Oh sure, George Bell can be a crab. The Toronto slugger, who is the driving force behind his team's push to the top of the American League East, has, on occasion, been a bat-thrower, a pitcher-kicker, an umpire-baiter, a fantaunter and, perhaps to his ultimate detriment, a media-dodger. But it may come as a surprise to those who would put him in the antisocial league with, say, J.D. Salinger or Sean Penn, that he also harbors an almost schoolboyish lust for awards and trophies. Bell himself admits he didn't really start to take baseball all that seriously until, as a youngster growing up in the Dominican Republic, he began accumulating scrolls and trinkets and statuettes for his play. "I like to win trophies," he says with disarming candor.
And it may well be true that his periodic bouts of misanthropy are the result not so much of any ingrained ill will as they are a simple reaction to rejection. Consider that, despite some superlative seasons. Bell hasn't even won his own team's Player of the Year award yet. And he hadn't made the All-Star team until a Toronto media blitz pushed him past the likes of Bo Jackson (the football player!) in the voting for this year's American League team. No, whatever you may think of him, George Bell just hasn't gotten his due as a great player.
But all of that should change quickly enough, because Bell has, as they say, put up just about the best numbers of any hitter in the American League this season. Last Thursday he had a five-RBI day that included a grand slam in a 9-4 win over Oakland. He had another big afternoon Sunday with two home runs and four RBIs in a 13-3 victory. That left him leading the league in home runs with 41 and in RBIs with 113, and he was second (.626) behind Boston's Dwight Evans in slugging percentage. He was third in runs scored with 93, eighth in hits with 151 and was hitting .309. The Baseball Writers Association of America voters need not be reminded that those are MVP figures. Actually, Bell's 1986 totals—.309, 31 homers, 108 RBIs—were almost as good. The fact is, he has gotten better in each of his four seasons as a major league regular, increasing his home run totals from 26 to 28 to 31 to the present 41 and his RBIs from 87 to 95 to 108 to 113 and counting. At 27, he has yet to reach his peak, and he is already properly regarded, by fellow players at least, as one of the game's best all-around per-formers—he had 17 outfield assists in '86 and 21 stolen bases in '85.
Angels manager Gene Mauch calls Bell "the most intimidating hitter in the league." "He comes off the bus swinging," Dodger scout Mel Didier once said of him. "You throw a ball two feet outside and he might just step out and hammer the pitch." In fact, if Bell has a weakness at the plate, it is impatience. He walked an average of only 36 times in his first three full seasons, and he's on a comparable pace this year. He has, however, reduced his strikeouts from a high of 90 in '85 to 63 so far this year. He is that most unpredictable and annoying of batsmen, a contact hitter who will swing at anything and the sooner the better. In successive games in Oakland on Aug. 18 and 19, he hit home runs (one a game-winner) on first pitches.
Bell is respected but scarcely loved by his opponents. Detroit pitcher Walt Terrell has called him "a hot dog." Terrell's illustrious moundmate, Jack Morris, has said, "I respect Bell for his ability as a player, but, like the fans, I question his antics.... Sometimes you have to accept people the way they are." Bill Buckner, now with the Angels, is much more emphatic. Bell, he once said, "is the dirtiest player in baseball." Buckner's low opinion was formed, or at least reinforced, by the contretemps Bell had with Boston pitcher Bruce Kison in Toronto on June 23, 1985. When Kison, then a Buckner teammate, nailed Bell with an inside pitch, the Blue Jay outfielder did not merely rush the mound in the usual halfhearted manner but also stepped smartly out and caught Kison with a karate kick. The assault earned Bell a two-game suspension and the lasting enmity of the Red Sox.
Bell can even try the forbearance of his own teammates and employers. Earlier this season he responded to word that he was in the lineup as a DH, not a leftfielder, by flinging his bat during batting practice. After a pregame conference involving Bell, manager Jimy Williams and executive vice-president Pat Gillick, it was decided that Bell should play in left that day after all. But on subsequent occasions he accepted the—to him—loathsome DH assignment without further complaint.
An even stickier issue was raised following the 1984 season when the Toronto baseball writers elected Dave Collins, who had hit .308 in 128 games and had stolen 60 bases, the Jays' Player of the Year, over Bell, who had played in 159, batted .292 and hit 26 homers. When a Toronto newsman called him in the Dominican Republic for a response, Bell wasted few words congratulating his teammate, electing instead to denounce what he regarded as the writers' obvious prejudice against him. Bell insists now that the caller caught him off guard and that, though he was indeed disappointed (and still is), he meant no slight toward Collins. Toronto hitting instructor Cito Gaston agrees that "George would never say or do anything to hurt a teammate." And yet Bell maintains to this day that Collins—a white American, as opposed to himself, a black foreigner—got the award primarily because "he talked to those guys I the writers] and I didn't." If he hadn't spent much time chatting up the Toronto press before the Collins episode, he was positively mute the next season.
He did, however, say just enough to get himself in even more hot water. During the '85 playoffs with Kansas City, Bell, no friend of the Men in Blue, felt somehow compelled to protest that the Blue Jays were getting jobbed on close calls because the umpires were prejudiced against them for 1) representing Canada and 2) having so many Dominicans (four) on their roster. Bell says now that these remarks were made entirely in jest in a conversation with center-fielder Lloyd Moseby that was inadvertently overheard by reporters. But the damage was done, and Bell, burned again in the public prints, felt even more cause to shut himself off from the media.
He is not, however, a completely silent star. Surprisingly enough, he's far too convivial for that, so while he discourages formal interviews with baleful stares and muttered imprecations, he will, virtually at the same time, carry on amiable enough dialogues with newsmen unarmed with notebooks and tape recorders. Often, in the course of one of these informal discussions, he will have to catch himself in the act of uttering something that will sound suspiciously like a quote. "Hey, man," he will snap after one of these slipups, "you know I don't talk to the media." And, in even less guarded moments, he has been known to buy a reporter a drink in the hotel bar.
His teammates and others who know Bell best believe him to be one of the most misunderstood men in the game today, a sentiment with which Bell himself would most heartily concur. Alfredo Griffin, the superb Oakland shortstop, who has known Bell from their youthful days together in the Dominican Republic—Bell is from San Pedro de Macoris. Griffin from nearby—is a staunch defender. "People are always asking me about George," he says. "Even umpires. Just the other day, Reggie [ Jackson] was asking me what kind of a guy he is. Well, I know he looks like a mean person. But he's not. He's a nice person, a wonderful guy. He has come so far from the days when he was known as just a prospect. He knows what it takes to become more than a prospect. He knows what it is to work hard."