- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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The T-shirt worn by Padres closer Heath Bell did its best to explain who he is, though he is inexplicable in every way other than perhaps his saves total. The T-shirt read: That's How I Roll, and beneath the words was a picture of a roll of paper towels, which will come in handy when he spills his guts on any topic, and when he needs to clean up a mess in the ninth inning.
There have been few messes this season for the surprising Padres. Bell, who is replacing the all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, as the Padres' closer, is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, hasn't allowed a run and has surrendered only one hit in 4 2/3 innings. He is indeed on quite a roll, but his life is always on a roll, whether he's flying a remote-control helicopter through the clubhouse before a game, or rifling a Nerf football at a teammate after a game.
"Did you hear what happened here the other night?'' Bell said, referring to the first game played at the Mets' new Citi Field. "I threw a pitch that went under the netting behind the plate and hit the mayor of New York. It's not often you hit the mayor with a 98-mph heater.''
Mention Bell's name, and his teammates usually just laugh. Padres pitcher Chris Young smiled and said, "Heath has a heart of gold. We raise our eyebrows sometimes with some of the things he says, but he always backs it up.'' Padres pitcher Jake Peavy laughed and said of Bell, "He is in his own world. And, it is going to get worse because Heath is really good.''
Bell was really good in 2007 and 2008 for the Padres. As Hoffman's primary set-up man, Bell went 12-10, had a 2.72 ERA, allowed only 126 hits and struck out 173 in 171 2/3 innings. When Hoffman was not aggressively pursued by the Padres as a free agent after last season, Bell became the team's closer.
"I've been asked what it's like to follow Trevor Hoffman,'' he said. "Just being in the same sentence as Trevor puts the biggest smile on my face.''
There's almost always a big smile on Bell's face. He is the cousin of Drake Bell, who is an actor in the TV comedy series "Drake & Josh."
"I haven't seen him in a year, but we text once in a while,'' Heath Bell said, referring to Drake. "When we're home, I've invited him out to the ballpark to take BP. I try not to bug him. He's more famous than I am.'' Bell is also the cousin of former Duke basketball player Eric Meek. "I see him three or four times a year, he's a great guy,'' Bell said of Meek. "I never went to a game at Duke, but I saw my high school play his high school once. We had four black guys who dunked all over him.''
The smile on Bell's face this year has been constant, but it isn't quite as wide as usual because he isn't as wide as usual. He has lost 30 pounds from the end of last year to now, down from 275 to 245 pounds. He lost the weight in the most atypical way. He lost it, and became a better pitcher, by playing a Nintendo game called "Wii Fit."
I got my first check of the year the other day. They took out $25,000 for taxes. Can you believe that? I'm making $1.255 million. I'm a millionaire! I'm a millionaire! How cool is that?
”-- Heath Bell
"My kids are the world to me, and they had this Nintendo game, so I jumped on it [late last September], and the kids were yelling, 'C'mon dad, let us play,''' Bell said. "This game has a function that when you stand on it, it develops a character for you based on your weight. I got on, and it said I was obese. So, we were on our way to losing 99 games, I'd just given up five runs in an inning, and now Nintendo Wii says my character is obese. I said, 'Whoa, I've got to make this guy skinnier.' That's about all I thought about.''
A slimmer, trimmer Bell hasn't lost his velocity, as he still throws in the upper 90s. "It helped me lose weight, but it also helped me with my balance, that's all that pitching is: balance,'' Bell said. "I feel good. And I love playing it. My wife says I'm our fourth kid.''
That shows every day. Bell, 31, keeps some of his toys at the ballpark. He has what's called a "Cooler Scooter," which he drives through the clubhouse on certain days. "It's just that, it's a cooler with wheels,'' he said. "There's an electric one and gas-powered. I have one of each.''
He has a tank that shoots miniature missiles. He has remote-control cars, and a helicopter that he flies through the clubhouse some days. He has Nerf footballs and Frisbees of all kinds.
"Trevor taught me a lot, including, 'let's have fun,'" Bell said. "He taught me that we have to be serious, but we're allowed to have fun before and after games. Before the position players arrive every spring, the pitchers play games with comebackers [balls hit back to the box] and we play a game where we hit in the cage with fungos. It's fun. San Diego has allowed me to be me. When the game starts, I want to tear your head off, but I'm one of the nicest guys I know. In Philadelphia last year, a fan screamed at me from the stands, 'How many cheesesteaks did you have today, four?' I yelled back, 'Only three, why don't you get me a fourth?' Another guy yelled, 'Hey, fatso.' I yelled back, 'Tell me something I don't know. C'mon, this is Philly, you're supposed to be better hecklers than that.'"
Bell was a member of the Mets for his first three years in the major leagues, but he wasn't very effective, and was traded to the Padres after the 2006 season.
"Everything in New York was so serious,'' Bell said. "I should keep my mouth shut, but I never do. In 2005, I didn't pitch for 28 straight days. I don't know if I did something to Willie [Randolph, then the manager of the Mets]. I didn't always get along with [then pitching coach] Rick Peterson. I don't know if they wanted to make me the scapegoat. It was a bad situation. I was an undrafted player. I was a walk-on. I was the last guy to get to the big leagues. I came in with [former manager] Art Howe, then went to Willie. I was with [former general manager] Steve Phillips, then [former GM] Jim Duquette, then [current general manager] Omar Minaya. No one really saw me. But they heard about me in the papers.''
Bell said his career almost ended in 2004 when he was told that there was no room for him at Triple-A, where he had already been, and he would have to go back to Double-A.
"I had spent seven years in the minor leagues,'' he said. "I went to the Mets and said, 'I have kids. I need a job. Can you please pay me Triple-A salary -- an extra $400 a month -- if you're going to send me to Double-A?' So they did. Instead of making $1,300 a month, I was making $1,700. A few weeks later, a Rule 5 guy didn't work out, and I was in the big leagues.''
And now, five years later, he is the closer for the Padres, following the legendary Hoffman.
"I got my first check of the year the other day,'' Bell said, laughing. "They took out $25,000 for taxes. Can you believe that? I'm making $1.255 million. I'm a millionaire! I'm a millionaire! How cool is that?''
That's how Heath Bell rolls.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.
With a little help from Trevor Hoffman, Heath Bell is transitioning extremely well into his new role as the Padres' closer.