he wasn't looking for a honeymoon job where he'd work where he lives. He wanted to be back in the game and help people learn to play the game. Jay's going to be a good addition for us."

Bell retains the objective he developed when he was a young player and not sure he'd find work on the big league level. The idea of managing seduced him then. His interest in that regard hasn't changed. There's probably a time for that, but not yet. He's left positive footprints everywhere he's worn a big league uniform. And first things first. The Pirates have to swing the bat.

Marty Noble is a reporter for

Pittsburgh Pirates