Shaping the Rangers #10: Jeff Russell

Lone Star Dugout continues its rundown of the 20 biggest transactions in Texas Rangers history. This time, it's a look at the 1985 deal of fan favorite Buddy Bell for closer Jeff Russell.

July 19, 1985: The Cincinnati Reds send pitcher Jeff Russell and outfielder Duane Walker to the Rangers to complete the trade of third baseman Buddy Bell.

Quite possibly no player was more liked in Arlington during the 1970's and 1980's than former Rangers third baseman Buddy Bell. On the field, he had those certain All-American qualities about him: Blonde hair, blue eyes, and an unmitigated zest and enthusiasm for the game of baseball.

The career of Buddy Bell began in Cleveland in 1972, where he called the cavernous Municipal Stadium home for the first seven years of his major league career. There, he proved to be one of the most solid hitters on an otherwise lackluster Indians ballclub. But in 1979, an off-season deal with the Rangers brought him to Texas in exchange for another fan favorite, Toby Harrah.

That year, Bell enjoyed his best season as a big leaguer, collecting 200 hits, driving in 101 runs, and also won his first Gold Glove at third base. He continued to be a solid contributor for a better part of the early 1980's, making the All-Star team for three consecutive years and winning a Silver Slugger Award in 1984.

Former Rangers General Manager Tom Grieve, who joined the front office during Bell's time in Texas, remembers the former third baseman.

"Buddy was terrific because he played everyday, even when he was hurt, and never made excuses," he reminisced about the ex-Ranger. "We had a good team back then of guys who played that way like Frank Tanana and Danny Darwin."

Bell certainly was a rock on the field for Texas.

The club could consistently count on him to collect 200 hits and play sure-handedly at the hot corner. Bell wasn't afraid to get his uniform dirty either, drawing the love and affection from the fans for his gritty play in much of the same way as Rusty Greer did in later years.

As 1985 rolled around, the case could be made that Bell may be heading to the Hall of Fame one day. But as the season drew closer, the winds of change would come blowing through Arlington, Texas.

Bell got off to one of the worst starts in his career that season, hitting just .237 over the first month of the season. But the month of April brought about a turnaround for him as his average skyrocketed to well over .300.

The good times didn't last long for Bell, and his batting average plummeted over the next month. He was hitting just .236 on July 19th while the Rangers, who were 33-56 at the time, were getting set to play the second of three games at Tiger Stadium.

But one of the most popular players in Rangers history would not be in the lineup that night. He would instead be on a plane to Cincinnati to join his new team, the Reds.

"Anytime you trade that kind of a player, regardless of the circumstances, it's not going to be a popular deal with the fans," Grieve said of the decision to trade Bell.

"At that stage of Buddy's career and that stage of Rangers history, we weren't going to win anything. We needed to get younger for the future."

The Rangers would acquire two players for the fading star of Buddy Bell.

One was an outfielder named Duane Walker, who was snagged up by the Rangers at the urging of team sabermatician Craig Wright. A new statistic known as on-base percentage was beginning to become relevant throughout baseball, and as a minor leaguer, Walker's was among the highest.

"We looked at Duane as a guy who might be good at getting on base and possibly be a fourth outfielder, or at least someone who could platoon against right-handed pitching," Grieve would say.

"It just didn't turn out that way."

While in Texas, Walker would bat just .174 in 134 plate appearances and was released by the Rangers following the season. Fortunately, Jeff Russell proved to be everything the club had hoped for and more.

The starting pitcher turned closer was magnificent for the Rangers.

Russell, who would mainly pitch out of the starting rotation for his first three and a half seasons in Texas, was moved to the closer's role beginning in 1989 and led the American League with 38 saves. After years of dabbling with the likes of Greg Harris, Dale Mohorcic, and Mitch Williams – the Rangers had finally found themselves a certifiable closer.

"We had hoped Jeff Russell would become a productive pitcher for us, and he did," Grieve added.

Russell made two All-Star teams as a Ranger: One as a starting pitcher in 1988, and again as a closer one year later. He also led the league in saves in 1989 with 38 and won A.L. Rolaid's Relief Award that season as the top reliever in the league.

The Rangers would package him as a part of a deal to land much lauded slugger Jose Canseco from the Oakland Athletics midway through the 1992 season, and Russell would also have stops in Boston and Cleveland before returning to the Rangers via free agency early in the 1995 season. His role with the club had change once again, this time converting into a set-up man for new closer Mike Henneman.

But his first year back with the Rangers was a painful experience for Russell, who was sidelined by a herniated disk that twice put him on the disabled list. Even when he was active, the righty was forced to fight through the pain in his back.

Off-season surgery corrected the problem, and a year later one of the most proven commodities in club history was present when the Rangers clinched their first division title in team history.

Russell would end his career as a Ranger. His 134 saves ranks him second on the club's all-time list, but perhaps just as notable was his desire to remain a Ranger following his return to the club just two years earlier.

Some could make the argument that Jeff Russell's achievements in Texas make him one of the best hurlers to don a Rangers uniform.

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