TRENTON – Most Yankee fans remember Jay Bell as the scrappy Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman who crossed home plate on the haunting base hit from Luis Gonzalez as the game winning run to defeat the immortal Mariano Rivera in a deciding game seven of the 2001 World Series. The image is one that is hard to forget, even all of these years later. You have seen it replayed over and over and over some more. A jubilant Bell clapping his hands over his head and racing into Matt Williams arms as then Bank One Ballpark erupted.
Fast forward seventeen years later, the poster boy for the conclusion of the Yankees historic dynasty of the late-90’s is now a key figure at the forefront of developing the next crop of young Baby Bombers. In his first season at the helm in Trenton, the reigning Florida State League Manager of the Year has guided a revolving roster of 70 different players spanning 176 roster moves to a 65-55 record and has the club well-positioned to make their third consecutive postseason appearance for just the second time in franchise history.
“My favorite team is the Trenton Thunder.” Bell has uttered those words to the local media nearly every day this season. It is not lip service or a cute cliché, he firmly cares deeply for the roster of 25 prospects under his tutelage.
The Double-A level is viewed by most talent evaluators and scouts as the separator of prospects and suspects. Pitchers refine command and master the art of pitchability while hitters figure out how to counter it. The ones that are able to do it often develop into useful big league contributors while the ones who cannot become just another player in the near ninety-percent of minor leaguers who never reach the major league level.
“I think the body of work up to High-A is going to tell us a story, but it shouldn’t tell your lasting story,” said Bell. “You should be able to develop into a better player over the course of time as you advance, otherwise you’re not going to make it there.”
Bell added, “You may not make it right away at this level. This is a great level because the talent is so good and in order to compete here, guys absolutely have to get better.”
The Twins made Bell their first-round draft selection in 1984 before he was dealt to Cleveland just one year later. The now 52-year old skipper recalls the ebb and flow of making adjustments during his time in the minor leagues nearly thirty years ago that ultimately paved his path to a successful 18 season career as a big leaguer.
“I was a pull hitter early in my career and I didn’t have to worry about it,” Bell said. “Nobody was really throwing breaking balls for strikes, but you could count on a fastball coming in there. I hit fastballs and I pulled fastballs. As I got to the higher levels and after hitting .250 in Triple-A, I thought that wasn’t good enough and I had to figure out how to move that ball around.”
Bell added, “When I got to the big leagues, Jim Leyland wanted me to be a particular type of player. He wanted me to bunt, he wanted me to hit-and-run, so if I wanted to stay in the big leagues, I had to figure those things out.”
Heading into action on Thursday, the Thunder hold a seven game lead in the race for a postseason berth despite having an offense that ranks in the lower-third of the league. While a league-best pitching staff certainly does a great deal to offset that deficiency, timely hitting and clutch execution in pivotal situations has allowed Trenton to go 22-15 in one-run games.
“Everybody is talented in that room, some to different degrees,” admitted Bell. “The best players in the big leagues, the players that make it for any period of time are the smartest players. They figure out how to beat their opponents on a regular basis. I am going to tell you right now that the guys that are up there are not any better than some of the guys down here – they’re just not. It is just that their minds work so good and they know how to beat their opponents; it really is as simple as that.”
Bell added, “That is what I want from my players; I want them in every way possible to beat their opponent. Sometimes you’re not going to out-talent them, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t beat them. One of the things that I have enjoyed about this year is that we have done that on a regular basis.”