BUDDY BELL: JUST THE FACTS
A few days ago, Texas Rangers Hall of Famer Buddy Bell was honored with the “Chief Bender Award,” given annually by Minor League Baseball to honor someone “with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development.” Bell is currently an assistant GM for player development with the White Sox. He will receive the award Dec. 6 during the Winter Meetings in Nashville.
I use this piece of news as an excuse to write about one of the most under-appreciated stars who ever played for the Rangers during their dark, dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. Because of my job at the time I couldn’t show it, but I was a huge fan of how he played the game and dealt with others.
To be honest, Bell deserved better than being part of those Rangers teams. By all rights (in my opinion), he should have played for the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox or Phillies – one of those perennial contenders who could have provided the spotlight and national recognition his play deserved.
In 1979 he achieved a personal-best with 200 hits, drove in 101 runs and won the first of many Gold Glove awards. In fact, Bell won the Gold Glove for American League third baseman every year from 1979 through 1984. He also won the Silver Slugger award in 1984 and he finished in the league’s top ten for batting average in 1980 and 1984. From 1979 through 1984, Bell gave the Rangers six consecutive seasons of 4.2 fWAR or better, with Fangraphs Total Zone Runs Saved of 109. His career fWAR is 61.7.
Although fielding percentage is no longer respected as a true-talent measure, back then it was scripture – and Bell finished in the top 10 in the category ten times, and finished first three times.
And the interesting thing about this is, even though Bell was providing absolutely spectacular performance compared to what the Rangers had been showing at third, fans here gradually came to take this excellence for granted – just like some have done with Beltre.
For example, former Associated Press Sports Editor Denne Freeman made one of his rare Arlington Stadium press box appearances for the 1982 home opener. In the first inning, a Rangers infielder booted a routine grounder to allow a base runner, and Freeman loudly exclaimed, “G** d*** it, doesn’t anything ever change around here?!”
On the very next pitch, Bell made a near-impossible play look easy as he flagged down a screaming grounder and calmly flipped the ball to second to start a double-play. Paul Hagen, then the Rangers beat writer for the Dallas Times Herald, yelled back, “No, Freeman, some things don’t ever change.”
In the clubhouse, Bell was never great “copy.” He was calm, stolid and professional. As a sign of the respect he earned, other players would congregate around his locker to ask questions, get pointers or just chew the fat. When reporters approached Bell was always courteous and business-like, recognizing that we had a job to do, too.
One day a reporter who was brand-new to the beat asked Bell to autograph his son’s baseball. He had no idea this was a stark violation of two unwritten but hard rules: the clubhouse is off-limits to autograph seekers and reporters aren’t supposed to ask for autographs, anyway. Instead of humiliating our unidentified writer, Bell calmly smiled, took the ball, signed it and went back to his conversation.
He rarely said anything remotely controversial. After the conclusion of the strike-interrupted 1981 season, which saw the Rangers fade into also-rans for the seventh season in a row, Bell simply said, “I’m glad it’s over.”
He was good with the fans and the public, although he did not seem really comfortable in that role. He put most of his leadership energy into his on-field performance and influence in the clubhouse.
He came by his baseball skills honestly, as the son of 15-year Reds outfielder Gus Bell. Buddy Bell, in turn, passed on his love of the game to his elder son David, now the bench coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. His younger son Mike was the Rangers’ first-round pick in the 1983 draft and got a cup of coffee with the Reds.
In 1985, the Rangers traded Bell to Cincinnati. In 1989 he came back to the Rangers for a brief spell, then retired. He moved into coaching and managed the Rockies, Tigers and Royals, across nine seasons. Toward the end of the 2007 season, Bell announced he would not be back with the Royals the next season because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Obviously, this is what some people say to disguise hard facts but in Bell’s case, I have no doubt that it was the truth.
As for the Chief Bender award, Bell said, “I am incredibly humbled by this award, as I had the distinct honor of working alongside Chief in the Reds organization in 1999, and I learned something new every day.”
Typical Buddy Bell media statement … some things never change.