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Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Bell puts Pirates on alert for 'Operation Shutdown'

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

You have to hand it to Pittsburgh outfielder Derek Bell, and ... oh, wait. You don't have to hand it to Bell. That's how we got into this mess in the first place.

Derek Bell
The Pirates no longer have to deal with the headache of Derek Bell.
By "you," of course, I refer to the Pirates' brass, which, upon further review, is not legally required to anoint Bell as its starting right fielder for the team's season opener roughly two weeks hence.

By "mess," I refer to Bell's definitive declaration that he does not consider himself to be in open competition for the starting role despite batting .173 during an injury-filled 2001 season, and that if, in fact, there is such a challenge to his primacy, "then I'm going into Operation Shutdown."

By "Operation Shutdown," Bell seems to intend to mean something seriously idiotic, but we knew that already.

And by "we," I refer not only to myself but to my good friends Joe and Janine Lunchbucket, the long-suffering fans (are there any other kinds?) who only this morning read Bell's comments, lightly slapped their foreheads in relief and said, "Thank goodness! We were beginning to forget why we hate baseball's guts."

Always happy to serve, folks.

Derek Bell
Right Field / Shut Down
Pittsburgh Pirates
Profile
2001 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R SB AVG
46 5 13 14 0 .173
Let's take this one ball-peen hammer at a time. In a weekend interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell sounded positively shocked to learn he was in either a three- or four-way battle for the starting job in right, saying he assumed the position was his and that no one had told him otherwise.

"If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me," Bell said. "I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is (open competition), then I'm going into Operation Shutdown."

Bell didn't specify what Operation Shutdown entails, although you'd hope to see some fancy military-style maneuvers to go with a name like that. Something to do with the relative height of his uniform pants legs, perhaps.

The Pirates, specifically general manager Dave Littlefield, replied that Bell most certainly is in a competition with Armando Rios, Craig Wilson and perhaps Rob Mackowiak. Further, Littlefield said, "At this point, he (Bell) hasn't done a lot to show he deserves a lot of playing time."

And within the Pittsburgh sports community, the battle lines are being drawn. Do fans go with the heartfelt comments of a player who hasn't hit above .200 since the first half of the 2000 season, or with the authoritative position of a team coming off a 100-loss year?

Clearly, what we have here is failure to communicate. Bell, for example, is unfortunately laboring under the misconception that he plays in some city other than Pittsburgh, for a group of fans who would read a comment like, "Tell them exactly what I said: I haven't competed for a job since 1991," and reply, "Wow, it sure sounds like he means it!"

Hard to figure the Pirates' faithful for that group, exactly. And last January, in an interview apparently conducted when he was quite certain he was the starting right fielder, Bell had said he was going to keep his head down and his mouth shut and play hard this season, in order to prove something to himself and to the Pittsburgh fans.

Dunno about the head-down or mouth-shut parts, but in terms of proving something, I'd have to say, done and done.

Bell makes $4.5 million this season, which is important for a couple of reasons. First, it makes him utterly untradeable (and if it doesn't, his .148 performance this spring certainly does). Second, it makes his release by the cash-strapped Pirates a lousy option, no matter how much visceral relief it might provide.

And so Pittsburgh is left with this: An unhappy camper who thinks he's Roger Clemens, operating under the presumption that it's permissible to stink up whole sections of Florida during spring training so long as he's guaranteed a favorable result in the end.

All of which brings to mind the case of the great Garry Templeton, the former shortstop who once explained that he didn't want to travel to the All-Star Game unless he was voted into a starting job, famously saying, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'."

As we all now know, God eventually got even with Templeton, making him a minor-league manager. Any chance the Pirates have an opening in their system for a $4.5 million pain in the tuchus?

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.