He won an American League MVP award, was selected to three all-star teams and belted a game-winning homer in the Toronto Blue Jays’ final game at Exhibition Stadium on May 28, 1989.
But George Bell says the highlight of his career was catching the fly ball that Ron Hassey lifted to shallow left field on October 5, 1985 that secured the Blue Jays’ first American League East title.
“I was praying and hoping that I would get the last out and I did and that was an unbelievable feeling,” said Bell last week, after it was announced that he was one of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2013 inductees.
The Jays, of course, later won two World Championships, but the image of Bell falling to his knees and his teammates swarming him on the field after that catch remains etched in the memories of longtime Blue Jays fans.
During the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s media conference call on February 7, a humble and gracious Bell reflected on his nine seasons in Toronto, which made him both one of the greatest and most controversial players in franchise history.
“The experience I had with the Toronto Blue Jays was the best I had ever had in my life,” said Bell. “I grew up as a player in Toronto.”
It’s easy to forget that Bell was a solid prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, before Blue Jays’ general manager Pat Gillick and his astute scouting staff, plucked the power-hitting Dominican from the Phillies in the 1980 Rule 5 draft.
“When I got selected by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft in 1980, that was a surprise for me. I didn’t even know what a Rule 5 draft was,” said Bell. “I was like a loose goose playing ball and then they told me that I got drafted by the Blue Jays and I was happy because I knew I had a lot of talent.”
Over the next few years, the right-handed hitting slugger rose through the organization’s ranks to join Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield in one of the most talented and exciting young outfields in baseball. After hitting 28 homers in 1985, Bell socked 31 in 1986, before belting an American League-leading 47 round-trippers the following season.
In that record-breaking 1987 campaign, he also topped the league in RBIs (134), total bases (369) and extra base hits (83). But despite a monster season that earned him the American League MVP award, Bell struggled down the stretch and the Jays lost their final seven games, surrendering the division title to the Tigers on the season’s final day.
“I won the MVP but was very, very disappointed that year,” said Bell. “As a player and a team, we came so close. That was one of the best teams we put on the field at that time and we got beat so bad, I think 1987 was a disappointing year . . . we came so close and to not come through was real painful.”
Things would get even more painful for Bell the following spring when Jays manager Jimy Williams insisted that that the intense slugger, never a defensive standout in left field, become the club’s full-time DH. Bell resisted the move and two clashed repeatedly that March. Their acrimony ultimately culminated in Bell refusing to bat after his name was announced in a spring training game in Dunedin on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988.
After Bell was slapped with a fine, the two came to some sort of compromise and Bell was the DH on Opening Day when he blasted three home runs off of Bret Saberhagen in Kansas City. But by mid-April, as Sil Campusano, whom Williams had touted as the club’s centre fielder of the future (and had moved Moseby to left), was not hitting, Bell was returned to left field and Moseby to centre.
In 1989, Bell hit .297 and drove in 104 runs to help the Blue Jays secure their second division title. He played a final season in Toronto in 1990, before signing with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent. His final two seasons came with the White Sox in 1992 and 1993.
In nine seasons with the Jays, Bell was a two-time all-star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner. The former slugger ranks in the top five in most of the club’s all-time offensive categories, including third in RBIs (740), total bases (2,201) and extra-base hits (471) and fourth in home runs (202). For his efforts, he was named an inaugural member of the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence in 1996.
Bell will share the stage with two of his ex-teammates – Rob Ducey and Tim Raines (with the White Sox) – at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony in St. Marys, Ont., on June 29. Tom Cheek, the late Jays’ broadcasting legend who called every game in Bell’s Blue Jays career, will also be enshrined posthumously.
“When he began to blossom as one of the top sluggers in baseball, George became much more gregarious and was immensely popular with his teammates,” wrote Tom Cheek in his 1993 book, Road to Glory. “So much was made in later years about the lack of chemistry in the Blue Jay clubhouse, and how George was almost single-handedly responsible for that malady. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t recall a single player not having high regard, or a great deal of respect for George.”
Despite a sometimes-tumultuous tenure in Toronto, Bell also clearly earned the respect of the Canadian Ball Hall’s Selection Committee.
“Thank you for honouring my life and career with this decision by the Selection Committee,” said Bell. “I’m very excited and proud to be part of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.”
For a list of five things you might not know about George Bell, please visit the Cooperstowners in Canada Facebook Page.