Fun-loving closer Bell off to perfect start as Hoffman's replacement
The Padres allowed all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman to leave via free agency
After entering this season with two career saves, Bell leads the majors with eight
Bell has assumed a big leadership position in the Padres' clubhouse
When the ninth inning arrives, the bullpen door swings open and the first strains of a pumping rock song begin to play over the PETCO Park loudspeakers, the best closer in the National League emerges from the bullpen.
It is almost as much a part of life in San Diego as flip flops or fish tacos and it has been this way for over 15 years. But now, instead of seeing the trim man with the devastating changeup and the most saves in baseball history, the man heading toward the mound is a stocky -- though not quite as stocky as he was last year -- closing neophyte who just started learning a changeup this spring. And instead of the doomsday tolling of AC/DC's Hells Bells comes the mostly unfamiliar Breaking Benjamin song Blow Me Away -- the first and most obvious sign that after more than a decade of Hall of Fame-caliber excellence in the ninth inning, it is a new era in San Diego.
Hells Bells is out. Heath Bell is in.
Strange as it might still be to the Padres and their fans -- general manager Kevin Towers called it "awkward" -- Trevor Hoffman is no longer doing what he did better and more often than any pitcher in baseball since 1993: closing out ballgames. After failing to come to terms with San Diego on a new contract this winter, Hoffman has moved on to Milwaukee. In his place is Heath Bell, a 31-year-old former Mets castoff who entered the season with two career saves, something which looked more like a typo than a cause for optimism. Off the field, Bell is Hoffman's complete opposite in personality and style, but through the first month of the season, he has matched his predecessor's stellar standards on it. Bell leads the majors with eight saves (on eight opportunities) and boasts a perfect 0.00 ERA. (Hoffman missed almost all of April while recovering from injury but also has a 0.00 ERA and three saves in as many chances.)
"I told him no one's going to follow Hoffman just like no one can follow [Mariano] Rivera, no one followed [Bruce] Sutter," said Padres manager Bud Black. "You have to make your own footprints. He has not tried to live up to Trevor's standards."
Bell has done that anyway, establishing himself as an elite closer while enhancing his reputation as a funny and friendly fireman, making him one of the most unique players in baseball. While Hoffman was a man so reserved and overlooked he once landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "The Secret of San Diego" (in his tenth season as a closer there), "[Bell] is more animated than Trevor ever was," Towers said. Bell brings a dominant personality and a penchant for making news, highlighted by his recent criticism of ESPN, which Bell said "only cares about promoting the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets."
True or not, those comments spoke to Bell's willingness to be heard. The words also offered a serious side to a man who has referred to himself as "a big kid." This is the same guy who named his fantasy football team "Toys 'R Us," who almost bought a snowmaker so he could blanket his south Florida neighborhood with fake flakes at Christmas time ("It was a little pricey," he said) and who said if his wife let him design their home, "there'd be a slide going down the stairs."
Then of course, there is the Wii Fit, which may yet become to Bell what Subway is to Jared. Bell purchased one shortly after the end of last season for the oldest of his three children, Jasmyne, but when he created his character, the game told him, "You're obese." Bell spent the first couple of weeks trying to get his video game self thinner and thinner, and eventually wound up working himself into shape, losing 25 pounds.
"If I hadn't done it for five or seven days, it would say, 'Where have you been, you haven't been on in a few days?' " Bell said. "Before you know it, I was losing weight. I was still working out [aside from the Wii], but otherwise I didn't really do anything different from years past."
Bell was so successful that he bought a Wii Fit for a friend of his to help him get in shape, albeit with a catch. "If he doesn't lose 45 pounds by September, I'm going to come take the tires off his car," he said.
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