That philosophy can test fans' patience—the Suns have never won an NBA title—but at a time when store-bought champions get sold off during the victory parade, it can also be seductive. "Everything is for the long haul," Colangelo says. "This is not build and sell and get out. If you can get people to believe that, they're going to come along for the ride." His critics say it's easy to take such a stance (and to overspend on salaries) when 34,000 season tickets and a new stadium make you, instantly, one of the top five revenue producers in the sport. But Colangelo and his partners have staked some $300 million on the notion, including, most notoriously, $6.8 million a year on the 32-year-old Bell.
Though Bell is coming off a career year—.291 average, 21 home runs, 92 RBIs—a good half-dozen others are more qualified to be the game's highest-paid middle infielder. Common wisdom has it that Arizona could've landed Bell for less. Noted spend-thrift George Steinbrenner called Colangelo "a neophyte" and a "renegade," and admitted that, yes, he'd been called similar things. "But what they said about me came after I signed Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter...the two best players at their positions and future Hall of Famers," Steinbrenner told The Tampa Tribune. "[Bell] isn't the best shortstop in the game."
Bell was just as "bewildered," he says, when he heard the contract figures on Nov. 17. But when he flew to Phoenix the next day and sat in on the team's expansion draft, Bell couldn't believe how much emphasis the organization placed on each player's background, reputation and work ethic. Yes, first baseman Travis Lee will get his major league shot this spring because there is no more coveted prospect in the game. "But when we were signing Travis Lee, I was watching how well he interacted with his brother and sister and parents," Showalter says. "That said a lot to me."
With Bell, though, Showalter needed no such research. Showalter's father, William, taught Bell's father, Ron, high school science in Pensacola, Fla., and Ron sold Buck his first house. Then one spring day in the early '80s, Showalter, then a Yankees farmhand, was in the radio booth doing guest commentary for his alma mater, Century High, when he saw a freshman from Tate High line a breaking ball into leftfield for the first hit of his baseball career. "I'm sure it won't be his last," Showalter told the tiny radio audience, and not just because he knew the close and supportive Bell family. He also liked the way Bell earned himself, confident and serious and ready to learn. "And he's still the same type of person he was," Showalter says.
During his 12 years as a major leaguer, Bell has usually been described in antiquated terms—credit to the game, good citizen, squeaky clean. He has spoken often of wanting to coach Little League when he retires. He doesn't criticize other players in the press. He is a devout Christian, married to his high school girlfriend. He hates how money pollutes every conversation; it stung him, as a National League player representative during the 1994 strike, every time he heard the phrase "greedy ballplayer."
"I'm not going to apologize about the salary," Bell says. "But to be a focal point—it's not the most comfortable thing. I'm not in the game to gain fame. I'm in the game to play to the best of my ability and to enjoy the best of my ability. After the game is over, because of the platform I have, I've been given the right by a lot of people to talk about things I believe in."
Yet all his humility, all his talk about "enjoying" the game, tends to muffle what Bell has done. He was never a natural at his position. During his first full year in pro ball, in 1985, he made 59 errors, and for the next two seasons he was the worst shortstop in every league he played in. Even after locking up the starting job with Pittsburgh, he still led National League shortstops in errors in '91, with 24. But a winter on the pocked infields of Puerto Rico taught Bell how to concentrate, and the faith of men Pirates manager Jim Leyland fed his confidence. By '93 he had won a Gold Glove—and then he worked even harder and got better still. He has overcome his limited range to become one of the game's most dependable fielders; his 10 errors and .985 fielding percentage last year with the Kansas City Royals matched American League Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians.
Forget the graciousness and choirboy looks; no one does all that without wanting it badly—and Bell knows that. "Life is not for wimps," he says. "You've got to fight every day. When you go about your job, whatever it may be, you've got to go at it with a zeal to be the best. I want to be the best. I strive to be the best. I want to field more ground balls than any other shortstop. I would love to break the career record for total chances. It drives me."
This is what hurts him: He is still regarded by both fans and baseball people as a second-tier talent—no Barry Larkin or Alex Rodriguez. "It matters more than I should allow it to," Bell says. "The fleshly side of me says, I'd like to be recognized. Why don't they see? Just look at the numbers. I fielded some 700 chances, and some book said the only reason I fielded that many is because we had ground-ball pitchers. You can't win."
In Bell, Colangelo has gotten more than just a steady producer, more than an answer to the Baseball Jerk. He's gotten a superior veteran who still hungers to prove himself, one who knows that five good years will make everyone forget that extraordinary contract with the extraordinary money. Then he can fade back into the game—just good, old-fashioned Jay Bell again—and people will talk instead about the quaint fact that his manager saw him get the first serious hit of his baseball life. "Odds are he'll see my last hit too," Bell says. "That's what I think is extraordinary."