Playing Chicken with George Bell

The first time you get in a batter’s box, you just know the ball is about to come straight at your head. For most people, this goes away with the evidence of experience. Pitchers usually don’t want to hit batters, and most playing at high levels of ball are good enough to consistently not plunk them. George Bell, a hard hitting outfielder in the Blue Jays organization, was working his way through the minor leagues when an opposing pitcher hit him in the face with a fastball. The blow broke Bell’s jaw, resulting in significant missed playing time and a face wired to the point of immobility.

Peter Gammons interviewed Bell for Sports Illustrated in 1990. He related a moment where Bell drove him through San Pedro in the Dominican Republic. Bell reached a stretch of road surrounded by sugarcane and blocked by several teenagers. Most of the teens stepped aside to let the car pass, but one remained in his way. Bell sped up and aimed at the person standing in the road, forcing him to dive out of the way. “Nobody pulls that on me,” Bell told Gammons.

Bell never forgot how much opportunity that minor league hit-by-pitch cost him and vowed to make it known he wouldn’t stand for it either. Over the course of his career he was hit 49 times and rarely wasted time taking off towards the mound to express his displeasure to pitcher. In 1985 he famously delivered a flying kick to Boston pitcher Bruce Kison and turned around to land two punches to catcher Rich Gedman’s face. In 1989 he wrestled Oakland’s Gene Nelson to the ground. In one of the final games of his career he tried to take on the entire Boston Red Sox infield after being drilled by Aaron Sele.

According to Retrosheet, Bell was ejected on 14 occasions. What is interesting is that only three of these resulted from fights. The rest were largely for arguing with umpires.

These headshots weren’t just accidents. An outspoken person with a deep-rooted fear of having his career cut short by others’ recklessness, Bell was frequently targeted with inside pitches. He was hit almost as many times as he was intentionally walked. Sometimes it seemed luck was just against him. The Orioles’ Mike Boddicker threw behind Bell’s head in a 1986 game. This kind of pitch is particularly insidious as most people’s instinct is to step back from a pitch high and inside, resulting in one walking right into the path of a fastball. Knowing not to step back, Bell ducked. Unfortunately, this motion brought his bat into contact with the ball and resulted in a foul popup that was caught and ended the inning.

Bell could be counted on for good home run production, even tying Mark McGwire’s 49 HRs in 1987 and taking home the American League MVP that season. He looked like a lock for 300 homers for much of his career, but a series of arguments (and balky knees) derailed that momentum. When the Blue Jays tried to move him from the outfield to the role of designated hitter he played chicken, daring them to keep him out of his defensive roles. He platooned across both roles and bolted for the National League in 1990, where he could be certain there was no chance of being a DH. A year and a half later the Cubs traded him to the White Sox for Sammy Sosa, a player who once shined Bell’s shoes as a kid in the Dominican Republic. The White Sox deal reaggravated the simmering DH argument, and added the stress of competing for playing time with fellow Chicago newcomer Bo Jackson. Bell again played chicken and the Sox chose to keep Jackson on their postseason roster at Bell’s expense.

I’m glad Bell made the 1993 Finest checklist, as it marks the end of his time in baseball and places him in the company of Robin Yount, George Brett, and Carlton Fisk in having the set provide a bookend to his career.

The card that joined my collection was purchased via Beckett Marketplace. A day or two after placing my order I received a message stating the seller is looking for the card and would have it in the mail shortly if it is still in stock. Prices for most items were a touch high and there is very little movement in inventory from year to year. Everything feels like ordering cards in 1996, complete with the seller of this card using an AOL e-mail address. I have no complaints about the actual card. It arrived nicely packaged and graded as NM-MT, exactly what would be expected.