CD's Connect the Dots...Bell Hopes To Ring In 2004

Tucked away in the deserts of Arizona is a player clearly at the crossroads of his career. Defined by Webster's Dictionary as a crucial point, crossroads is an apt description for the efforts of David Bell, erstwhile third sacker for the Philadelphia Phillies, to resurrect a career in jeopardy. How this plays out may well determine the fate of several players, as well as a team that has invested millions in his eventual success. January will witness how loudly Bell rings in the New Year.

It certainly was not trumpeted as jubilantly as the acquisitions of Jim Thome or Kevin Millwood. In fact, it was not even universally applauded when the announcement came. Yet, the signing of David Bell to a 4 year, 17 million dollar contract in November of 2002 set in motion a philosophical change in the way the Phils do business. It can even be argued that without Bell signed, sealed and delivered, Thome would never have left Cleveland for the riches of Philadelphia.

Without Thome in hand, GM Ed Wade may have resisted the idea of bringing Millwood on board for possibly only one year. Though history is always murky when discussing the what ifs of sport, it seems apparent that the credibility of David Bell's signing started a grass roots scenario that has culminated in what promises to be one of the strongest Phillie teams in the past 20 years.

Amid the excitement and euphoria of a town primed for a pennant, one man begins his attempt at being a part of this hoped for celebration. After six months of forced inactivity, David Bell will begin the arduous prospect of resurrecting a career that may be over. Though no one is talking about this now, Bell's back injury is a serious one, and the Phils have had more than their share of "back problems" in their recent history.

Two of the most popular players in Phillie history were Lenny Dykstra and Rico Brogna. Dykstra was the catalyst for the 1993 pennant winning Phils, a team that ranks high on any popularity chart of Phil fandom. Daring, talented and cocky, Dykstra set the standard for leadoff hitters with his once in a generation '93 season. Yet, a debilitating back injury forced his retirement not five years later, at an early age of 35.

Brogna's case was equally distressing, a spinal condition that was not only painful but also chronic. Although he bravely played through the pain for as long as possible, he eventually retired before his time rather than succumb to the discomfort. In fact, it is Brogna and his back condition that set up the red flags when Bell's injury was first diagnosed.

In medical terms, Rico Brogna suffers from Sacro-iliitis, which is often seen as a chronic rheumatologic condition. It took several years off his career, and caused him to miss two seasons while modern medicine determined an exercise program for him that would keep his condition manageable.

It is with this in mind that David Bell's condition is so concerning. After playing in pain for nearly four months, Bell agreed to an MRI in July. The MRI revealed the same condition as Brogna suffers from. The doctors prescribed rest and rehabilitation and the hope is that with both will come a lessoning of the pain.

Though Bell has begun an exercise program, he has not been allowed to hit until now. How he swings the bat in January may well determine not only his prognosis for the season, but for his career. This is not an injury that can be treated with surgery; it is a progressive, chronic condition. It is hoped that rest will cause the pain to subside, but no one really knows for sure.

The David Bell story is a fascinating one because of the intangible characteristics that he brings to a ball club. Not blessed with speed, power or grace, Bell has made himself into a solid and dependable player through the sheer will of his determination. A natural second baseman earlier in his career with the Cards, Bell joined a Seattle Mariner team blessed with loads of talent, and a hole at third base. His efforts contributed greatly to playoff runs in 2000-01, including the near record '01 team that won 116 games.

Teammates universally praised him for doing all the little things that rarely show up on the scorecard, but always show up in the win column. This talent for doing things the right way was put on the national stage in 2002 when his consistent play helped the San Francisco Giants to a National League pennant and near World Series triumph. Not only did he hit over .300 in the series, but his clutch single won game four of the series, 4-3.

It was against this backdrop that Bell approached free agency after the '02 season. The Giants made it clear that they wanted him back and offered a three-year deal. Yet Bell chose the Phils, as much for the four-year contract as his desire to play for Manager Larry Bowa. At the news conference announcing his signing, Bell made it clear that he felt the Phils were on the cusp of being a championship team, one he wanted to be a part of.

When the Phils signed Thome less than one month later, he stated that having Bell on board made the decision an easier one. This was the respect that David Bell carried into the 2003 season. With Bell, Thome and Millwood added to a solid nucleus of returning players, the Phils appeared primed for a breakout season.

Yet, from the beginning, Bell struggled both with the bat and in the field. Though the Phils were winning with regularity, it was clear that something was amiss with David Bell. This writer attended a Phillie-Angel game in June and watched with amazement at Bell's inability to reach the fences during batting practice.

While players like Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polonco and Jason Michaels were reaching the seats with some regularity, Bell struggled to reach the warning track. This was when it became clear that something was wrong with Bell. Though he played courageously for another month, his season ended prematurely in late July.

Many fans felt it was not mere coincidence that the Phils record dipped after Bell left the lineup. A team that needed both to hold off the charge of the Florida Marlins missed his quiet confidence and leadership skills. Now the Phils can only hope that Bell will be healthy enough in 2004 to help the Phils attain what the Marlins garnered in '03, a championship run.

As previously mentioned, the status of David Bell may affect several players. If Bell is unable to answer the call, then the infield changes radically, With Bell in tow, Polonco stays at second base, and standout rookie Chase Utley can be brought along slowly. Although his left-handed bat is a valuable tool, Utley is still learning the nuances of the big league game. A veteran like Bell can only enhance this learning process.

If Bell in unable to play, then Utley becomes the regular second baseman and Polonco moves to third base. This not only weakens the defense, but also removes Bell's leadership qualities from the lineup. Another player who will be affected by Bell's health is recently signed free agent Shawn Wooten.

Ostensibly signed as a pinch hitter and part time catcher/first baseman, the right –handed hitting Wooten will probably play third base against tough left-handed pitchers, while Utley sits. While the signing of Wooten was an excellent move, and his power bat is a welcome addition to the team, the fact remains that he is a weak defensive player. With Wooten at third base on even an irregular basis, the Phils infield defense becomes problematical at best.

It is against this backdrop that David Bell begins his comeback this month. Though the story will not evoke headlines in Philadelphia or elsewhere, what happens in January could determine the fate of the Phillies in 2004. It speaks volumes about the man that when rookie third baseman Travis Chapman was called up in September, he mentioned that David Bell was the friendliest player on the squad.

Not the least bit threatened by this youngster, who was seeking to take his job, Bell offered advice, encouragement, and friendship to a rookie when it was needed the most. These are the intangibles that David Bell provides the Phils. These are the things that will be sorely missed if he is unable to perform this season.

On a team with mega stars like Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Billy Wagner, Thome and Millwood, a player like Bell is often lost amongst the glitter of the giants. Yet, his value to the cause is immeasurable and it is with this in mind that an anxious fan base and team await the results of a January comeback.

While stories will abound of the off-season endeavors of Thome, Burrell and Mike Lieberthal, one player will toil in silence.

As writers and scribes alike discuss the relative strengths of a bench deep in talent and versatility, one player will work in anonymity. While coaches and scouts evaluate a bullpen rich in skill and versatility, one player will strive to get ready.

The 2004 season promises to be an exciting and successful one for the Philadelphia Phillies. Few question marks remain. January will address a prominent one.

In a city famous for a bell, the Liberty Bell, it need not ask the question for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for David Bell and a resounding positive ring in the New Year would create sweet music for a team too long silent in post-season play.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast

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